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Military Misfortunes: The Anatomy of Failure in War

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WHY DO COMPETENT ARMIES FAIL?

• Why did the American-led coalition in Iraq fail to wage a classic counter-insurgency campaign for so long after the fall of Baghdad?
• Why was the sophisticated Israeli intelligence service so thoroughly surprised by the onslaught of combined Arab armies during the Yom Kippur War of 1973?
• How did a dozen German U-boats manage to humiliate the U.S. Navy for nine months in 1942 -- sinking an average of 650,000 tons of shipping monthly?
• What made the 1915 British-led invasion of Gallipoli one of the bloodiest catastrophes of the First World War?

Since it was first published in 1990, Military Misfortunes has become the classic analysis of the unexpected catastrophes that befall competent militaries. Now with a new Afterword discussing America's missteps in Iraq, Somalia, and the War on Terror, Eliot A. Cohen and John Gooch's gripping battlefield narratives and groundbreaking explanations of the hidden factors that undermine armies are brought thoroughly up to date. As recent events prove, Military Misfortunes will be required reading for as long as armies go to war.

320 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 1990

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About the author

Eliot A. Cohen

25 books69 followers
I am an academic who has been fortunate in many ways - beginning with my family, but to include teaching at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies, the country's leading school of international relations; serving in government, most recently as Counselor of the Department of State from 2007 to 2009; and having the freedom to move from political science, my original discipline, to history.

One friend who looked at the manuscript CONQUERED INTO LIBERTY, wrote to me -- "Aha! A love note!" and in some ways it is that. It deals with almost two centuries of battles along the Great Warpath route from Albany to Montreal, and it does, I hope, show some of my affection for this part of the country. A good part of the fun of writing the book was tramping around all the sites that I describe in it. But its purpose is serious: to show how the American way of war emerged from our conflict with an unlikely opponent: Canada. It tells the story of ten battles and shows how they reveal deeper truths about the American approach to war. The title, in fact, comes from a propaganda pamphlet strewn about Canada before the Americans invaded in 1775: "You have been conquered into liberty..." it began, and that notion is one that is still with us.

But the argument of the book, I believe, should not detract from stories that will appeal to readers. I hope that you will be as fascinated as I am not only by the events, but by characters you knew (George Washington, for example) whom I show in rather different lights than is customary, and even more so by characters you will probably meet here for the first time. A personal favorite: La Corne St. Luc, the incredibly wily French aristocrat who fought the British, sided with them, joined the Americans, rejoined the British and died one of Canada's wealthiest men after several decades of terrorizing the northern frontier. But there are others: enjoy discovering them!

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5 stars
49 (20%)
4 stars
99 (41%)
3 stars
77 (32%)
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13 (5%)
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Displaying 1 - 22 of 22 reviews
Profile Image for Suzannah.
Author 27 books462 followers
May 29, 2022
The classic military blunders, according to Cohen and Gooch, are not so much "never get involved in a land war in Asia" or "never go up against a Sicilian when DEATH is on the line!!!" but failure to learn, failure to anticipate, and failure to adapt. Of these three the one I identify with the most is number 2, failure to anticipate, because much like the IDF on the eve of Yom Kippur I too am a cocky overconfident idiot firmly convinced of my own invincibility. I scarfed this book in a handful of days and loved all of it, though I am not sure whether this is because the book is that gripping a read or because I have been focusing so strenuously on fiction for so long. In any case it's going to be super helpful to me as I gear up for writing about one of the most shocking military misfortunes of medieval times (and this was one of the most vital areas of disagreement I had with the authors - no, pre-twentieth-century warfare was not simplified to the point that we can write off failure as the fault of a single commander; organisational fractures were every bit as evident in, say, the Muslim response to the First Crusade, or the Frankish response to Saladin at Hattin, as they were in the death throes of the Third Republic in 1940).

A fun and fascinating read.
15 reviews
October 25, 2010
An impulse buy from the bookgrocer when they were having a sale.

An interesting read and at the price( $4 ) good value.

Attempts to look at why certain military operations fail and looks at one example for each of their types of failures. The choice of examples was personally interesting as they covered several of my minor interests ie Yom Kippur, Korea, France 40 and Gallipoli and I will probably add a couple of their referances to my reading list.

