Skip to comments.Victor Davis Hanson: History’s Verdict, The summers of 1944 and 2004
Posted on 07/16/2004 6:05:56 AM PDT by Tolik
About this time 60 years ago, six weeks after the Normandy beach landings, Americans were dying in droves in France. We think of the 76-day Normandy campaign of summer and autumn 1944 as an astounding American success and indeed it was, as Anglo-American forces cleared much of France of its Nazi occupiers in less than three months. But the outcome was not at all preordained, and more often was the stuff of great tragedy. Blunders were daily occurrences resulting in 2,500 Allied casualties a day. In any average three-day period, more were killed, wounded, or missing than there have been in over a year in Iraq.
Pre-invasion intelligence despite ULTRA and a variety of brilliant analysts who had done so well to facilitate our amphibious landings had no idea of what war in the hedgerows would be like. How can you spend months spying out everything from beach sand to tidal currents and not invest a second into investigating the nature of the tank terrain a few miles from the beach? The horrific result was that the Allies were utterly unprepared for the disaster to come and died by the thousands in the bocage of June and July.
Everything went wrong in the days after June 6, and 60 years later the carnage should still make us weep. The army soon learned that their light Sherman tanks were no match for Nazi Panthers and Tigers. Hundreds of their "Ronson-lighters" crews and all went up in smoke. Indeed, 60 percent of all lost Shermans were torched by single shots from enemy Panzers. In contrast, only one in three of the Americans' salvos even penetrated German armor.
Prewar America had the know-how to build big, well-armored tanks, with diesel engines, wide tracks, and low silhouettes. Yet General George Marshall had deliberately chosen lighter, cheaper designs the idea being that thousands of mass-produced, easily maintained 32-ton Shermans could run over enemy infantry before encountering a rarer, superior 43-ton Panther or 56-ton Tiger. Should he have been removed for such naiveté, which led to thousands of American dead? Whom to blame?
Similar blunders ensured that Americans had inferior anti-tank weapons, machine guns, and mortars when they met the seasoned Wehrmacht. On the Normandy battlefield itself, on at least three occasions, faulty communications, tactical breakdowns, bad intelligence, and simple operational laxity resulted in Americans blown apart by their own heavy bombers as they were trying to facilitate breakouts. Almost as many Allied soldiers were casualties in a collective few hours of misplaced bombing than all those killed so far in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Generals Eisenhower and Bradley probably miscalculated German intentions at Argentan, and thus allowed thousands of veteran Germans to escape the Falaise Gap in August. Tens of thousands of these reprieved Panzers would regroup to kill thousands more Americans later that year. Whom to blame?
The subsequent Battle of the Bulge was a result of a colossal American intelligence failure. Somehow 250,000 Nazis, right under the noses of the Americans, were able to mount a counteroffensive with absolute surprise. For all of our own failure to account for the missing WMD, so far an enemy army of 250,000 has not, as it once did in December 1945, assembled unnoticed a few miles from our theater base camps. Whom to blame?
We know about the horrific German massacres of American prisoners, but little about instances of Americans' shooting German captives well before the Battle of the Bulge. Such murdering was neither sanctioned by American generals nor routine but nevertheless it was not uncommon in the heat of battle and the stress of war. No inquiry cited Generals Hodges, Patton, or Bradley as responsible for rogue soldiers shooting unarmed prisoners. Whom to blame?
The catastrophes did not end after the Normandy campaign. More Americans were killed between December 1944 and January 1945 when we wrongly pushed back the bulge by confronting it head-on rather than slicing it off far to its rear than all those lost previously in the months since the D-Day landings. Germans had heavy overcoats and white camouflage; GIs froze and were easy targets in the snow with their dark uniforms. Whom to blame?
I could go on, but the point is clear. War is a horrendous experience in which the side that wins commits the fewest mistakes, rather than no errors at all.
In the short period between June and August 1944, military historians can adduce hundreds of examples of American amateurism, failed intelligence, incompetent logistics, and strategic blundering but not enough of such errors to nullify the central truth of the Normandy invasion. A free people and its amazing citizen army liberated France and went on in less than a year to destroy veteran Nazi forces in the West, and to occupy Germany to end the war. Good historians, then, keep such larger issues in mind, even as they second-guess and quibble with the tactical and strategic pulse of the battlefield.
We should do the same. Errors were committed in the Iraqi campaign as they always are in war and its aftermath. Saddam didn't use WMDs as we had expected neither did Hitler, and as a result thousands of GIs carried bothersome and superfluous gas masks across France and Germany for nearly a year.
