Conference Program

85th Annual Meeting of the Society for Military History

 Landscapes of War and Peace

April 5 - 8, 2018, Louisville, Kentucky

Title: Failed Military Leadership through the Ages: Nicias, Bedford Forrest and Lewis Hyde Brereton
Abstract: Leadership remains a central aspect of military history, with the service schools especially focused on providing courses in behavioral science and leadership studies to officer candidates and mid-career professionals at both the service academies and in Professional Military Education schools. Faculty at these institutions emphasize leadership in their study of conflict, as the quality of available military leadership has often determined success or failure in warfare. While most studies concentrate on successful examples, many have observed that we learn more from our failures than our successes. It is therefore productive to examine cases of failed military leadership in order to provide essential balance as well as detailed and accurate autopsies for future historians and practitioners.
By examining three instances of failed leadership, by commanders who appear to have enjoyed success at some point in their careers, this panel seeks to both reassess the historical record and to sift the past for timeless attributes that have cost commanders a victory or lost a nation a war. Examining leadership across a wide chronological spectrum provides excellent contrast and isolates the variables of technology and nationality, while focusing on commanders on land, at sea and in the air gives the panel broad applicability and appeal. In addition, the three papers each provide coverage of failures at the tactical, operational and strategic levels of war, spanning the full range of military operations. All three presenters, as well as the commenter and chair, are established professionals at various stages of their careers and bring decades of experience teaching military history, both in the history department at the U.S. Air Force Academy and within the service's PME establishment, including centers focused specifically on character and leadership development. The panel promises to inform scholars as well as military professionals, reaching a broad cross-section of the society's membership.
Christopher Rein, Army University Press
Participant's Paper Title: 'He is Nothing More Than a Good Raider': The Failed Military Career of Nathan Bedford Forrest
Participant's Paper Abstract: Military histories of the American Civil War continue to extol the virtues of Nathan Bedford Forrest as "undoubtedly the most outstanding combat commander in the war," perpetuating a myth of military effectiveness that has made the southern cavalryman an icon of the Lost Cause. Despite detailed examinations by Brian Steele Wills and others, Forrest remains overrated militarily, especially during the 1864 campaign season when he was unable to adapt to a focused strategy designed to prevent crippling raids on the Union logistic infrastructure that highlighted his earlier service. By examining Forrest's later military career, including his inability to work effectively with his peers and the devolution of his military command into an organized society of armed raiders, this paper seeks a reappraisal for Forrest's military career. Despite whatever untutored tactical genius the man possessed, he undoubtedly failed at the operational and strategic levels of war, and his brutal treatment of his captured opponents makes him a strong contender for the title of "the worst military commander of all time."
Using official records and memoirs from his subordinates and opponents, the paper argues that Forrest's inability to effectively disrupt Sherman's supply line during the 1864 Atlanta campaign, coupled with his ineffectual defense of the now-worthless interior of Mississippi was a major contributing factor to the defeat of federal arms in the decisive year and theater of the war. If the South had any chance of victory, it was in using its hard-riding cavalrymen to disrupt Union supply lines, as they had successfully done in 1862, to stymie the efforts of the North's superior arms. But Forrest's failure to adapt led directly to southern defeat.
John Jennings, U.S. Air Force Academy
Jim Tucci, Air University
Participant's Paper Title: Nicias and the Failed Athenian Expedition to Sicily
Participant's Paper Abstract: Among military history's greatest debacles, the Athenian expedition to Sicily in the Peloponnesian War ranks among the worst, a failure at the strategic, operational, and tactical levels. Why would the era's pre-eminent military power, having achieved victory and forced a treaty with their rival Sparta, embark on a new campaign far from home? This paper will seek to answer the question by examining the Sicilian tragedy through the eyes of its chief detractor but eventual military commander, Nicias. Why was this sage politician unable to convince the Athenian polis war with Syracuse was a bad idea, and, once the expedition ensued, why was his leadership so inept? Nicias' perspective may illuminate some ideas about this peripeteia in the Peloponnesian War as well as notions of how states judge the merits of war and peace in any era.
John Abbatiello, U.S. Air Force Academy
Participant's Paper Title: Lewis Hyde Brereton: Controversial Airman
Participant's Paper Abstract: In the years following World War Two, Lewis Hyde Brereton emerged as one of the most controversial American air generals to have served his country. A protégé of Billy Mitchell, Brereton served with distinction with the US Air Service in France during the First World War, rising to the position of Operations Officer at HQ Air Service, Group of Armies, American Expeditionary Force. After a typical interwar career of commands and schools, Brereton arrived in Manila, the Philippines, in November 1941, having been selected by Douglas MacArthur to command the Far East Air Force (FEAF). Thus began a series of unfortunate command experiences that included the destruction of most of the FEAF in December 1941, the failure of Operation Tidalwave at Ploesti in 1943, friendly casualties suffered during Operation Cobra in 1944, and the disaster at Arnhem during Operation Market Garden in 1944?all operations commanded by Brereton.
This paper will review the literature of Brereton's reputation, supplemented by archival sources from Brereton's personnel record and correspondence, in order to highlight the causes of his failures and provide a new interpretation of his wartime career. Of note, Brereton served continuously in combat theaters?including the Far East, Java, India, Egypt, and Western Europe?during the war and was one of the first World War Two generals to publish his experiences, and his The Brereton Diaries of 1946 continues to serve as an important source for airpower historians. But his undeserved reputation does not align with his many leadership failures, and this paper seeks to understand just how that false narrative was constructed.
Courtney Short, U.S. Army Forces Command

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