From the Basement Recliner of the Sweatpants General: No More Task Force Smiths

By Koopdog, HHB Commander of Ground Forces, South Pierce/Lewis Counties


“If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of one hundred battles.  If you know yourself but not your enemy, for every victory gained you will suffer a defeat.  If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.”

          Sun Tzu, Art of War


In the very first battle of the Korean War, the Americans got their butts handed to them by a superior, more technologically advanced, and better trained and equipped North Korean Army.   The American army of 1950 was not the Army that fought and won WWII.  At the outbreak of the Korean War, the Army that began the war was an army of occupation that was quartered in Japan.  Major draw downs and a peaceful Japanese people led to a non-wartime occupational/policing force that lacked heavy tanks and reliable artillery, and in many accounts, realistic training.  Depending on which account you read, there were a fair number of combat veterans (between 15-30%), but most of the troops were inexperienced and living a garrison lifestyle.  This was the force that entered the Korean War at the Battle of Osan and fought as “Task Force Smith”.

Recently, we witnessed another battle on the shores of Lake Washington (not in Montlake, btw), which in many ways paralleled some of the details of the opening battle of the Korean War.  (I’m not trying to say college football is exactly like warfare---so don’t be a twister).  The Washington/Stanford game featured a unit that had not been truly tested, with new leadership, talent, but perhaps a lack of identity that had just come off of 5 years of mediocrity and lack of discipline.  They were pitted against an experienced unit with experienced leadership and a clear mission; a team known for its hard-nosed approach and toughness. Mistakes were made, and the end result, for the Washington Huskies, was a clear defeat.  So what can we learn from Task Force Smith that applies to our beloved football program? 

Task Force Smith (double entendre both intended and fortunate), dubiously named for the unfortunate Battalion Commander that was put in charge of the ad hoc defensive force at the Battle of Osan, was a disaster.  Cobbled together from the Japan occupational forces, the motley unit consisted mainly of two companies from the 24th Infantry Division.  They faced a robust North Korean (NK) force consisting of modern T-34 tanks and several regiments of NK infantry.  The Americans had no mines, very little artillery support, and ineffective 2.3” anti-tank weapons that were notoriously weak and defective.  The result was predictable.  The NK Army rolled through the Americans despite some individual valiant efforts and the Americans suffered heavy casualties were forced to withdraw.   

“No More Task Force Smiths” is a phrase and slogan made popular by former Chief of Staff General Gordon Sullivan.  Every officer has heard this phrase in every school house since the drawdown of cold war forces in the late 1980s. Much has been made of the historical Casey faux paus of sending an unprepared, badly trained and equipped unit into war.  Using lessons learned of wars and engagements past is supposedly something that members of my former profession are good at.  Not always the case.  Task Force Smith as an object lesson has been widely debated.  Was it was lack of training, terrible operational planning, leadership failures, or maybe MacArthur needed 5 more years to get all his guys in there?  The answer, as always, is abundance. 

In any case, the US Army has had a history of major draw downs and lack of heeding lessons learned. This has led to unpreparedness, lack of resources, antiquated equipment, and having to rise from the ashes of defeat to become victorious in war.  Task Force Smith is but one example.  Kasserine Pass, the first large-scale meeting of American and German forces in Tunisia during World War II, resulted in the poorly led, equipped, and trained American troops being pushed back dozens of miles from their initial positions. Only outstanding individual efforts along the line and British reinforcements led to the allies stunting the Afrika Korps assault.   As a result of the initial defeat, sweeping changes in leadership, training, and doctrine were instituted.  The changes led to rapid successes later in the Africa Campaign.

This has been a recurrent theme in the history of the US Military.  Fortunately, what this country’s military has been good at has been the bounce back.  MacArthur’s armies post Battle of Osan performed admirably against, in many cases, a vastly superior force.  MacArthur himself came up with one of the most brilliant tactical moves in American military history with his seaborne invasion plan of the Battle of Inchon which singlehandedly turned around the strategic posture of the Korean War and established the momentum by which the allies accomplished eventual victory.

So What, Sweatpants General?  What does this have to do with the current state of Husky Football?  If you can’t see the point after that Tequilla-esque description above, I can’t help you.  Actually, I can.  Learning from defeat is something our true American culture and meritocracies are built on.   It doesn’t always mean leadership change, but sometimes can.  Many great American military leaders have had disappointments and defeats along the way.  General Washington had his butt kicked across Massachusetts and New York until his brilliant and providential victory at Princeton.  MacArthur presided over the demoralizing battle of Osan only to brilliantly execute the invasion of Inchon.  The examples are many.  A great leaders is flexible, willing to learn, and plans for the near term while never taking the eye off the future.  Leadership is a balance of weighing risk and reward and being willing to accept the consequences of those decisions.  Defeat, if used as a springboard, can at times be more valuable to the overall strategic outcome than minor victories.

In the big picture we will see if Coach Petersen is this type of leader.  He has taken his garrison postured team into its first real battle and has seen the deficiencies.  Training, talent, operational plan, discipline, experience---holes in a lot of places.   However, his players have proven themselves tough and game, which is a commodity that cannot be overstated.   In the short term, priority is to put the maximum amount of energy into the most immediate places of need and tailoring the plan to the personnel at hand.   In the long term, filling his roster and coaching staff with those that fit his vision.  The glue, as always, is the tough, fundamental, and realistic training that is the backbone of any great team or Army.

I have a feeling Coach Petersen understands leadership and understand what it takes to make the very difficult leap from mediocre to good to elite.   Indeed, to know one’s enemy is of upmost importance; but more important is knowing yourself.  In essence, if you prepare so well and are confident, you set the tempo and make the enemy constantly adapt to you.  This husky football team is a long way from that end, and indeed, perhaps much further than even the most prescient of sweatpants generals may have thought.  But I have a feeling we will soon see no more Task Force Smiths.