We should probably have shot the looters who wrecked Iraq and smashed thugs like those in Fallujah last spring, when they were still in their vulnerable chrysalis stages. Iraqis should have been far more prominent in governance and on television almost immediately. Aid was tied up and delayed as postwar goodwill ebbed away in the heat. All this and more we now know from hindsight, even as we suspect that had we sent 400,000 troops, shot looters, blasted the killers in Fallujah, properly patrolled the borders, and kept the Baathist army intact, the New York Times would now be railing even more vehemently against U.S. overkill, brutality, puppet governments, and security at the expense of social justice.
It becomes clear that our lapses could have been much greater if one studies the blunders of Eisenhower, Bradley, and Montgomery in 1944, not to mention the hare-brained ideas of great men like Churchill and Roosevelt from being surprised at Pearl Harbor, Singapore, and the Philippines, to losing 50,000 casualties at Okinawa 90 days before the Japanese surrender, to allowing all of Eastern Europe to fall to the Communists. Yalta's terrible miscalculations make the present administration's foreign-policy slips seem minor in comparison.
But if in our war we look at the larger picture, we likewise come away with a different verdict from the one those details might lead us to. For all our Normandy-like mistakes, we are left with one truth that won't go away: A fascist, terrorist government is gone and something better is in its place, with a chance that it just might help alter the landscape of the region. Iraq was not Sicily, 415 B.C., when a democracy attacked an even larger democracy; this was not a 19th-century colonial march to steal resources; and this was not a Cold War coup to put in an anti-Communist thug.
Like Hitler, Saddam Hussein was a mass-murdering fascist, whom we had also appeased for years. For all his bluster, Hitler had not been in a prior shooting war with the United States, but after Pearl Harbor he had to be destroyed. In the same manner, after 9/11 there was no longer any margin of error in "boxing in" a rogue dictator that had struck four nations, violated most of the 1991 armistice agreements, ignored over a dozen U.N. resolutions, butchered tens of thousands, ruined the environment of Mesopotamia, constantly tried to recycle petrodollars to terrorists, attempted to assassinate a sitting U.S. president, and was in a stand-off with the U.S. Air Force involving 12 years, 350,000 sorties, and the control of two-thirds of Iraqi air space. Indeed, on September 11, 2001, American military forces were being fired on and firing back at the forces of just one nation in the world: Baathist Iraq.
Given that there were many valid reasons to remove Saddam in a post 9/11 climate, we can lament that the administration privileged the casus belli of worries over WMDs, which proved to be based on flawed intelligence a shortcoming that the United States in wartime has often experienced. As far as the war itself, we removed Saddam from power in three weeks under impossible conditions of driving nearly 400 miles from a single small front without tactical surprise. We have paid a steep price for the reconstruction perhaps 900 combat dead, tragically. Yet due to our soldiers' courage and sacrifice, after little more than a year there is the beginning of the first consensual government in the Arab Middle East, and elections are slated on a schedule far ahead of our efforts after World War II. Just as the liberation of France and the final defeat in Germany overshadowed the horror and stupidity of the war on the ground in 1944, so too, when all is said and done, the fact of a free Iraq not the hysteria about Abu Ghraib, Joe Wilson, or Richard Clarke will remain.
In contrast to all this, John Edwards says that Americans have died "needlessly" in Iraq, although he does not tell us why he voted for the war, or whether he would now change his vote had he known beforehand that CIA estimates of Iraqi WMD seem to have been in error. Yet this same John Edwards once thundered: "The path of confronting Saddam is full of hazards. But the path of inaction is far more dangerous."
For all their triangulation, deep down inside both he and John Kerry are not foolish. They don't want a post-9/11 world with Saddam's petro-tyranny intact, more wounded al Qaedists seeking refuge in Baghdad, an unimpressed Qaddafi back to his terrorist machinations, Dr. Kahn franchising his nuke-mart, or the Saudi royal family fueling fundamentalist killers even as 10,000 Americans are on its soil.
In other words, Kerry and Edwards sense that Iraq has had some strange but as yet not fully understood positive effects that are just beginning to ripple out. Are Middle Eastern autocracies and monarchies such as Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia talking more or less about democratic reform after Saddam's removal? Are rogue regimes such as Iran and Syria now more or less worried about scrutiny of their terrorist subsidies?
With extremists like Michael Moore and ANSWER breathing down their necks, Kerry and Edwards cannot accept history's tragic verdict that there are terrible costs to pay in any necessary war. Yet they also don't know what else could or should have been done to get us where we are now.
And so otherwise savvy politicos talk mindlessly of allies, the U.N., and multilateralism nice, fuzzy ideas that did nothing to stop the horror in the Balkans or Rwanda, and will do nothing either to prevent it in the Sudan but never of getting out of Iraq now or lamenting their votes that helped get us in.
So, yes, they talk around the edges nuancing this, quibbling with that as they search for an edge in an election year. So does Bill Clinton as he attempts to rewrite history and airbrush his past appeasement of terrorists. And so do we all as we pretend that the real danger is the Patriot Act, not cold-blooded killers from the Middle East, or that our rudeness needlessly offended true friends like France.
