Myths have an unfortunate tendency to cripple imaginations. This can lead to the worst kind of unintended consequences, especially when such myths are based on assumptions about how the world ought to be rather than how it actually is.
The bloodiest day in the history of the British Army is a real world example of what this can mean:
Shortly after 7:30 on the morning on July 1, 1916, some 100,000 British soldiers climbed out of their trenches in France’s Somme Valley, arrayed themselves in long lines against the morning sunlight, and began moving forward across No Man ‘s Land towards the German trenches. They were fully confident they would achieve the long-sought breakthrough in the German lines that their officers assured them would be a piece of cake.
The commanding general of the British army in France was Sir Douglas Haig. He was a long-standing military professional, a member of a Scottish distilling family, and a Presbyterian fundamentalist who believed that he was in direct communication with God (an illusion that he shared with a surprising number of top military commanders throughout history).
In theory, Haig’s strategy should have worked. But there were problems.
Only 40 percent of the British artillery consisted of heavy guns. The rest were lightweight field pieces that could do little damage to trenches and barbed wire. Nearly one-third of the shells fired by the British heavy guns failed to explode because the British munitions industry had not yet come to terms with the need for quality control in shell production. In any case, the Germans housed most of their soldiers 30 feet below the trenches in elaborate dugouts that were impervious to even the heaviest artillery shells.
So when the largely ineffective artillery barrage finally ended at 7:20 that morning, German defenders emerged from the dugouts with ears ringing, but otherwise ready to withstand the British attack that the barrage had told them was coming. They quickly set up their machine guns, which fired .30-caliber bullets at the rate of 600 per minute for hours on end.
By the end of the day, the British army had suffered the greatest single-day calamity in its history. More than 19,000 of its men lay dead in No Man’s Land; over 38,000 had been wounded. Nearly three out of every five British soldiers who had gone over the top that morning had fallen victim to the myths on which Haig based his strategy (presumably after long conversations with God), with little to show for it in the way of captured German territory.
Today, the idea of deadlock sounds pretty good in Iraq. Sunni Muslim radicals who make the Taliban look tolerant are sweeping toward Baghdad in a way that reminds those of us of a certain age of the lightning-fast North Vietnamese drive toward Saigon in the spring of 1975.
We made the wrong call about invading Iraq in 2003 because of flawed intelligence about Saddam Hussein having weapons of mass destruction and because we assumed the Iraqi people would treat U.S. troops as liberators, rise up against their government and welcome us with open arms.
It may have been nearly a century later, but just as in the Battle of the Somme Valley, failure to raise basic questions about the assumptions underlying our decision to invade Iraq are once again yielding tragic results.
originally published: June 28, 2014