THE RACE IS TO THE SWIFT
Time is everything; five minutes makes the difference between victory and defeat.—Nelson
The essence of life is time. In time it has its beginning, its fullness, and its end.. Time gauges its events, limits its movements, ticks with inevitable sureness its opportunities and very existence away. Time, or, if you prefer it, speed is life and, since the two are the same, is war, popular beliefs and proverbs to the contrary. “Slow but sure,” “The race is to the swift,” “The tortoise wins from the hare,” are all untrue to life or war. The “slow but sure” may win from the hasty and carless. Exactness may conquer gross inefficiency, unless the latter, alone of them both, be impelled by an unconquerable spirit. It is certainly better to go slowly and avoid errors, if one may thereby be sure even greater ones are not committed. But, acknowledging as much, how this sound: Swift and sure? And this, The Race is to the fleet and resolute? And this, The hare on his way back home meets the tortoise stuck in mud, held fast by his own slow-moving weight? Certainly steady, plodding perseverance is to be acclaimed, but is that why in the fable the tortoise won? Was it not because the hare with far superior potentialities of swiftness failed to use them?
Indisputably, in life or war, the victory is to the swift—not the swift and incautious, the swift to blunder, the dallier who plunges in half-cocked; but to the man who is quick to see a way, who loses not an instant to learn, who prepares as thoroughly as time will allow and when his hour comes acts swiftly and resolutely. Science, business, war—every phase of life echoes the unvarying lament of those who have come close to high achievement only to fail in the end:
Late! Slow to decide! Slow to prepare! A little too late in acting!
Statements, no matter their import, are valueless without proofs. In this discussion these are not difficult to provide. History is filled with them. We may well linger a moment to consider two momentous ones.
What brought disaster to De Grasse in the West Indies so soon after his glorious achievement off the Virginia capes? What won for Dewey at Manila? Did time, speed, resolute activity enter into either?
Let us see.
It is a hundred and fifty years ago. Cornwallis has surrendered; the new American Republic is a fact awaiting only the signing of treaties; the Thirteen Colonies are jubilant—but the great issues and nations that had been loosed at each other by this war for liberty were still in life and death struggle. All over the world England was on the defensive. She had been gravely weakened by the contest that had united her ancient sea rivals—Spain, Holland, France. Her debts mounting, her commerce declining, her strength diffused against far-flung and powerful threats, she was on the verge of that chasm that has confronted her but a few times in history: The control of the sea, her existence, was at stake!
Parsimony and political mismanagement (a lesson neither England nor America can long remember) had so lowered the Navy from the proud estate of its heritage that at the war’s outset, for the only time in all the long French-English struggles, France was superior at sea. Think what that meant! Europe’s greatest military power at the same instant her greatest naval one.
France’s warships were not only more numerous than England’s but individually more powerful. Since the latter part of the Seven Years’ War a wave of enthusiasm for the Navy had been sustained throughout the country. Every inhabitant had contributed to the building of ships and equipment. The Navy itself had been stirred to extraordinary efforts until its gunnery was superb, its tactics of an excellence theretofore unseen at sea.
Such was its superiority that (except for intrepid Suffren) even though motivated by a weak and unworthy policy of defensive warfare, from the beginning it had more than held its own against England. It had gained the Mediterranean; it had brought America independence at Yorktown; now it was on the threshold of winning back not only all of France’s lost colonies but those of England as well ... if only it could act!
After fending off Graves from the Chesapeake, De Grasse went to the West Indies to engage in the petty warfare of capturing islands instead of ships, following the pitiful delusion which, as France’s naval policy, “has always preferred the glory of assuring or preserving a conquest to that, more brilliant perhaps, but actually less real, of taking a few ships.”1
Time is life. Each moment plays but its single part. That of one is perhaps trivial; that of another so charged with significance that the world’s future may turn on it. At least three times could all the West Indies, all the colonies of the world, with a little luck, have been gained for France had De Grasse been urged on by activity. Three times might he have changed the world’s history had he endeavored to destroy the British Fleet when for an instant, a swiftly passing instant, it was in his power to do so.
But it was his misfortune never to realize the value of time. He arrived in the West Indies much superior to the British under Hood. He knew such favorable conditions could not always exist. Yet instead of seeking Hood, he led an expedition against Barbados. Unfavorable winds delaying him, he turned aside on Saint Kitts, landing his besieging force there and anchoring in support just off Basse Terre.
There Hood sought the enemy. Although he had only twenty-two ships to oppose to twenty-nine, he knew that much could be supplied by activity. Daringly he maneuvered for a surprise night attack. An accident, however, prevented its success and forced him to draw off with De Grasse in pursuit. And now daring, as always, conquers hesitation. Outmaneuvering the French, Hood got between them and Saint Kitts and suddenly moved to seize the very anchorage they had occupied.