There are no real surprise in the book if you know history which is also the point of the book. That there should be greater focus on military history and its study.

They use a matrix to graphically map out each failure and as simple analysis tool it has some potential.

Finally the book was written before the war on terror but the edition that I read was published in 2006 and includes an afterword on Iraq, that will one day become a new chapter in a later edition.
Profile Image for Al.
412 reviews25 followers
January 14, 2013
A solid look at some of the larger operational failures beginning with Gallipoli. As one reviewer noted, there is nothing really ground breaking for those who are familiar with the events discussed. The value of this work lies in the fact that the authors succinctly outline, in one place, why these failures happened, and what should have been the take aways for each side. It was an easy read, and quite fascinating.
21 reviews1 follower
January 26, 2014
Some decent case studies and great food for thought. Sadly, Cohen does his normal shtick--tells good history but has to bend over backward to show how it supports his reductionist theory. I would not hesitate to use the book as a jumping-off point for broader discussions of the historical case studies that Cohen examines in the book.
457 reviews2 followers
July 24, 2019
I have to admit that due to the cover (my copy is different than this one) that I expected something different. However, as a retired Canadian Army officer and student of military history, I was more than happy to read the examination that Cohen and Gooch provided of five particularly spectacular failures in military history: Pearl Harbor (though not one of the big five examined more thoroughly) the American Anti-Submarine Warfare efforts in 1942, Israeli Defence Forces during the opening days of the Yom Kippur War in 1973, the British sea invasion at Gallipoli in 1915, the rout of the American Eight Army in Korea in late 1950, and the stunning defeat of the French Army and Air Force in 1940.

According to the authors, there are several main causes for military debacles of such magnitude:
- Failure to Learn (US ASW)
- Failure to Anticipate (Yom Kippur)
- Failure to Adapt (Gallipoli)
- Aggregate Failure (US in Korea)
- Catastrophic Failure (France 1940).

In each case, the authors did a good job of walking the reader through what lead up to the defeat, as well as what may be considered causal factors that may not have been able to have been mitigated. Having completed a Masters in War Studies, I was particularly impressed with how the authors identified the various schools of thought, as well as highlighting how historians from various ages (then and now) sometimes were a bit too quick or too sweeping with their judgements as to why their nations failed in war.

Overall, this book may be a bit too academic for those without more than a passing knowledge of the events. But if you are patient and read through the individual cases, it will help inform future reading about these important historic events. I think it was worth the time spent reading.
Profile Image for Sanjay Banerjee.
389 reviews6 followers
September 17, 2021
The authors have analysed, after battlefield narratives, the unexpected catastrophes that befell competent militaries. They go beyond the conventional and superficial explanations for such reverses to the broader contextual as well as organisational issues which had played a role and which were inadequately investigated as per them. Specifically, the analysis pertains to the Israel being surprised by the 1973 Yom Kippur war, French reverses in 1940, the Gallipoli disaster for the British and Allied armies in 1915, the reverses suffered by the US Navy with the sinking of merchant vessels by German U Boats in 1942, Defeat of American Eighth Army in Korea in 1950 and the Iraqi quagmire for the US forces after taking out Saddam Hussain.
49 reviews
August 1, 2018
Good book that analyzes why misfortunes happen in war: Gallipoli, the French surrender at the beginning of WW2, beginning of the Yom Kippur War, anti submarine war fare off the US coast in 1942 and Chinas entry into the Korean War. Looks at each as a failure to learn, to anticipate and adapt.
Profile Image for Petr Toman.
202 reviews
June 29, 2022
Neexistují špatní vojáci, jen špatní důstojníci. Kniha rozebírá největší chyby a důvody porážek válek a konfliktů v 20. století.
Profile Image for joseph.
710 reviews
December 11, 2015
A fine analytic methodology presented to show how to understand complex failure in war time is presented with case studies of Pearl Harbor, Korea, France 1940, the Yom Kippur War. The heart of their method is the development of a matrix show the hierarchy of organizations involved from the civilian heads of state down to the field units cross referenced with the multiple functions involved in the failure that led to catastrophe. They try to highlight how failures at one level can impact failures in other areas as well as layers. In studying the Antisubmarine warfare that the USA mounted in 1942, it becomes clear that even with the best efforts the USA did not learn from the British successes. The failure to adopt convoys quickly resulted in waste and loss of life, but the problem with recognizing the need to coordinate the ships and planes and intelligence about submarine sightings and sub tactics took a long time to penetrate the Naval and Air organizations.

