Here are the guys who pre-ordered the US attack on Midway:
They are, from left to right, General George McClellan, General Henry Halleck, General US Grant, and General Nathan Bedford Forrest.
These guys pretty much defined American military doctrine, through their inaction and their actions.
McClellan and Halleck were the first generals to command the Union Army during the American Civil War. McClellan and Halleck were ultraconservative tacticians.
McClellan had the opportunity to end the Civil War in 1862, at the Battle of Antietam. But he did not. He was too afraid of casualties and losing his army. So instead of attacking when he had the chance, he let the Army of Virginia and Robert E. Lee slip away. Yes, he would have lost more men if he had aggressively attacked Lee. But the Union and the United States lost many times that number in the following years. McClellan’s timidity led to the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of soldiers during the rest of the Civil War.
Next up is General Henry Halleck. You’ve probably never heard of it, for good reason. Halleck never did anything. Halleck commanded the Union Army for half of the Civil War, and longer than either McClellan or Grant. He never oversaw a single major battle with the Confederacy. Not even one. He was afraid of losing.
General Grant believed in attacking…and attacking…and attacking. What did Grant do when he won? Attack. What did he do when he was defeated? He attacked. Grant perfected the art of warfare by attrition, completely and utterly destroying Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia.
General Forrest was a brilliant Confederate cavalry officer. He defeated the Union army time and time again, with two simple guidelines:
- War means fighting, and fighting means killing;
- Arrive first, with the largest number of men. (He has been misquoted as saying “Get their firstus with the mostus.”)
These four generals have shaped American military philosophy since the Civil War. The philosophy? Attack whenever possible.
Every officer in the US military studies these men. (I first learned about McClellan and Grant when I was 12). Everyone learns the terrible cost of hesitation and delay on the battlefield.
And, that’s why the United States attacked at Midway.
Admiral Nimitz’s orders were:
In carrying out the [protection of Midway from invasion]… you will be governed by the principle of calculated risk, which you will interpret as avoiding exposing your force to attack by superior enemy forces, without a good prospect of inflicting, such as result of such exposure, increased damage to the enemy.
This order is straight out of General Grant’s playbook. If you have a good chance of doing more damage to them than they do to you, attack.
Nimitz followed General Forrest’s tactics. He got to Midway first, with all the firepower he could muster.
Some call victory at Midway luck. When a well-trained, well-led, and properly positioned military force attacks, soldiers and sailors tend to make their own luck. Just ask General Bedford Forrest.