1Ramatuelle, quoted by Mahan, The Influence Sea Power on History, p. 371
It was a bold, brilliant move and was just short of succeeding when an unforeseen danger appeared. The van was already anchoring, the center was following; neither could have got quickly into action. But they were on the point of being desperately needed. Four ships had lagged behind the main body. Into the gap thus opened De Grasse was steering his flagship.
Has he forgotten France’s naval policy? Is he seizing this opportunity to defeat Hood in detail? Is he losing not even a second to conquer?
No . . . it was not him. Three other British captains drop back to support the imperiled ones. De Grasse sheers away from his half-hearted attempt. The gap closes. However, there is yet time to act, if he will act swiftly. Although the gap is closed at one place, it still exists ahead of the three supporting ships. Few other British ships could immediate aid the seven. All his own fleet is at hand coming up with the wind. If the seven are destroyed, the remaining fifteen can be defeated at leisure. All the West Indies will then be his . . .if only he will press the attack . . . .
But he did not. Unhindered, all the British fleet occupied the anchorage. In one moment of hesitation De Grasse had lost glory, France a world empire.
For three weeks the English held to their advantage while De Grasse dawdled at merely pestering them. But if he could stand still, time could not. In the eastern Atlantic fate was moving with perlexing swiftness. Reënforcements and a great convoy sailed to strengthen De Grasse. He was on the road to overwhelming power. But a storm and the British struck the convoy at about the same time. It was shattered and dispersed. Few of either its war or merchant vessels reached their destination. The outlook had completely changed. Instead of the French, the British were the ones who would have an accession of strength. Rodney would soon arrive. Now if ever De Grasse must act.
But he did not. Considering his better ships, he was perhaps fifty per cent stronger than the English. A well-planned, determined attack against them at anchor must have succeeded. Yet he continued to delay. Time with all that it threatened was unheeded. Transfixed by irresolution, he let it run by as if it were water and of no more consequence.
Despite Hood’s energy, Saint Kitt’s garrison surrendered on February 12. France’s naval policy had scored another brilliant victory; another little island had been gained—to be kept until England’s fleet should win it back again.
But De Grasse, even in his hesitation, understood that something was wrong. Whatever the policy dictated, his mind was troubled by the feeling that the British fleet was his objective—and an immediate one. With his own reënforcements dispersed, and Rodney coming, he felt that he should attack; and he well understood that no more favorable time might present itself than when the British got under way from their now undesirable and highly unsafe anchorage.
Therefore, on the thirteenth, he sailed off to Nevis removing all barrier to Hood’s escape! How could a man tempt fate so carelessly? How could he, knowing Rodney was near, stop short of desperate efforts to overcome Hood? Could he possibly have understood what he was doing?
There is no doubt that he did. His own words, written later to a friend, are proof of it:
“The day after the capitulation of Brimstone Hill was the moment to watch Hood closely and fight him as soon as he got under way. ... But,” he adds complacently, himself giving damning evidence of that slowness to act, that hesitancy to subordinate everything to a chance for victory, that was ever his greatest enemy, “our provisions were exhausted; we had only enough for thirty-six hours. Some supply-ships had arrived at Nevis, and you must admit one must live before fighting.”2
2Kerguelen, quoted by Mahan, The Influence of Sea Power on History, p. 477.
Hood knew better the value of time. Opportunity to him meant only to act. When the French fleet did not show up on the fourteenth, he eagerly seized the opening left him. That night he quietly cut his cables and slipped away. A few days later he and Rodney had united, with a strength of thirty-seven ships of the line.
The tables were turned. Inaction could not play safe forever. Delays must inevitably meet their moment of reckoning. He who can conquer today and drifts instead into indolence, is fortunate if he is not rudely awakened on the morrow. In war, above all other fields of action, time is everything. Advantages do not come often, and never do they linger long. Their presence admits no hesitation. If they are to be seized at all, they must be seized quickly. As noble Suffren once cried, expressing the burning urge of his life, “If we delay, a thousand circumstances may save them.”
Few commanders have ever given up such certain victory as De Grasse had let idle through his fingers. Resolute attack at one of many times must surely have conquered Hood. Rodney’s inferior force would have followed. Then all the grand plans of the French and Spanish would have been childishly simple. Not an island would have long remained England’s in the West Indies; not a possession in America. But even this might have been barely the beginning of the disaster the loss of two such fleets would have brought: A third of her naval strength destroyed! Victorious French fleets battering at her channel ports! Commerce and food supplies choked off! Gibraltar and India lost! An empire vanished in the smoke of one engagement! For all this could very well have happened and the victor of the Chesapeake capes, De Grasse, have been not merely the conqueror of another battle but of England herself.
