A few months ago, I had the privilege of helping to lead a dozen West Point cadets on a Normandy “staff ride.“ Advice: if you ever get down on the current state of the nation, be sure to visit the U.S. Military Academy. Spend a few days getting to know some of the young men and women in the Corps of Cadets, and you may find yourself feeling a whole lot better about the future of the Republic.
The trips was one of those “life changing experiences “ you hear so much about, and for me at least, epiphany followed epiphany. Standing out on Omaha Beach on a crystal clear spring morning was one. You could see forever, and if you were equipped with what Hunter S. Thompson once called “the right kind of eyes,” you could have sworn you had just spotted an invasion fleet on the horizon. Maybe I’m crazy, but I even saw an older gentleman that morning who looked a heck of a lot like General Norman “Dutch” Cota.
The epiphany this time was the problem of military planning. Modern war requires it, and the amount you need grows exponentially with the size of the op. On Omaha, you could probably multiply the need for planning by “infinity” to account for the amphibious problem–the sheer complexity of trying to throw and sustain a huge mechanized force on a far shore. As any World War II literate knows, Omaha didn’t “go well.” Indeed, an operation that took over a year to plan turned into little more than a frontal assault against a German division so deeply dug into the bluffs that it was practically part of the terrain. Any good history of the Omaha landing can provide the interested reader with chapter and verse; my choice would be Carlo D’Este’s gripping Decision in Normandy.
Our historical memory has come down pretty hard on the folks who planned this mess. Rather than going in at night (for surprise) or in broad daylight (for a massive and spectacular bombardment), the planners went with a compromise: a landing at “half light.” The veteran German 352nd Infantry Division at Omaha wasn’t surprised; neither was it stunned into submission by the sheer force of U.S. firepower. And, unfortunately, it gave a pretty good accounting of itself on that bloody June day.
So, we’re talking here about a “mistake”… or are we? Contrary to the way they’re often portrayed in books and movies on the war, staff officers are professionals, they take their job seriously, and most of them are pretty good at what they do. They consider the problems that are likely to arise and usually do their best to come up with possible solutions. They also invariably wind up with compromises. Think about it: you want to surprise the enemy, and you want to blow the hell out of him with a prolonged bombardment. Those two objectives, needless to say, are not always in harmony with one another. So you bombard less to get a little more surprise. Or you get a little more bombardment at the expense of surprise. But there’s no magic solution. This is a systemic problem, in other words, and the options are not always good ones. So you get what you got on Omaha: a lot of good men killed, an operation that came perilously close to a catastrophe, and one that was only rescued by the sheer grit of those soldiers and junior officers in the first few assault waves.
And then, a second epiphany. It suddenly struck me that when things do go wrong, when military planning and reality diverge as tragically as they did on June 6th, it was the young men (and today, young women) standing around me on that beautiful beach who are going to be expected to make up the difference. The art of command is not so much about "following orders." It’s more about coming up with a "plan B".
It’s difficult work, and dangerous. In that moment, I wanted to stop what I was doing, shake their hands, and thank each one of them for that brave decision to devote their lives to my defense–and yours.