Blinders, Blunders, and Wars

Blinders, Blunders, and Wars: What America and China Can Learn

David C. Gompert
Hans Binnendijk
Bonny Lin
Copyright Date: 2014
Published by: RAND Corporation
OPEN ACCESS
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.7249/j.ctt1287m9t
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  • Book Info
    Blinders, Blunders, and Wars
    Book Description:

    The history of wars caused by misjudgments, from Napoleon’s invasion of Russia to America’s invasion of Iraq, reveals that leaders relied on cognitive models that were seriously at odds with objective reality. Blinders, Blunders, and Wars analyzes eight historical examples of strategic blunders regarding war and peace and four examples of decisions that turned out well, and then applies those lessons to the current Sino-American case.

    eISBN: 978-0-8330-8780-5
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

  1. (pp. 1-24)

    This is the opening paragraph of Barbara Tuchman’s classicThe March of Folly. Of the strategic blunders she describes to make her point, two of the more spectacular are Napoleon’s invasion of Russia and Hitler’s invasion of the USSR—the former ignoring the prior failure of King Charles XII of Sweden, and the latter ignoring the failure of Napoleon. That both Napoleon and Hitler had ample information to have foreseen calamity prompts the question: What were they thinking? Tuchman attributes such “wooden-headedness” to profound and inherent human shortcomings in the field of government: tyranny, excessive ambition, conceit, arrogance, lack of...

  2. (pp. 25-40)

    If the use of information is at the root of decisionmaking, and yet modern history is fraught with bad decisions concerning war and peace, understanding how information is used is of fundamental importance in the study of blunders and how to prevent them. In turn, the use of information can only be understood if its supply is taken into account, especially since the quantity and quality of information available to decisionmakers has been increasing at an accelerating clip for a century or more. If, as it appears, the virtual big bang in information supply is not improving strategic decisionmaking, we...

  3. (pp. 41-52)

    When he invaded Russia in 1812, Napoleon Bonaparte was Europe’s most powerful politician and leading military commander. Invincible in his mind if not on his record, he had grown used to defeating states and rulers who dared oppose him and his goals of controlling the Continent (at least), tearing down the scaffolding of hereditary privilege, and building a pan-European bourgeois-centric society. His instrument was the first truly national, popular army—superb, bold, meritocratic (like the new French order), and seemingly inexhaustible. Most of Napoleon’s adversaries—mercenary armies in the hire of aristocrats—were no match.¹ Never fond of routine governing...

  4. (pp. 53-62)

    The premise of this case is that the United States decided to go to war with Spain, not the other way around. It is nearly certain that the USSMainewas not blown up in Havana Harbor by a Spanish naval mine but that it blew up on its own.¹ Regardless, major players in the U.S. government, political elite, and journalism were maneuvering the United States toward hostilities with Spain before theMainewent to the bottom. For that matter, powerful Americans—notably, Theodore Roosevelt, Henry Cabot Lodge, and William Randolph Hearst—were itching for empire and war even prior...

  5. (pp. 63-70)

    Two and a half years into World War I, under the strong influence of his military chiefs and nationalist lobbies, Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm II approved the resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare against U.S. and other neutral ships en route to Europe with supplies for Germany’s enemies. This decision precipitated the American entry into World War I on the side of Great Britain and France. So divided and horrified by Europe’s carnage had the Americans been that it took such a flagrantly unfriendly act to convince President Woodrow Wilson and Congress that neutrality was no longer strategically, politically, or morally sustainable....

  6. (pp. 71-80)

    Again, not all decisions to wage war are blunders. The case of U.S. entry into World War I reveals why such decisions may be right.

    With great reluctance, President Woodrow Wilson decided in early 1917 that the United States must enter World War I on the side of Great Britain and France to fight Germany. Had he not done so, chances are that the war would have ground on, for mounting casualties had made both sides more bellicose, not less. While it is impossible to say when and how the war would have ended had the United States remained neutral,...

  7. (pp. 81-92)

    Two faulty decisions made in Berlin and Tokyo changed the course of World War II and may have saved the world from fascist domination.¹ In 1941, over a six-month period, one Axis power attacked the Soviet Union and another attacked the United States.² Each decision, made quite separately, resulted in a surprise attack on a powerful nation with strategic depth. In both cases the effect of the surprise attack was overestimated and the reconstitution capabilities of the larger nation were underestimated. Both decisions were made with short-term victory in mind and without a full appreciation of the consequences of a...

  8. (pp. 93-106)

    Japan’s decision to bomb Pearl Harbor was a blunder of the highest order.¹ It ultimately led to the use of atomic weapons against two Japanese cities, the collapse of the existing Japanese state, the end of the Japanese empire, years of foreign occupation, and death sentences for many of its leaders. Tokyo blundered in steps. Perhaps the greatest misstep was the July 2, 1941, decision to invade southern Indochina. That decision locked into placed a confrontation between Tokyo and Washington that Tokyo should have foreseen and that would require dramatic Japanese concessions to defuse. Once that confrontation was initiated, many...