Such might have been—as it was, he now became the hunted. “A thousand circumstances” had not only saved the British but had made them superior. Nevertheless, he went ahead with the allied plan for conquering another island, Jamaica. Temporarily, until ready to proceed to the Cap Francois rendezvous, he took shelter at Martinique. The arrival of a convoy late in March completed his preparations. At daylight on April 8 he sailed northward.
Rodney was ready. Hardly had his chain of lookout frigates reported the first movements of the French before he was under way in pursuit.
The ninth of April was a fateful day. It opened with the British fleet and part of the French becalmed off Dominica. The latter, being in advance, was gradually working out of the lee of the island into the windy channel between it and Guadeloupe. Hood, leading the English van, skillfully took advantage of light airs and was likewise reaching the channel. His eagerness, however, had drawn him into danger. De Grasse with a force twice as strong was approaching.
It is opportunity again for the French. However undeserving, De Grasse is being given one last opportunity. Victory may not now be as easy or as overwhelming as it might once have been. But he can still seriously cripple the English by putting Hood between a double line of ships and crushing him while Rodney’s becalmed main body looks helplessly on; there is an even chance he may conquer their whole fleet.
It only demands speed, swift and resolute attack. But De Grasse again cannot act. He bombards at a careful range. More ships on both sides reach the battle line. Eventually all his thirty-three ships are engaged, while the English never have more than twenty. Yet he allows the action to be indecisive. He accomplishes nothing. In the end he draws off, leaving Rodney the precious hours he so urgently needed to reunite his fleet.
From that moment there could be but one ending. Time had run its course. Macbeth itself does not unravel a thread leading more swiftly to doom. Another man might yet have escaped, for he outsailed the British, but the mesh was tightening. He dallied with repairs when he should have hurried. He let accidents detain him. He ignored every call for urgency until it was too late for anything to help. On the twelfth, three long days later, he was still in the channel where unsteady winds were almost certain to destroy the effectiveness of his superior tactical ability—and there he was caught.
The disaster he had been building for himself burst with a vengeance. All the pent-up results of lost opportunities reacted on him with an interest bitter beyond realization. His fleet was scattered out of existence; his flagship and four others were captured; he himself, who scorned time, was ignominiously taken a prisoner to Jamaica, the very island he was bound to as conqueror!
Minorca has fallen; Suffren is overcoming the impossible in India! The allied fleet is undisputed in the Channel! France’s star is lifting high!
But De Grasse is defeated. . . . The high tide of fortune has been missed; it recedes with appalling swiftness. England may well go wild with elation and Rodney be her hero, for the peace that is soon to be signed will, from the equality of its terms, make it impossible to believe she had been on the verge of losing everything centuries of empire seeking had won. Only sober, farseeing men, who knew what might have been, had De Grasse been Suffren, understood the disaster she had been saved from. Only they knew how close negligence of her navy had brought their great island nation to destruction. Only they could realize the part activity had played in saving her.
Whereas, he who had actually sustained Britain in her folly, De Grasse, returned home a discredited, unheroic, a lonely and a tragic man. Time had beaten him; or, more truly, he had beaten himself—he would never learn that the race is to the swift.
One April morning of the year 1898, a man of a different mood stood on the deck of his flagship as it swung to the tide in the tawny waters of Mirs Bay, thirty miles from Hongkong. In his large, calm hands was a cable containing these portentous words:
War has commenced between the United States and Spain. Proceed at once to Philippine Islands. Commence operations at once, particularly against the Spanish fleet. You must capture vessels or destroy. Use utmost endeavors.
Dewey was not a man to need such instructions. The existence of war alone was enough to tell him what to do. For months he had been waiting for and planning towards this moment of opportunity.
His persistent efforts to obtain command of this station had met success the last of 1897, when he had sailed from the United States with charts and all available information on the Philippines. War with Spain was still only the talk of extremists, but he was preparing as best he could for the possibility.
Since arriving in Hongkong on February 17, he had continued to labor incessantly at getting ready. Crews were trained; ships were put in good condition; merchant vessels were purchased to carry coal and supplies; all probable bays where the Spanish fleet might seek refuge were studied and plans of attack formulated; the announcement of war merely served to precipitate swift, final touches—such as on the Baltimore which arrived only on April 22, but coaled, docked and undocked, loaded supplies, painted, and was ready to sail for Mirs Bay on April 24, shortly before the expiration of time allowed in neutral waters forced the fleet to leave Hongkong.
Dewey would have proceeded immediately to the Philippines, except that he was awaiting the arrival of the American consul from Manila in order to obtain the latest information on the disposal of the Spanish forces and the extent of shore fortifications he would have to combat.
