Vanity and War

by Jonathan Wallace

Michael Walzer, a specialist on the law and ethics of war, describes the phenomenon of "war fever, familiar enough from European history, a celebration in advance of expected victories". Writing in Just and Unjust Wars, Walzer does not say which European campaigns he means but two good candidates would be the British engagements against Russia in the Crimea and against the Boers in South Africa. Both were highly popular wars fought on very flimsy pretexts by highly inexperienced generals of a British empire which had not been called upon to fight a serious engagement in many decades. Both serve as textbook examples of how not to fight, and both are illustrations of the vanity of empire.

The Crimean war of 1854 is described in a short, lively, very enjoyable book, Cecil Woodham-Smith's The Reason Why, which (as the title indicates) centers on the famous and disastrous charge of the Light Brigade at Balaclava. Woodham-Smith focuses on two representative members of the British upper class who played key roles there, Lord Lucan and Lord Cardigan, who were brothers-in-law and detested one another. Both men are portrayed as twits, excessively vain and pre-occupied with social standing and minute questions of procedure. Lucan was somewhat more intelligent and brutal, "reforming" his estates in Ireland for future more efficient administration while thousands of his tenants starved to death during the great Irish potato famine. Cardigan constantly caused problems in the army by his obsessive harassment of officers he believed had acted disrespectfully to him and had the reputation of a martinet, excessively drilling and disciplining his cavalry force while ignorant of the rules of real warfare. We still call the wool jacket that he made popular in the Crimea a "cardigan".

Both men had obtained their commissions through the notorious purchase system-- they had bought them without coming up through the ranks. The Crimean disaster would contribute substantially to the successful effort to end purchase, which created a glass ceiling for experienced officers from the middle classes without sufficient means to buy advancement, and ensured that British wars would be commanded by men with limited experience.

As inane as purchase looks through a modern lens, Woodham-Smith explains that there was a reason for it. The system was put in place after the Cromwell era, in recognition that nothing was as dangerous to British stability as an ambitious, professional army commanded by men with no roots in the status quo. This insight remains true in the last half-century in many developing countries, where the army was simultaneously a modernizing force and the greatest threat to nascent democratic institutions.

The British empire at the time of Crimea had not been involved in any significant fighting since the Napoleonic era, except in India. The Duke of Wellington, Napoleon's nemesis, retained significant influence over all British military policy, returning to serve late in life as Commander in Chief, but he had died before Crimea. His place was taken by one of his closest aides, Lord Raglan, but Raglan was not, like his mentor, independent or brilliant; he was a classic second in command.

So-called "Indian" officers--the only men with actual war experience--were distrusted and disdained by officers like Lucan and Cardigan; the "purchase" men usually opted out of service in India. Various Indian experts volunteered their services to anyone who would listen but were turned away even by Raglan, who could most have benefited from their experience.

Lucan was appointed Commander of Cavalry, and Cardigan served under him as Brigadier of the Light Brigade. Cardigan detested his brother-in-law and immediately approached Raglan to complain. Raglan, a classic courtier, received him with genteel ambiguity--leaving the obsessively narrow-minded Cardigan to believe that he had been granted an independent command and could manage the Light Brigade without paying attention to orders from Lucan. Raglan, while remaining vague, supported this point of view by issuing orders to the Light Brigade without going through Lucan and even without his knowledge.

When Lucan complained, Raglan, a weak man, swung like a weather-vane and directed Cardigan to heed Lucan. The Crimean war began in an atmosphere of profound ambiguity, with substantial resentment among the three officers, compounded by everyone's inexperience and severe problems of deployment and supply, with men and horses suffering from exposure, disease and hunger.

Its worth noting that Lucan decided to share the hardships of his men, while Cardigan obtained permission from Raglan to live aboard his yacht, a ride of an hour or two away from the Light Brigade encampment. On one occassion when a battle began at five in the morning, Cardigan did not show up to command his forces until ten.

Woodham-Smith writes that while the Prime Minister, the Queen and the Prince Consort were all negative or highly uncertain about the war,

the people were intoxicated. Memories of past victories went to their heads, the names of Waterloo and Trafalgar were on every lip, crowds paraded the streets delirious with excitement, inflated with national pride.

