Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

Auftrag-static (VIII): I’ll meet your Bill Slim and raise you a Gen. Montgomery

Tom Donnelly responds to the British official. By Tom Donnelly Best Defense directorate of American exceptionalism I’m all for taking Slim as a model, but he was much more the exception to the rule rather than the logical product of the interwar British system of leadership. Remember that the title of his wartime memoir was ...

Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

Tom Donnelly responds to the British official.

By Tom Donnelly
Best Defense directorate of American exceptionalism

I'm all for taking Slim as a model, but he was much more the exception to the rule rather than the logical product of the interwar British system of leadership. Remember that the title of his wartime memoir was Defeat Into Victory. It began with an acknowledgement of defeat, and in Slim's case -- for he helped to rescue the remnants of the Indian Army on its retreat through Southeast Asia -- something he saw at close hand. Unlike the officers who planned strategy and led British forces in the region, Slim did not underestimate the abilities of the Japanese.

Tom Donnelly responds to the British official.

By Tom Donnelly
Best Defense directorate of American exceptionalism

I’m all for taking Slim as a model, but he was much more the exception to the rule rather than the logical product of the interwar British system of leadership. Remember that the title of his wartime memoir was Defeat Into Victory. It began with an acknowledgement of defeat, and in Slim’s case — for he helped to rescue the remnants of the Indian Army on its retreat through Southeast Asia — something he saw at close hand. Unlike the officers who planned strategy and led British forces in the region, Slim did not underestimate the abilities of the Japanese.

Two further observations. Another way in which Slim differed from the norm of British pre-war officers was his appreciation of the fighting potential of the Indians, Burmese, Malayans — even, occasionally, Australians — who actually comprised the bulk of his force. He was a big proponent and practioner of what we now call "Building Partner Capacity." His
predecessors emphatically were not. Secondly, he knew how to win a long, hard slog. His brilliance was more reflected in perseverance than in lightning maneuver; he did practice a kind of "mission command," and was, for example, more forgiving of Orde Wingate and his raiders than most British senior officers, but he was in no position to conduct a Guderian-like blitzkrieg, a one-campaign war. Rangoon only fell in May 1945 and the war ended before the campaign to retake Singapore, Operation Zipper, began. The Japanese were ground down, at terrible cost.

And Slim’s actions when he became British chief of staff were to shake up the system. He took over from Bernard Montgomery, who, true to form, used the occasion of the change of command to whine about things. Slim’s response: "What have YOU done?!" A succinct but scathing indictment of the British system of leadership.

Tom Donnelly just is, OK?

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1

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