Impatient though he was over the delay, something greater than even the thought of battle must have stirred in his mind. Though perhaps none in the United States, except Root, Mahan, Hay, and their few followers, had even an inkling of the course of empire that was opening to the United States; though none in this second-rate, isolated nation, of vast resources but pinched outlook, even dreamed of the stupendous world power we know as our country today, Dewey must still have felt that he stood on the threshold of destiny. There before him lay not the South China Sea and its initial drain on his slender resources, not a hazardous undertaking, not even an empire of islands, but instead the first stirrings of impossible dreams that were in the years to be themselves dwarfed by events that would come true. He was the leader at what may well have been a crossroads in America’s destiny. Abruptly and completely he was to change these islands from a vague and faraway name into a living consciousness, into a goal that was to carry us half around the world and break forever the strangle hold of the policy of isolation that was choking us off from greatness. The roar of his guns was to open eyes to boundless dreams. Trade was to quicken. Industry was to make strides beyond any magic. The leviathan was to be awakened—and, at last, for better or for worse, America was to realize that world influence was her part and her destiny.
The American consul arrived on April 27. At once Dewey called a conference of his captains. The news was not cheering. The Spanish fleet was concentrated in Manila Bay protected by reasonably strong shore defenses. Not only had the two bay entrances been fortified by additional batteries, but the north one had been extensively mined. Moreover, and worse, just before the consul’s departure a large transport had arrived at Manila reputedly loaded with ammunition, artillery, torpedoes, and submarine mines, which latter were to be placed in the south entrance.
Dewey’s reaction to such disturbing information was action. Doubts, fears of many disasters, must have filled his mind; nevertheless, at two o’clock that afternoon the squadron got under way for Luzon.
Something of the glory that became Dewey’s has been attacked by some authorities because of the eventual ease with which he accomplished all his purposes. But the works of these critics lack conviction because they have not considered the moral forces involved. Not one has sufficiently weighed what Dewey risked when he set a southeastward course that day, what tireless preparations entered into his achievements, what obstacles of fear and unknown possibilities his decisiveness cut through unhesitatingly, what swift advantage he took of every moment that he might catch opportunity at the flood. The overwhelming completeness of his victory gives the appearance of simplicity that by no means obtained for him there in Mirs Bay that April afternoon.
What was the outlook as he turned southward? His was a fleet without a port. His activity and foresight had prepared it and supplied it as best as was possible, but every advantage he had was there with him. Time was overwhelmingly the most important factor in his calculations. He must find the Spanish as quickly as possible. When found, he must defeat them completely. But suppose he should not? Suppose Subic Bay was as strongly fortified as was claimed, and the enemy fleet were there; suppose he should attack and be repulsed, where would he repair his ships, where obtain other ammunition? Or suppose the enemy should lead him a chase to the many refuges it might seek, would coal and supplies be easily replenished? Or what if by mine and gunfire he should lose one or more ships before even sighting the Spanish fleet, where then would be even his superiority of strength? Undoubtedly time was everything, and if the risk may not in hindsight seem so great, perhaps it is because Dewey’s swift actions themselves achieved that result.
Every minute of the trip across was busy. Final pieces of superfluous woodwork were flung overboard. Chains were wrapped around ammunition hoists for protection. Drills were held at the guns.
Before dawn of the thirtieth the dark mass of Cape Bolinao and the lofty mountains behind loomed out of the night. Luzon was reached! When would the battle be? Where would it be? What would be its outcome?
Scouts were sent ahead to reconnoiter Subic Bay, which, with proper fortifications, might have been converted into an impregnable refuge for the Spanish fleet. But there are those who do not appreciate the value of speed either in preparing or in acting. Only half-hearted attempts had been made at erecting defenses; those begun had not been completed; although Montojo had led his ships there from Manila on April 26, on April 29 he had led them back again, disappointed, no doubt, that some magic had not accomplished what inactivity had made impossible.
Late in the afternoon, having received the report that the quarry had gone, but hoping for better luck at Manila, Dewey stopped the fleet off Subic to give final instructions to his captains. During the conference ammunition was got up to the guns. Then in the second dog watch, at 1824, he headed south on the last short course to Manila Bay.
The whole undertaking is characterized by a singleness of purpose, a resolution and swiftness to act, amazing to the average irresolute human mind, that leave no doubt of the reasons victory was found at the end. No movement is wasted; no false one begun. Each second is made to count; each is filled. Although there are mines ahead, and strong batteries, and the treacheries of night navigation, Dewey still does not hesitate. Through all, his will drives steadily on.
Clouds come and go across the moon. An occasional shower fills the night with grey ghosts. It is stifling ashore, but the great northeast monsoon still sweeps down the sea with enough chill in it to cause many a shiver among the shadowy figures on the bridge and around the guns.
