History’s Verdict: The Summer of 1944 and 2004

by Victor Davis Hanson

National Review Online

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 seasonedWehrmacht. 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.

©2004 Victor Davis Hanson

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