I’ve been reading everything I could about WWII since before I can remember deciding to do so. I watched hundreds of black and white documentaries and shorts about battles, tactics, strategy, and the experience of battle. I enjoy details the best.
What did it feel like to be at Bastogne? What was Halsey’s reasoning at Leyte? Why did Churchill order the British to fire on the French fleet in port at the outset of WWII? What makes a strategic move like an amphibious assault on an enemy’s rear or flank an extraordinary success in one case (Inchon) and near disaster in another (Anzio)?
I’ve read about the war and its details from generals, intelligence officers, politicians, leaders, historians, and grunts. In hundreds of stories about success I’ve seen one vital and common thread. Bold action. John Keegan, the Royal Military Historian at Sandhurst, wrote a great book about the experience of war throughout history from the experience of the rank soldier. Morale is the largest single division between success and rout.
Success in these stories nearly always involves a component of bold action taken with incomplete information and adjusted on the fly by the men in the mud. Sometimes the bold action is a brilliant offensive maneuver. Other times it is a smart retreat to reestablish the line on better terrain and over a smaller area. In other stories the boldness is simple defiance in the face of overwhelming odds — sometimes standing your ground is the boldest move of all. The action is usually unexpected, creative, and carries some real risk. Many of these gambles would never be run with complete information, but all of the successful ones are run with all the force, determination, and courage that the men could muster.
Churchill’s six tome historical account of WWII has an interesting section where he discusses the promotion and reassignment of various commanders. He reinforces that he wants to support failures by commanders that run risks because victory demands risks. Commanders that fear they will be replaced at the first failure by politicians will never take those kinds of risks. Churchill had to replace many commanders in North Africa, but never because they failed undertaking an intrepid campaign.
Like many of life’s lessons, this one is applicable in all sorts of places. Losing weight, getting out of debt, and building a business all qualify. Success demands bold action.