In the meantime, nobody could say precisely what the war was about. Russia, looking for an excuse to invade Turkey, the "sick man of Europe", claimed that it was protecting its nationals or co-religionists in the area against Turkish depradations. Disraeli said that he thought the nation was going to war to prevent Russia from protecting the Christian subjects of the Sultan of Turkey.

The battle took place in a valley overlooked by hills north of the town of Balaclava. Spectators, including Raglan and the wives of many officers, were able to watch the entire spectacle from hilltops, while the men on the field below had more limited viewpoints due to the irregularity of the ground.

The cavalry battle of Balaclava is a wonderful case study of the result when vanity and inexperience determine the preparations and execution of an engagement. Raglan, an inept commander, was constantly afraid to commit his forces, missing significant opportunities to disrupt and dislodge Russian troops and causing some of his more experienced junior officers to weep with rage as they were forced to remain idle in the face of a panicky, demoralized enemy. Lucan and Cardigan both felt micro-managed; Lucan had been told he could not act on his own discretion; Cardigan could not do anything without an order from Lucan.

Raglan finally sent down a series of four highly ambiguous orders, the first of which further distressed the cavalry by moving them off to one side and away from infantry troops who needed their support. This infantry, which stood off superior Russian cavalry forces, was the origin of the phrase "the thin red line". The second order directed Lucan to break off eight squadrons of heavy cavalry towards Balaclava, to support the Turkish allies who were wavering. These eight squadrons, in another display of extraordinary discipline and courage, charged into a much larger Russian cavalry force and routed it through sheer will. Meanwhile, Cardigan stood by a few hundred yards away, with his enraged Light Brigade, interpreting his orders to mean that he could not go to the Heavy Brigade's support without a direct order. Lucan later claimed that his instructions to Cardigan, "to attack anything or everything that shall come within reach of you", meant that Cardigan should have charged into a melee occuring so close to him.

The Light Brigade's failure to go into action now was likely fatal to it later, as the Russians, once routed, were permitted to go up the valley unharassed and to install the artillery against which Cardigan and the Light Brigade would conduct their futile, deadly attack. One of the distrusted "Indian" officers who was serving under Cardigan begged for the opportunity to pursue the fleeing Russians and was denied.

Lucan while arguing that Cardigan had (and failed to use) the discretion to attack, made the contradictory argument that he himself lacked the discretion to order Cardigan to do so, saying that Raglan had placed the Light Brigade "out of my reach".

Some redoubts held by Turkish troops along a road bisecting the valley (the Causeway Heights) had been abandoned in panic, leaving some artillery guns behind. Raglan's third order now directed Lucan to "take advantage of any opportunity to recover the Heights". Two copies of this order survive which have a significant difference in punctuation. The one retained by Raglan adds that infantry support is forthcoming and that the infantry will advance on two fronts. The version received by Lucan includes an extra period, leaving him with the impression that he, not the infantry, must advance on two fronts. In the event this did not cause a problem, as Lucan interpreted the order to mean that he did not need to do anything until the infantry arrived. He argued later that Raglan had continuously deployed him away from the action and forced him to retreat from the enemy when unsupported by infantry, so he had no reason to believe he was being ordered to attack immediately now.

Russian cavalry were now seen by the watchers on the Heights coming up with ropes to remove the British naval guns abandoned on the redoubts. The capture of guns by an enemy was considered a significant indicator of defeat in war. Raglan immediately gave the fatal "fourth order": "try to prevent the enemy carrying away the guns."

This was carried to Lucan by Captain Nolan, a zealous Indian officer who despised him. Lucan, from his vantage, was unaware of what was happening on the Causeway Heights. After receiving the third order, to recover the Heights, he should at least have sent out a reconnaissance party, but he had not. Lucan knew that cavalry attacks against artillery, unsupported by infantry (the promised foot soldiers had still not appeared) were considered invariably fatal. He objected: "Attack, sir? Attack what? What guns, sir?"

Raglan would later say that Lucan should have read the third and fourth order together and understood that the guns referred to were on the Causeway Heights, subject of the third order. However, Nolan sealed everyone's fate, including his own, by pointing, not at the Causeway, but down the valley to the Russian artillery positions, and replying, "There, my lord, is your enemy, there are your guns". He thus interpreted Raglan's instructions to mean that the cavalry was being ordered to charge against artillery which would have the ability to lay down an enfilading fire on three sides of them--into a trap.

