Remembering D-Day

I was too backed up to post about the anniversary of D-Day, but wanted to jot a few thoughts down. In my post about visiting Fort McHenry, I mentioned how shipyards in Baltimore churned out the Liberty Ships that made D-Day (and the Allied victory) possible. As it happens, I am also in the middle of listening to John Keegan’s Six Armies at Normandy. Keegan, a masterful military historian adeptly blends his personal story with the history. As a young boy during World War II, he was living in a quiet corner of west England, where the war was very interesting to a boy – but not close at hand. Then quite suddenly, the Americans began appearing. They came in numbers that were simply unimaginable, bringing with them vehicles and machines never before seen in England like their bulldozers. The American khaki itself glowed compared to the uniforms of the superannuated garrison of the home guard. They were charming and wonderfully casual, and readily tossed friendly children mounds of candy equivalent to a month’s sugar rations. Keegan notes that as a boy he observed, “Something was going on in west England that Mr. Hitler should be extremely concerned about.”

And this was only the engineering units building quarters. Then the troops arrived and just as suddenly were gone – had disappeared. It was June 6, 1944. Keegan reports that men in town kept fiddling with their radios – to keep up with events (a predecessor perhaps to scanning news sites and blogs for some new tidbit of breaking news.)

The mass citizen armies, drawing on America’s bottomless wealth are part of our national narrative. And it is true that it took American generals and bureaucrats to envision and implement the massive landing at Normandy that was the only way to bring the war to its inexorable close.

But while Keegan writes deftly about grand strategy, his books always come down to the furious small unit actions and the individual soldiers that fight them that actually comprise a war. Keegan notes that while there is an American national myth, the U.S. Army has its own soul – he feels it is in Leavenworth, Kansas. Leavenworth was the staging ground for the Indian War of the 1870s and 1880s. In these conflicts small detachments, far from home, fought savage battles on unfamiliar terrain. Keegan writes that their successors in the American paratroop divisions did credit to this ethos in the landing areas inside France on D-Day.

This ethos lives on as the U.S. Army confronts challenges in Iraq and Afghanistan (and elsewhere) in places where inherent American advantages in material are neutralized and the soldiers are forced to rely on their training, guts, and initiative.

About 2500 Allied troops died on D-Day (and several thousand more Germans). World War II was a war of 9/11s weekly, if not daily. Terrorism is terrible, but so is a full-scale of war of attrition between industrialized great powers. Hopefully, that era of human history has drawn to a close.

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