At 2142 the flagship, Olympia, went to quarters. Soon she was in the channel. Now were to be crucial moments. Had mines been set, and what would happen if one were struck? Would anyone aboard escape? would the whole plan fail?
At midnight the fleet was in the narrowest waters of the channel. No mines had yet been encountered; but at that instant, when the menace was strongest, sparks from one of the ships’ stacks caused discovery. Shore batteries opened fire. Weird blurs of flame illuminated the night. Splashes leaped up dangerously near the column.
But Dewey steamed on. One purpose he had—to find and destroy the Spanish fleet—and nothing could swerve him from it.
Soon the firing subsided, without any damage having been sustained. A little after five o’clock the fleet had arrived to within three miles of Manila. . . . And there, at last, the Spanish squadron was seen, lined up for battle off Cavite.
There is no intention to treat of the battle here. From the beginning the principal obstacles confronting Dewey had been of time and speed. A single hesitant move, a failure to act swiftly when unknown dangers confronted, might have easily brought him failure. It was his early planning, the swiftness and sureness of his movements, the inspiring steadfastness with which he followed his purpose, not only in this campaign but in the months before, that had conquered difficulties as if they had not existed.
Yet an incident that happened at the end of the first phase of the battle, and for a time cast a cloud of gloom over the Commodore, is dramatically illustrative of what sort of obstacles he really faced and of how close the line ran for him between victory and possible disaster.
Although the contest had been furiously sustained for two hours, neither was the Olympia hurt nor could she make out any signs of destruction on the Spanish ships that would lead to the belief her own firing had been measurably more accurate. Then suddenly a shortage of ammunition was reported! Mr. J. L. Stickney, a news correspondent acting as an aide to Dewey, describes the dangerous predicament in which this left the fleet:
When we hauled off from the fighting line at 7:36 o’clock, the situation had become apparently serious for Commodore Dewey. We had been fighting a determined and courageous enemy for more than two hours without noticeably diminishing the volume of his fire. It is true, at least three of his ships had broken into flames, but so had one of ours—the Boston. These fires had been put out without apparent injury to the ships. . . . So far, therefore, we could see nothing indicating that the enemy was less able to defend his position than he had been at the beginning.
On the other hand, our condition was greatly altered for the worse. There remained in the magazines of the Olympia only eighty-five rounds of 5-inch ammunition, and though the stock of 8-inch charges was not proportionately depleted, it was reduced enough to make the continuance of the battle for another two hours impossible. When it is remembered that Commodore Dewey was more than 7,000 miles from a home port and that under the most favorable conditions a supply of ammunition could not be obtained in less than a month, the outlook was far from being satisfactory. ... If we should run short of powder and shell we might become the hunted instead of the hunters.
The rumor was false but it shows what might have been, what hazards the Commodore accepted. As it was, as was his merit, suddenly the names of Dewey and Manila echoed around the world. Within a week he was an admiral and the American nation had wonderingly taken a step toward world influence. Man and opportunity had met. Here had been no dallying, no delays, no excuses and indecisions. Dewey had seen his objective; he had started at once; he had resolutely, energetically, and swiftly followed it to the end ... in such an apparently simple formula may be expressed most of the great achievements of war and life.
Results are proof of actions. The gulf dividing failure from success separates De Grasse and Dewey at the end of their roads. Yet, as they traveled their ways, the only difference ever between the two— both brave, able, efficient men—was swiftness to act. The events we have briefly sketched teach this much too clearly to demand elaboration. But the lesson itself is so universal in its application, so eternal in its repetition, that we may with profit look at it and its parts isolated from any specific campaign.
The burden of the teachings of all wars is activity. No victory is possible without it. But it is not needed merely in battle or in that bloody dawn when a resolute treaty-scoffing enemy appears unheralded and unsuspected off our coasts. It is a requisite of all war, of all life, and is nowhere more urgent than in those periods of peace that give opportunity for the preparation, the study, and training, that can never again be had. It is in those quiet days that a man must labor unremittingly. Study must be wide and varied. Experience must be as full as possible and must be obtained over and over again until by repetition the correct action becomes a habit, a part of him, and his reactions to any problem the unerring, timeless ones of instinct.
But life is short. Although only repeated experience can give this true learning, there is not time to obtain it. Fortunately, however, physical experience may be supplemented by mental experience. Problems may be considered in the mind and solutions sought beforehand. The unexpected may be foreseen and prepared for. A task ill-done may be gone over in the thoughts so thoroughly and frequently that on the next occasion it will be executed without flaw. This sort of experience cannot replace the physical, but it can add far more than is imagined, for at all times and at all places the mind can be at work gaining experience in preparation for the hour when it will be needed.