We talk the easy talk, but history, I think, is not listening.
Victor Davis Hanson, an NRO contributor, is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and author of The Soul of Battle and Carnage and Culture, among other books. His website is www.victorhanson.com.
If you want to bookmark his articles discussed at FR: http://www.freerepublic.com/focus/f-news/k-victordavishanson/browse
His NRO archive: http://www.nationalreview.com/hanson/hanson-archive.asp
Yes, he is listened by the Bush Administration; they like him maybe as much as we do: http://www.freerepublic.com/focus/f-news/1085464/posts?page=6#6
VDH shacks this one. Second guessing does no one any good. Bad things happen in war. We have done quite well. I only wish I was more confident about what we are doing at home. People are forgetting September 11. The war ain't over, not by a long shot.
Are mistakes made? Of course... War is messy. War ebbs and flows... Could some mistakes have been avoided? Sure, looking in hindsight...100% of them could be avoided. But the commentators weren't there. They weren't caged in by the intelligence Jackson had. They weren't hemmed in by his limitations. Jackson was a genius. He won and won and won...
So, VDH is right. I get exasperated when I even read posts on FR by Freepers, who think they could run this war so much better than the people in charge. The only thing I would say...if you can, then you owe it to your country to get log off your computer and offer your sword and life... (you being a rhetorical you)
Thanks for posting this!
The bluster and arrogance of the pretenders here on FR is astounding.
We are preaching to the converted here. What matters (for those of us who are too old to enlist) is to speak the plain truth at every opportunity.
Our 24 hour news cycle and reporting in the style of the few seconds soundbytes is a cruel joke on ourselves. Nothing serious can be discussed in such a manner. There are big issues that our nation needs to discuss and come to some kind of consensus. But what we have is shrill accusations from the left, just plain stupid noise. The serious critique, feedback that is absolutely necessary for any organization to be successful (regardless of its size, be it GM or neighborhood auto-mechanic or Bush Administration) is drowned out in this noise, and easily dismissed. We don't have patience, we don't have discussion, just yelling at each other. I hope when W wins in November the temperature of the nation will go down a bit, and we will return to civil dialog.
...the point is clear. War is a horrendous experience in which the side that wins commits the fewest mistakes, rather than no errors at all.
This essay crystalizes the truth that if our country loses the War On Terror, it will be because of the Left's fifth column on our own soil. We, the citizens of this Republic, are on the front line of the WOT as much as the soldiers. However, our duty is political action not violence. This war will be won or lost at the ballot box. The leaders of the Democratic party lacked the nerve to take on their own left wingers and throw their support behind the war effort. The Democratic party will only change if the voters make it emphatically clear next November that this is not another Viet Nam.
"It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, and comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat."
-Theodore Roosevelt (Paris Sorbonne,1910)
Do yourself a favor and step out of the cycle. Read books, magazines, and yes internet blogs, etc. which don't play that game. There are many of them out there. Serious people are having serious discusions outside of the ABCCBSCNNNBCNYTWP big media. Talk to your friends about what you see there. Its a small but important start. Just one for instance, I am reading "The Peloponnesian War" by Donald Kagan in preparation for a re-read of Thucydides this summer. This stuff is not on the best seller list and often can be had for free from you library.
Well. WMDs? Sadam Hussein was a WMD all by himself!
I think we've "run the war" just fine, allowing for human error which is always present. The difference between WWII and this one lies more in how the P.R. war is being run--in WWII, a Whoopi Goldberg would have not only lost her job for what she did, but she would have been unhireable almost anywhere, even bussing tables in a cheap diner. It's considered, if anything, almost chic to bash the war, the President, and the country.
These are very different citizens in these times. I don't think the population as a whole has the judgement to see whether or not it's a just war to begin with, and worse, I think the country's citizens have become so soft and so accustomed to "being taken care of" (not to mention, unable to endure even small inconveniences without severe whining) that they simply don't have what it takes to fight and win a war.
MIND YOU, I am not talking about the troops, but the citizens who must support them if we are to win. That is where the true failing is, in my estimation.
Have you tried talking to such people? I have. I get blank stares, if not suggestions that I might be a paranoid delusional. If Tom, Petah and Dan say it, then by golly it must be true.
I am embroiled in such a conversation now, via email. I know this is a friend who will probably never speak to me again, but I also know I cannot pretend to agree with her, even slightly. "All we've done is stir up a hornet's nest. Bush is going to get us all killed. Michael Moore is right! This is a quagmire worse than Vietnam!" She believes this.
Hanson is a wonderful writer..Thanks!
Hard to be that blunt to a friend, but sometimes necessary. I hope it works out.
WOW...this is GREAT ***ping!***
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