Woodham-Smith surprisingly does not comment on Lucan's next decision: he ordered his despised brother-in-law, Cardigan, to lead the charge with the Light Brigade while Cardigan followed in support with the Heavy. Was this standard operating procedure, that the Light Brigade should go first, or was he implementing a fatal order by sending a man he disliked to his death?

Cardigan, after some useless argument, led the charge he fully expected would end his life and that of his line (he had no son). He apparently cut an impressive and courageous figure-- he was now and for the next moments in a role where no thought was required, only courage, and he at least had that to spare. There was some discussion later whether Lucan should have chosen to ride with him, rather than remaining behind with the Heavy Brigade.

Something now happened which is one of those horrible, memorable stories familiar from all wars. Captain Nolan, the messenger who had given the fatal misinterpretation of Raglan's order, had obtained permission to participate in the charge. He now rode out in front, passing Cardigan in an extreme breach of etiquette, and turned to address the Light Brigade. It is possible he had just realized his misunderstanding of the order and was trying to correct it; it is an equally pertinent explanation that he lost his head and in a moment of vanity was trying to take over from Cardigan and lead the charge. In any event, he was hit by a Russian shell at that moment.

[A] fragment tore its way into Nolan's breast, exposing his heart. The sword fell from his hand, but his right arm was still erect, and his body remained rigid in the saddle. His horse wheeled and began to gallop back through the advancing Brigade, and then from the body there burst a strange and appalling cry, a shriek so unearthly as to freeze the blood of all who heard him.

Cardigan, who was obsessed with disrespect and particularly with that shown by Indian officers, spent the rest of the charge thinking not about the danger he was in, but about Nolan's insubordinate behavior.

Cavalry under withering fire typically speed up and various officers wanted to go hell-for-leather to get among the guns, out of the enfilading fire. Cardigan would not let the Light Brigade go faster. The horrified officers and wives watching from the hills saw the cavalry adjusting itself "with strange mechanical precision", closing the line as men and horses dropped. It was then that Bosquet, a French general, made the famous remark, "Its magnificent but it isn't war."

Lucan, who was wounded as he brought the Heavy Brigade up, now made the decision to retire it. It was clear, as he and Cardigan had really known from the start, that the Light Brigade would be cut to pieces. He now decided not to let the Heavy meet the same fate, but to wait for the return of the remnants of the Light Brigade and protect them against pursuit.

While the Heavy Brigade did nothing, a French irregular cavalry unit, Les Chasseurs d'Afrique, charged in on their own discretion and silenced the guns on the north side of the valley so that on their return the Light Brigade survivors would only have to face fire from the Causeway Heights on the south.

When they finally got in among the guns, the Light Brigade commenced hand to hand combat with the gunners and with Russian cavalry units--except Lord Cardigan, who had charged into the guns first. He did not consider it "part of a general's duty to fight the enemy among private soldiers", so, leaving the remaining cavalry to sort things out, he merely turned his horse around and galloped back to the jumping off point, down the entire valley. Soon after turning around, he found himself surrounded by a mass of Russian cavalry, but their officer, Prince Radzwill, knew Cardigan from London parties and dinners; in a classic upper-class moment, he ordered him taken alive, and Cardigan was able to outrace the pursuit and get away. Still thinking angrily about Nolan, he rode back, slowly and with dignity, untouched by the fire from the Causeway Heights.

Seven hundred men had charged, and fewer than two hundred came back. A decision was made at the highest levels to cover up the extremes of incompetence and miscommunication that had led to the disaster; the result was that Cardigan, despite his abandonment of his troops at the crucial moment, returned to England a hero, and was named Inspector General of the Cavalry.

Lucan did not fare so well. Raglan, rather than taking responsibility for the ambiguity of the order or blaming Nolan for misinterpreting it, said that Lucan should have disobeyed an order which was clearly so disastrous. Lucan was too rigid to accept a rebuke, even though the official account of the engagement would contain only a passing negative reference to him. Lucan went public with his view of the affair--he intended to take not "one particle of the blame". The result was that he was taken out of active command and reduced to half pay.