This must be so. The things which can be done must be done in their allotted time. The place for preparation is before the battle—after it has begun there is no time for aught but action and applying what has already been learned. Therefore the early acquisition of experience of either kind is merely activity in its proper sequence.
Out of such activity comes action. It may be the execution of a plan conceived beforehand with such accurate foresight that it can be carried through without change. It may be the more common occurrence of war—the following of a plan born instantly out of emergency. In either event, the decision is based upon experience, which alone breeds those countless tiny separate pictures, seen by the eyes or created by the brain, that in combination make up thought. A preconsidered plan is likely to be more nearly accurate—but even the plan of an instant is preconsidered, if one has had experience. Out of the multitude of impressions beating in upon the mind in action, it recognizes and knows how to meet those made familiar by experience. Therefore the fuller the experience the nearer correct will be the decision. But will this be a measure of ultimate success?
Who even imagines it will! What means are ever needed for resolute activity? The best to be had are not too good, of course, but neither are the worst too poor. No method can be perfect. No life is long enough to compass into its experience all the knowledge that would make any decision more sure. The time allotted preparation is short, and does not come again, for it is only part of life’s command. “Get ready and then do” is the whole . . . and never can doing be put off long. When the moment demanding action appears, a man must be ready; whether or not he feels that he is, he must act. With the enemy arriving for battle, he cannot plead “Wait until I learn more!” Then, no matter the means, no matter the preparation, he is left only activity or inaction. With the most imperfect means, resolute activity may be enough to ride over any obstacle; with the best, inaction will fail.
The means, at most, are but instruments of action. With the same means, two men of different activity will accomplish results as far apart as achievement is high. With worthless and, to most of us, impossible means, great souls by activity alone win to undreamed goals. There is the story of a king who conquered with the sword a craven cast away as useless. There is Columbus’ first voyage across the Atlantic . . . Washington’s defense of our country . . . Jones’s incredible capture of the Serapis ... In all such high achievement the one gleaming truth is that energetic and resolute activity is the driving force sweeping man to success and that there is no other like it that shapes our lives.
“Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!” is the spirit of overpowering resolution that drives the conqueror on regardless of his means. Speed! Loss of no fragment of time lest in that moment so lost the tide of battle should take that silent and imperceptible but real, nevertheless, turn that presages only defeat! Activity! The fear there will be no time to achieve! That is war as victors wage it. In all their conquests they reveal it to be nothing less than action stripped down to the last brutal, terrific, elemental basis of striking first, swiftest, and most relentlessly.
Their lives show unquestionably that speed is the most important element for the commander. Of course each decision, each plan of action, must be a workable one of some sort; but this should come almost instinctively from experience of fact or mind. If neglect or indolence has filled the years for preparation, it is only too probable that no successful plan can be devised nor that the most resolute activity can overcome such a heritage. But for him who has used every possible moment to prepare, some workable plan is almost certain to suggest itself whenever needed . . . and, if it is only somewhere near the best one, that is all demanded of it. Why then should a man wonder, and worry, and fear his chosen course is not the best until hesitation alone conquers him? What if it is not? It is one of many roads that with energy and activity will lead to the same goal of victory! What if it is not the shortest or easiest? Perhaps this might never be found; it can never be of value if it is not used. A longer road that is traveled quickly leads sooner to the destination than a shorter one that is found too late; and the roads are too often so nearly the same that this difference in haste to start is itself the margin of victory. A man’s preparation, if he has applied himself, should aid in choosing a correct way. That done, he must travel it, not eternally use up time and dissipate strength in seeking a better one.
It is further true that, however unexpected an emergency, the first reaction of a man who is prepared will be one of a number of varyingly correct ones. From the very first the road is clear! He must not, then, he cannot, lose time, resolution, opportunity itself by looking longer and not acting. It is so important above all things to do that he will have chosen his star leading to victory if he will take as his maxim:
In all doubtful cases to adhere to the first opinion, and not to give it up until a clear conviction forces us to do so.3
What simplicity! If one can have faith in himself, by this one tenet he eliminates all the waste, moral weakness, and energy- diffusion of indecision. He acquires efficiency, lack of intricacy, directness—half the elements that make speed the irresistible force that it is. There are forgotten all fears of being wrong, all worries, all doubts. There are no other beckoning roads to burn up energy in tentative starts. The whole strength of the body is concentrated in a single direction with the goal lighting the way.
All that remains is to do, to follow this first opinion. But what a world’s difference this means to achievement! Who can doubt that De Grasse frequently, up to his last tragic opportunity, saw clearly, for he was an able man, victory that might be gained by vigor and energy? Who can question that if he had followed any of his opportunities through with resolution and boldness and all possible swiftness, glory and not disaster would have been his destiny?
