Paul Johnson: D-Day Lessons for Iraq

Roundup: Historians' Take

Paul Johnson, in the WSJ (June 3, 2004):

... The history of D-Day, and the fortnight that followed, showed the value of meticulous preparations, rehearsals, elaborate testing of every kind of equipment, and the study of logistics. Having secured the bridgehead, the Allied buildup was so rapid that, within a month, the Germans had palpably lost the battle in the West and with it the war. But that did not mean an early Nazi capitulation. Granted the Allied war aim of unconditional surrender, Hitler would clearly fight on to the end, and that meant we had to destroy his large-scale fighting capacity by breaking up all major units and occupying territory. But how, exactly? Montgomery was all for the rapid thrust by armored divisions deep into Germany, backed by overwhelming air-power. "Berlin by Christmas" was one phrase used. This was a fighting soldier's strategy and one which the Germans, in a similar situation, would certainly have used. Indeed, to some extent it was used by Gen. Patton and his armor. But it was risky. The faster the spearhead moved, the more extended its lines of communication became and the more likely it was that the Germans would be able to mount a devastating lateral attack which might sever the advanced armored units from their tail.

In the end, Eisenhower decided it was too risky and overruled Montgomery's enthusiasm. Instead, a "broad front" strategy was adopted, the Allies advancing slowly, steady and always as a continuous mass, forward units never out of touch with their companions to left or right. This virtually ruled out the possibility of German counterattack breaking right through the front and nipping off a spearhead. It was the safe approach, and typical of Eisenhower's minimum-risk attitude to warfare.

But of course such an approach involved penalties. It allowed the Germans to keep their line, to regroup and reinforce, and to maintain morale. Not until the very last weeks of the war did their front collapse, and individual units begin to surrender freely. Moreover, the political consequences were enormous. Instead of the war ending in autumn or early winter 1944, it lasted until the end of April 1945. Instead of the U.S. and Britain occupying Berlin and most of central Europe, it left these spoils to the Russians. The broad-front policy set the stage for 40 years of Cold War. Indeed, had it not been for the firmness of President Truman in reversing Roosevelt's policy of appeasing Stalin, it is quite possible that Western Europe too might have fallen victim to communism, and that the frontiers of Stalin's empire would only have ended at the English Channel.

These reflections of D-Day and its aftermath remind us that military decisions can never be entirely separated from their political consequences. Geopolitics is like a game of chess: You have to think a dozen moves ahead. This is as true today as in 1944-45. When President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair decided to destroy Saddam Hussein's military power, they took a risk that was abundantly justified both geopolitically and morally. But they paid insufficient attention to the possible political consequences.

Unlike Montgomery in 1944, who never underestimated the German genius for counterattack, and made provision against it, the allies this time did not study and prepare for the peculiar Arab genius for counterattack, which is to carry out prolonged and vicious guerilla warfare, completely disregarding human life, including their own. Moreover they did not study and prepare for the difficulties of meeting this form of counterattack against the political background of a free society at home, reacting nightly to what it sees on TV, and reading highly critical reports from the front written by journalists who have their own opinions and agendas and feel under no obligation to pursue the war (and peace) aims of the allied commanders. Both Mr. Bush and Mr. Blair are currently suffering from their lack of provision and foresight.

Given patience and determination, all will be well in time: Democracy and the rule of law will grow in the Middle East, and the roots of terrorism will be destroyed. But we are learning, once again, that the lessons history has to teach are inexhaustible and that statesmen should never plunge into the future, as we did in Iraq, without first examining what guidance the past could supply.

comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:

Vernon Clayson - 6/5/2004

Mr. Johnson's should go back farther in history than D-Day for lessons to be learned about Iraq. History is replete with stories of conquering armies coming, and going, to that fractious, barely civilized and untenable place. It is a basically lawless area of disparate tribal and religious interests, not a nation as one understands the term to mean. We may assist them in forming a government but it will not last. They have what seems a cultural need to bicker and fight, we fill that need now, when we leave, they will bicker and fight among themselves or with their neighbors.