As I watch various pundits and officials express frustration over the seemingly slow progress of the Ukrainian campaign, I’m reminded that some of history’s greatest military victories were long, slow, and grinding.
Two conflicts specifically come to mind: The Battle of Vicksburg in the Civil War and breaking out in Normandy during World War II.
Vicksburg was a vital link in the Mississippi River. If the Confederates lost it, they would have been split in half. Arkansas, western Louisiana and Texas would have been isolated from the eastern part of the Confederacy. Once the Union had complete access to the entire Mississippi, all the manufactured and agricultural goods from the entire Midwest could go down to New Orleans and be shipped around the world.
There was substantial value in holding Vicksburg. The Confederacy heavily reinforced it under Gen. John Pemberton. But he was still faced with a great problem. He could fortify Vicksburg, but he wasn’t strong enough to break out against the Union Army.
Union Gen. Ulysses Grant was faced with an even bigger problem. He had to try to take Vicksburg from the Confederates. His army was north of the city, and he couldn’t approach from the north. The entire area is a mess of swamps, creeks and tributaries of the Mississippi. In a world of horses, wagons and rolling cannons, it was impossible terrain.
Grant decided to move south and ultimately make an offensive from the eastern side of Vicksburg. While he was planning and developing, he had his men work to try to cut a canal through a curve in the Mississippi. Theoretically, if they could cut a big enough canal, they could have bypassed Vicksburg altogether and had free use of the river.
However, the canal idea was perhaps even more impossible than marching an army there. The Mississippi River is powerful. It floods frequently. Cutting a stable canal would be hugely difficult.
So, why would Grant try it? He wanted to keep the troops busy. He knew if they sat around with nothing to do, they’d become demoralized. They’d begin to get sick. They’d be harder to discipline. So, he just kept them working while he developed his full plan.
This was an elaborate, deeply complicated campaign. It took months. Luckily for Grant, he had fought well enough — and President Abraham Lincoln had enough faith in him — that he was given the time to pull off his Vicksburg miracle. If Lincoln had been impatient — like some of our armchair quarterbacks on television today — he’d have replaced Grant. The replacement probably would have made a total mess by moving too quickly.
Eventually, Grant made it south, crossed over, and headed northwest to Vicksburg. This was treacherous. He had most of Mississippi behind him, and he worried that an army could sneak up from Alabama, Tennessee or Georgia. He brought in Col. Benjamin Grierson. Grant asked Grierson to take a large cavalry unit and cut north to south all the way through Mississippi.
Grierson was a smart man. He understood tactics, geography and how to fully read maps. He kept the Confederates so confused that they diverted thousands of Confederate soldiers from Grant’s rear to chase Grierson all over central and southern Mississippi.
The Vicksburg campaign was a totally successful maneuver — that took a great deal of time to play out. It starved Vicksburg of ammunition, food and other resources. It gradually weakened the population until the city surrendered on July 4, 1863. It was an enormous victory. It was eclipsed in part by the Great Battle of Gettysburg on the same day, but it signaled an enormous break in the Confederacy.
Similarly, the most complex single thing humans have ever done happened on D-Day, June 6, 1944. Nearly 133,000 allied forces landed on the beaches of Normandy.
The landing went well, and we gathered forces on the beaches rapidly. However, Allied Forces suddenly discovered they’d made a huge mistake. The aerial photography that they’d been using showed rows of hedges in the fields off the beach. It turned out they were ancient, huge bushes that surrounded each beach. Further, they were filled with Nazi machine guns, mortars and infantry. To get beyond the beaches, you had to break through these hedgerows one at a time.
It was tragically expensive in human life — and time. Troops were bogged down, sort of chewing their way through the hedges instead of breaking out and establishing a hold in France. They turned tanks into bulldozers. They organized massive bombing campaigns (some of which tragically took out our own allies). It was brutal. Ultimately, we succeeded with steady, methodical determination to win.
What if there had been 24-hour television news when Grant was trying to take Vicksburg and the Allies were trying to take Normandy? What would they have said about Grant, American commander Omar Bradley, British commander Bernard Montgomery or Allied Forces commander (and future President) Dwight Eisenhower?
My bet is virtually every pundit would have said (safely from their TV studios) that these heroes didn’t know how to fight. They’d have demanded that troops be brought home or that leadership be replaced.
Think about this when you see what’s happening in Ukraine. The Russians knew Ukraine was going to counterattack. This knowledge itself was significant, so they fortified eastern Ukraine. However, much like Pemberton in Vicksburg, Russia simply doesn’t seem to have the forces to continue its offensive campaign to seize the whole country.
As the Nazis did in Normandy, Russia has heavily fortified key positions and interlocked them with massive minefields. If the Ukrainians tried to fight a mobile armored battle in that area, they’d lose every single time.
So, sort of like Grant, the Ukrainians use artillery behind the Russian lines to cut off Russian ammunition, food and fuel. They are breaking down the morale of the Russians at the line and then painstakingly neutralizing the minefields.
If they go quickly, they’re going to die. People who glibly say the Ukrainian forces are not going fast enough simply have no historical understanding of how hard these kinds of fights are — and no appreciation for what’s at stake.
Take a look at Vicksburg and the fighting in Normandy. Then look at the challenges Ukraine is facing. I think you’ll realize the Ukrainian resistance is a miracle.
Also remember: the top general in the American Army said publicly before the war that the Russians would be in Kyiv in three days.
He was — and remains — wrong.
We should have more faith in Ukrainian courage and the willingness of free people to fight tyranny — and a little less faith in our comfortable armchair critics back home.