Who can deny that, with all the fears and unknown dangers confronting him, it was not Dewey’s resolution and swift, steadfast following of a single idea that lift him to the ranks of our greatest leaders?
Activity . . . speed—these are the immutable forces of war. Clausewitz says:
Whoever reads history . . . cannot fail to arrive at a conviction that of all the military virtues energy in the conduct of operations has always contributed the most to the glory and success of arms.
3Clausewitz On War (Graham translation).
But this is putting it mildly. Energy, resolute single-mindedness, unresting activity—and these alone—bring achievement. What if there are barriers ahead? Energy will override them! What if the goal seems impossible? The will does not know such a word! What if fears block the way? Activity, ceaseless pressing on through every hastening instant will show them to be but shadows, phantoms that live and grow powerful only against him who hesitates to charge them.
“How were you able to conquer Greece?” someone once asked Alexander.
“By losing no time!” he replied.
When Tegethoff was told guns could not be got for all his ships, what was his burning answer?
“If you have no cannon, still give me ships, I will do the best I can with them.”
“Promptitude has a thousand advantages which pass over to the enemy if we waste time in sluggishness,” Alexander cried to his soldiers as they stood on the threshold of that momentous campaign into Asia whose like in swiftness and resistless conquest has rarely been approached.
Caesar in one of his driving, restless ex-expeditions surprized and crushed the amazed Helvetii by crossing in a single day the River Saône that had held them up ten times that long.
“My disposition cannot bear tame and s ow measures,” is the echo of Nelson’s nature itself. “Time is our best ally,” his great soul speaks again, “and I hope we shall not soon give her up. . . . Time is everything; five minutes makes the difference between victory and defeat.”
What was Suffren but a leaping flame ever on the move, ever hurling himself against the enemy? How did Hannibal confuse and shatter all the power of Rome as he ranged up and down Italy for fifteen years? What was it most in Jenghiz Khan that struck fear into the heart of Europe when he swept out of the terrible East? How did Frederick, except by vigor and speed of movements, with his little nation defy coalitions of the mightiest countries around him? Was it not the same intense fire that burned in Washington, in John Paul Jones, in Perry, in Hull, in Farragut and all the illustrious roll? Napoleon, himself the embodiment of speed, if ever anyone was, left these words: “Hesitation and half-measures are nowhere so fatal as in war. True wisdom for the general lies in an energetic determination.”
Not only in war, but in every field of life, is it difficult to find great achievement in which there does not enter first a singleness of purpose that brooks no hindrance and next this strange, intense realization of the importance of time that turns a man driven on by it into an irresistible power of fierce, unresting activity.
Activity has not merely the material advantages that always come to him who hits first, who is foremost to grasp opportunity. Within its bounds are untold and unreckoned moral forces, and these win battles. Out of the soul of man comes a force stronger than all his weapons, which, as a resolute man advances, sears all that oppose him as by a flame. Many things combine to crush him who, caught by inaction, awaits such attack. In that steadily advancing opponent he feels the overwhelming power of resolution racing towards its objective. He knows he must accept the battle as it is carried to him, for it is ever fought where and how the attacker desires. He must change his dispositions and plans, in the heat of a moment’s stress, to combat unexpected thrusts. And the swifter the attack, the less time does he have to adjust himself to the rapidly shifting demands and demoralizing confusion of each emergency thus set up. Since he has not previously planned to meet it, an idea asserts itself . . . he hesitates, so another replaces the first . . . then another . . . then a dozen in wild tumult. Disorder overcomes his mind. Vacillating between dismay and mad terror, he sinks deeper into irresolution. The feeling of inferiority that began the moment he accepted the defensive is swiftly heightened. And all this is magnified in the same degree that the whole mental power of the attacker is concentrated into a burning impetuosity.
Surely hesitation’s brood is disaster . . . when in doubt, only dare! . . . “With equal or even inferior power of destruction he will win who has the resolution to advance.”4
Merely to go forward! The motion of the start alone is often enough to carry to victory; for in war, as in life, there are only two conditions—activity and death. Nothing lives that stands still. Only movement wins.
And swift movement conquers slower. Speed is the factor that gives certainty to the offensive. It brushes doubts and hesitation aside in the rushing tide of action. There is, with it, no thought of anything but moving on; and the more intense this purpose to go forward, this speed, the less room there is for distractions to enter the mind of any man, especially of one who is prepared. Having experienced each situation in thought or fact, he need not hesitate over decisions. He is free of everything but the echoing command:
“Go and conquer!”
4du Picq, Battle Studies, p. 124 (Greely and Cotton translation).
Like a landslide beginning at the top of a mountain, mental forces gain power as they concentrate, momentum as they advance. Movement creates strength, breadth, terrific force. Every nerve cell in the brain joins every other in seeking the one vital purpose. The usually unorganized mob becomes a terrible whole. Every trace of power in the mind flows in one broad, swift current. Under such uncountable strength, such irresistible impetus, is it not reasonable that even an imperfect plan must win to victory?
