How the United States has learned from the 5 Worst Military Defeats

As the U.S. force prepared to leave, one of the helicopters crashed into a transport aircraft which contained both servicemen and jet fuel. The resulting fire destroyed both aircraft and killed eight servicemen.

James Jay Carafano, a 25-year Army veteran with a master’s and doctorate from Georgetown University, says today, battles seem to have lost their luster. “Places like Fallujah are just exotic sounding names that strike a vague chord with most Americans.” But Carafano adds that all battles are worth reflection, especially these five that he lists to illustrate how losing wound up putting the nation on the path to victory:

5.  The Battle of Long Island (1776)

U.S. Army - Artillery Retreat from Long Island 1776 (1899)
U.S. Army – Artillery Retreat from Long Island 1776 (1899)

The Battle of Long Island was the first major battle to take place after the United States declared independence on July 4, 1776. Fought on August 27, 1776, this was a defeat for the Continental Army under General George Washington. It was the start of a successful campaign that gave the British control of the strategically important city of New York. The battle itself was a “humiliating defeat for Washington… luckily, the Continental Army avoided complete annihilation by slipping across the Long Island Sound, under cover of darkness.”

4.  Little Big Horn (1876)

"The Custer Fight" by Charles Marion Russell.
“The Custer Fight” by Charles Marion Russell.

Little Big Horn, also known as ‘Custer’s Last Stand’ was an armed engagement between combined forces of the Lakota, Northern Cheyenne, and Arapaho tribes, against the 7th Cavalry Regiment of the United States Army. The battle, in the summer of 1876, was fought near the Little Bighorn River in eastern Montana Territory. When Custer’s small detachment of the 7th Cavalry was wiped out on the Montana plains, there were big repercussions….it was a bit of a wake-up call. Congress began to supply better arms and equipment. “The Army started on the long march to becoming a modern land power.”

3.  Kasserine Pass

Kasserine_Pass

Kasserine Pass was the first big engagement between American and German forces in World War II. It took place in February 1943, in west central Tunisia. When General Marshall and his men were detoured to North Africa in this first major battle with the Nazis, the “GIs learned they weren’t ready for primetime.” But instead of this battle being remembered as the horrific defeat that it was, it instead became the first lesson in learning “how to win on the ground in modern war.”

2.  Task Force Smith (1950)

Task Force Smith arrives in South Korea.
Task Force Smith arrives in South Korea.

Task Force Smith was the first U.S. Army ground maneuver unit to enter combat in Korea. “The tragedy of Task Force Smith is often recalled as a case study in unpreparedness.” When North Korea invaded, the closest forces were American occupation troops in Japan. On June 30, 1950, President Truman authorized General Douglas MacArthur to commit ground forces under his command to Korea. Carafano says, “What’s crucial about this battle is that it demonstrated Americans’ determination to act as a Cold War Asian-Pacific power, even in the face of defeat.”

1.  Desert One (1980)

As the U.S. force prepared to leave, one of the helicopters crashed into a transport aircraft which contained both servicemen and jet fuel. The resulting fire destroyed both aircraft and killed eight servicemen.
As the U.S. force prepared to leave, one of the helicopters crashed into a transport aircraft which contained both servicemen and jet fuel. The resulting fire destroyed both aircraft and killed eight servicemen.

Desert One or Operation Eagle Claw, was a US Armed Forces operation ordered by President Jimmy Carter to attempt to end the Iran hostage crisis on April 24, 1980. Carafano says: “Maybe, technically this was not a battle, since the only enemies present proved to be misfortune and misjudgment.” The attempt to rescue 52 diplomats held captive at the US embassy in Tehran was an epic failure that damaged US prestige worldwide. However, years later, “the Senate Armed Services staff used the mission failure as a case-study to inform and push for joint reforms….highlighting the Desert One disaster served as the catalyst for the Goldwater-Nichols reforms, and those reforms helped revitalize the U.S. military in the 1980s.”

Author

  • Michele graduated with a B.S. in Telecommunication from the University of Florida’s College of Journalism and Communications. She has spent numerous years working in the news industry in south Florida, including many positions ranging from being a news writer at WSVN, the Fox affiliate in Miami to being an associate news producer at WPLG-TV, the ABC affiliate in Miami. Michele has also worked in Public Relations and Marketing.

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