  9. (pp. 107-116)

    Although both the United States and the Soviet Union each made blunders during the Cold War—the Bay of Pigs, Vietnam, and Afghanistan come to mind—they managed to avoid them when in toe-to-toe confrontation. This was due mainly to the sobering effect of the possibility of nuclear war, which was where a U.S.-Soviet conflict might have led. Both sides assumed that hostilities anywhere could ignite hostilities between NATO and the Warsaw Pact in Europe, where tactical nuclear weapons might be used and followed by escalation to intercontinental nuclear war. The Cuban Missile Crisis is a case in which both...

  10. (pp. 117-128)

    Scholars and experts have long held contrasting views on the success of China in the Sino-Vietnamese War of 1979. While Western analysts tend to regard the war as a Chinese military failure, the official Chinese interpretation is that it was a strategic and diplomatic success.¹ Recent Western scholarship is beginning to view the war in a more positive light by assessing not only the military operations but also the geopolitical consequences.²

    China’s Vietnam War was a mitigated strategic blunder. The Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping made the decision to attack Vietnam under complex domestic and international circumstances. Though Deng was angry...

  11. (pp. 129-138)

    When historians explain the end of the Cold War, the triumph of the West, the demise of communism, and the dissolution of the Soviet Union, they often start with the Soviets’ 1979 decision to invade Afghanistan. Of course, the problems that undid the USSR—economic dysfunction, political illegitimacy, institutional atrophy—ran deeper than a foreign intervention that backfired. The Soviet Union could have collapsed even if the intervention had succeeded or never been attempted. But the ten years of occupation and war that followed the invasion took an enormous toll, adding to the economic exhaustion and strain of empire from...

  12. (pp. 139-150)

    Having imposed Soviet control and communist rule throughout Eastern Europe after World War II, the Kremlin was intolerant of dissent and disorder until near the end of the Cold War. Wayward societies and regimes were crushed by Soviet-led forces, most spectacularly in Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968. Thereafter, Moscow’s Brezhnev Doctrine explicitly mandated military intervention by the Soviet Union and like-minded Warsaw Pact regimes if need be to protect communism from those who would oppose it. The Soviets were not wrong to believe that sustaining communism in most of Eastern Europe required the threat or use of force,...

  13. (pp. 151-160)

    The 1982 invasion of the Falkland Islands by Argentine troops and the subsequent humiliating removal of those troops by British forces not only brought down the rulers who ordered the invasion but also profoundly harmed Argentine pride and confidence. As it turned out, Argentine forces had no chance against British forces backed by American intelligence and logistics. The results of the decision to invade were not just regrettable for those who made it; they were catastrophic. As strategic blunders go, history offers few if any that surpass it—so bad that it took a rare brew of witless leaders, willful...

  14. (pp. 161-174)

    President George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq on March 20, 2003, was not a blunder on the scale of those of Napoleon, Hitler, and Tojo.¹ There was a case to be made on several grounds for operations against Saddam Hussein. The initial phase of combat was highly successful, and some still argue that the American investment was worth the cost of toppling the Saddam regime. Bush was reelected in November of 2004 as much because of as despite his invasion of Iraq. His subsequent 2007 decision to launch the “surge” did limit some of the damage.

    The main premise...

  15. (pp. 175-198)

    Understanding why and how strategic blunders are made is obviously crucial to finding ways to avoid them. This chapter offers some conclusions about the causes of blunders and how the supply and use of information may guide leaders and institutions to make or avoid them. The chapter starts with an assessment of the factors that affected decisionmaking in the historical cases, highlighting the most important. It summarizes how the fidelity of cognitive models relative to objective reality explains the occurrence—perhaps even the severity—of blunders. In light of the cases, the propensity to take risks, the confidence in control...

  16. (pp. 199-216)

    The cases suggest that blunders occur when decisionmakers form and use mental models that poorly reflect real conditions, problems, opportunities, options, and risks. Their models can be more inventions than reflections of objective reality. Rather than enlighten decisionmakers, they trap them. We believe—again, the evidence is not absolute—that available information could have supported better decisions in all the cases we examined. However, that information was discounted or manipulated for the sake of reinforcing, rather than rethinking, assumptions, intuitions, and preconceptions. As necessary, criticism and dissent were muffled. Although the particular causes of blundering are complex and varied, as...

  17. (pp. 217-246)

    Our interest in getting to the bottom of why strategic blunders occur comes mainly from concern that China, the United States, or both could be susceptible to flawed decisionmaking. This chapter examines how the main causes of blunders that the historical cases have illuminated, as well as the analysis that led us to them, could apply to the world’s two strongest powers, especially as they face each other. We appreciate, and will explain, the differences between the Chinese and American decisions that could bear on war and peace and the cases considered thus far. However, both the framework for understanding...

  18. (pp. 247-252)

    Strategic blunders can happen when decisionmakers rely on defective cognitive models of reality. This can at once result from and aggravate faulty intuition, egotism, arrogance, hubris, grand but flawed strategic ideas, underestimating the enemy and the difficulties and duration of conflict, overconfidence in war plans, ignoring what could go wrong, stifling debate, shunning independent advice, and penalizing dissent—conditions that can be especially dangerous if accompanied by excessive risk taking based on an overestimation of the ability to control events. The key to bridging the gap between a defective model and objective reality isinformation, amply supplied and well used....

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