In moments of great stress the scattered physical forces of the body unite to overcome opposition and danger. In anger, the stomach is slowed down to save energy for fighting; the heart is swiftened to provide for the tremendous outbursts of strength that will be needed; the eyes are squinted, the brows knitted in a scowl, the teeth bared in a snarl—the first better to concentrate, the whole to frighten the opponent with the horror of the force gathering to crush him.
If this unity of strength occurs in the physical world, is it not very probable, since the moral is many times the physical, that the concentration in the moral is threefold, sixfold, unlimited in its possibilities? It is this that is unknown and terrible and fearful in a resolute man. The immense force of his moral power penetrates less courageous minds, paralyzing them, frightening them into moral breakdowns by the awful feeling that opposing them is a strength beyond any ability to check. And it may well be, too; for the soul can be greater than any barrier, more powerful than any weapon. Will... activity . . . resolution—these carry men where gods might fear. John Paul Jones, hindered, tricked, opposed, finally sailing in a rotten hulk with discarded guns and a makeshift crew, is an undying proof of the supremacy of moral forces over every material difficulty the world may produce.
There is something in the flame of resolution as it burns in men like Jones that staggers with its immensity. It is something intangible and unseen as are all moral powers; but it rises above all others. Like a furnace’s white heat directed on a cold steel bar we are trying to bend, it makes the impossible easy. Such resolution rides roughshod over every obstacle of life . . . and he who opposes it meets first with only fierce activity, then an intense, restless advance, then suddenly the terrifying realization that there before him is a power as real and as unconquerable as fate. No better authority for this feeling of inevitable conquest could be had than that brave and able man, Captain Pearson of the Serapis:
Long before the close of the action, it became clearly apparent that the American ship was dominated by a commanding will of the most unalterable resolution, and there could be no doubt that the intention of her commander was, if he could not conquer, to sink alongside.
Great warriors in face of stronger opposition and greater danger become infused with a growing realization of the need for action. In the hours of sternest stress their activity reaches an intense crescendo as if in this crux of fortune they had come to know a single truth: That time is life, and every fateful instant of it may be crowded with events poignant with disaster or glory. Look at John Paul Jones again: When the Bon Homme Richard is sinking in defeat, does he merely stand and give orders? Who is it that fires a gun when all its crew is out of action, seizes muskets from the marines to direct and encourage their fire, ties the ships together with his own hands when skill and luck have caused them to foul, downs the man who unleashed the terror of a hold full of prisoners, and as they pour up on deck rives them back by the impelling fierceness of his will.
Surely Jones demanded more of his men an average man can endure; but as surely there was enough greatness of soul in him to spare for all. As the battle went more and more against him, more and more swiftly rose the tide of his indomitable activity. Almost like a demented think, like an uncontrollable river in flood, it rose higher and higher and higher as obstacles mounted to block it. No wonder lesser determinations weakened. No wonder the tide at last rushed over all that opposed it. No wonder the torrent swept to victory.
Such are the impossible things possible to resolute activity. Its presence concentrates all the immense but ordinarily unorganized and diffused power of the moral forces. Conversely and tragically, hesitation disperses this power. If the vast gathering of forces, joined with the single purpose of acting, is kept idle in hesitation; if Alexander’s time and Nelson’s five minutes are lost in delay, disintegration is sudden and pitifully devastating. The unity that was strength is turned into a thousand frightened indecisions. Goals that could have been achieved, now are hidden in fears. Realization of weaknesses assault the mind—and now they are weaknesses, for that great current of power that would have swept past them unhindered has been diffused into a thousand futile, aimless, feeble channels. That which was on the threshold of greatness, needing only action—any action in the right direction—to undam the flood of accumulated power, has been dissipated into a miserable rout.
Too true it is that moral forces breed swiftly. A single indecision may multiply into thousands. Lack of confidence in a battle-filled instant swiftly leads to despair. Failure to act when the moment demands it, speeds into total paralyzation of all the mental nerve centers. The teachings of life and war all unite in that single cry:
“To act is to achieve. He who acts first, most swiftly, after careful planning most impetuously, will win.”
For the race is to the swift. No flying moment can be let go. Time is all of life—and we get out of it the exact measure that we crowd endeavor, energy, and resolution into it.
Who better than the Navy of France might at last, so very late, realize this eternal truth? Who but one of its officers of this century could write these poignant, wistful words:
“If the French Navy had always sought battle, as the English did, it would have seen brighter days . . . .”5
5Daveluy, The Genius of Naval Warfare, i, 18 (Alger translation).