The Boer war took place under very similar circumstances almost fifty years later. (My source here is another well-written book, The Great Anglo-Boer War, by Byron Farwell. ) Again, there was the spectacle of a highly popular war fought for ambiguous reasons. The declared purpose was a very strange one: the Boer republics of South Africa were placing undue restrictions on the British entrepreneurs, adventurers and manipulators who wished to become citizens. It is the only war ever fought ostensibly to ensure the rights of one's own citizens to become citizens of another country--as absurd a motive as the one described by Disraeli for the Crimean war, to keep the Russians from protecting Christians against Muslims. In reality, the British may have been thinking more of the diamond mines and having an "empire moment"; it was the last military attempt made to expand the reach of direct British control.

As had been the case in the Crimea, the British Empire, through its very success, had had a lack of adversaries to fight in many years and again sent out inexperienced and timid officers to manage the war. Though purchase no longer applied, career officers who had mastered the skills of sucking-up necessary for success but had never fired a shot in anger did not do much better than the twits of the Crimea. General Buller, the top British commander against the Boers, conducted the campaign in a fashion reminiscent of Lord Raglan, constantly redeploying his troops and pulling them back whenever the moment came to seize potentially decisive opportunities. The British were also surprisingly poorly equipped compared to their guerilla adversaries; notably, troops were still equipped with antiquated single shot rifles, while the Boers had newer weapons with magazines. Another thing which had not changed in fifty years was a singular lack of interest in gathering intelligence on the enemy's position, movements and intentions. As in the Crimea, communications were ambiguous and poor, and Buller constantly dithered over decisions. Farwell tells the story of one battle where due to the "fog of war" and bad information, three different officers thought they were in command of the battlefield. When two more decisive and experienced generals were finally sent out to supersede Buller, he (unlike the arguably stupider Cardigan and Lucan) was actually pleased to be relegated to a position of less authority.

Why bring this up now? The American empire, like the British were in the Crimea and the Transvaal, is today at a moment of fatal complacency. Nearly sixty years after the end of World War II, fifty after the Korean war, thirty years after Vietnam, in recent decades we have only fought limited air campaigns such as Kosovo and two day wars such as Desert Storm. The Afghanistan experience was less of a war than another limited aerial campaign where most of the ground fighting was done by proxies. Our hesitation to commit our forces at Tora Bora, where we had a chance to get Bin Laden and mop up much of the remaining Al Quaeda forces who instead were permitted to escape into Pakistan, was reminiscent of the war-fighting skills of Raglan or Buller. American generals today are more skilled in diplomacy--the result of decades of jockeying for internal influence during peacetime--than they are in fighting. Colin Powell is a prime example: very well-suited to be secretary of state, a job at which he has done an excellent job, he was best known as a general for his reluctance to commit his troops under any circumstances.

This is what happens to empires when they are too successful and have no-one to fight for many years. This is a serious but manageable situation; we managed it quite well in World War II, through a gradual commitment and some on the ground learning. Inexperience only becomes extremely dangerous when coupled with vanity and a complete lack of understanding of one's own defaults. When you are eager to fight and clueless that you no longer know how to, a lot of people are going to die for no reason.

As in the Crimea or South Africa, no-one has convincingly articulated what the Iraq war is to be about. It seems we will be fighting to prevent a dictator from developing nuclear weapons which we are unable to prove right now he is making. In the meantime we are forgetting conveniently that bin Laden is still out there in the woodwork, actively fighting us, which Saddam is not. Meanwhile, North Korea has renounced international arms control agreements and is adding to its nuclear stockpile, while our administration bafflingly pretends this is less dangerous than Saddam's apparent inactivity. The tagline after every episode of an entertaining TV show of the '70's, "Soap", was "Confused? You won't be after next week's episode!" But you always were.

The absence of reliable explanation makes it easy to believe the pet theory of the conspiracy-minded left, that this will be a war to control oil, just as the Boer War may have been about diamonds.

It doesn't help that we have a Commander in Chief who seems to be on the same intellectual level as Lord Cardigan. In the Crimea, public vanity and the uncertainty of political leaders allowed a popular impulse for war to go unchecked. Today we have the opposite situation: there are no mass public demonstrations calling for an immediate attack on Iraq. The public is shell-shocked, and somewhere between complacent and apathetic; it is our leaders-- the Commander in Chief who opted out of Vietnam, and the other armchair warriors who never fought in a war--who are leading the vain rush. I'll leave the last word to General Anthony Zinni, as I did two months ago:

It might be interesting to wonder why all the generals see it the same way, and all those that never fired a shot in anger and are really hellbent to go to war see it a different way. That's usually the way it is in history...