The perspective I hope to remember is the failure in military areas usually result from failure to learn, failure to anticipate, and/or failure to adapt.
Profile Image for Mannix Nyiam ii.
16 reviews2 followers
January 22, 2017
As the authors noted, military organisations are built on a strict hierarchy of rank and authority. Consequently, there is a natural proclivity to focus on the effectiveness of generals when analysing military misfortunes. While acknowledging that good generals make a huge difference (e.g MB Ridgway in Korea, 1951), the authors provide an analytical construct to assess the causes of military debacles. They categorise the causes of such under 'failure to learn', 'failure to anticipate' and 'failure to adapt'. In doing so, they examined some of the popular events in military history such as Gallipoli (1915) German conquest of France (1940), Pearl Harbour (1941), WWII antisubmarine warfare (1942), Korea (1950) and Yom Kippur War (1973). Highly recommended for policy makers, strategists, campaign planners, military officers and military history enthusiasts.
Profile Image for Elwin Kline.
955 reviews6 followers
April 9, 2020
This was a recommended read for a college course I took back in 2015 combining military history and psychology, the class was titled "Principles of War." I really enjoyed the course and learned a lot.

This was before the age of everything being on .pdf (at least for online college classes) and being a good student and wanting to really dive into my class with the best intentions, I purchased all the supplemental readings that went along with the course.

Hands down, this was #1 of batch. Being 12 years Active Duty and multiple combat deployments, this book really struck home found within the chapters of leaders having to make hard decisions, and things not always going according to plan.

If you've ever worn the uniform, are interested in military history, or in a leadership position and think this might be somewhat interesting -- I highly recommend picking up this book.
Profile Image for Christopher.
161 reviews11 followers
January 22, 2012
Recommended for the military history buff who not only wants to know what happened by why. This was a detailed examination of various pivotal battles in the 20th Century. I would recommend this book for those who already have a good military history knowledge as the authors can get a little technical at times. This is definitely a good I can see military leaders putting on a required reading list.
Profile Image for Riley Haas.
470 reviews9 followers
December 15, 2016
"It's difficult to understand how anyone can sit back and not worry about the huge numbers of deaths covered in these battles. When I was a kid, I was all in to military history and I didn't care. Now I feel differently.
That being said, their approach makes sense, not just for militaries, but for any organization. They make some very valid points, from an analytical perspective (excusing that they are talking about battles). For me the value is in their approach, not in the subject matter."
Profile Image for Gil Burket.
46 reviews
November 29, 2014
The book is intended to be an academic study of the structural failures of military organizations through history.

Frankly, I thought the academic portions were overblown and self serving.

As far as the case studies, such as the initial US defeat in Korea, these are excellent and descriptive.

An excellent read for a military professional.
Profile Image for Mike.
Author 7 books91 followers
October 19, 2011
This is a book about the huge mistakes that military leaders and militaries have made in great wars. It is an analysis with flow charts and trade trees. It includes failures like how the US misjudged and mishandled the Uboat war off the American eEast Coast in 1942.
Profile Image for Steve.
629 reviews2 followers
September 25, 2015
If you are interested in military history--and I am--this is an excellent study of failure in war, and it's causes. The authors stress the importance of organizational and systemic failures, rather than just the failure of leadership.
497 reviews3 followers
July 19, 2016
This a very dry book, written mostly for people who are into political and military structure and organization. The role of intelligence is explained in considerable detail and what it's supposed to do and not do.
There is quite a bit of sloppy editing and misspelling.
Profile Image for Stu.
20 reviews
January 1, 2017
This book would have been great before 9/11 but with the constantly changing battlefield since that awful day, it is hard to apply some of the lessons Cohen is trying to present. I did learn from this book and suggest it to all who are interested.

--
Respectfully,
Stuart Moss
13 reviews
August 26, 2011
So far so good. Making me remember lots of other books about war. I'll have to write a review when I'm done to fix it all in my mind.
Profile Image for Richard.
885 reviews1 follower
January 26, 2012
Analysis of failure from an organizational viewpoint. Not bad.
Displaying 1 - 22 of 22 reviews

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