Odyssey Dawn is just the latest in the great tradition of military operations with silly names

 

“You have operational names like Desert Storm or Iraqi Freedom that convey a message. Others, like Operation African Lion, are symbolic of the location. Odyssey Dawn is neither of those.” – Eric Elliott, spokesman for U.S. Africa Command, or Africom, explaining how they came up with the name “Operation Odyssey Dawn” for the U.S. action in Libya.

As the great cartoonist Bill Mauldin noted during World War II:

Willy N Joe

And if you’ve never read Mauldin’s great book Up Front, shame on you!

Veterans’ Day reflection on two military cemeteries in France

“To the living we owe respect, to the dead we owe only the truth.” — Voltaire

There are 28 military cemeteries in Normandy. Sixteen for British & Commonwealth troops, two American, two Canadian, one Polish, six German and one French. The best known is the American Cemetery and Memorial at Omaha Beach in Colleville-sur-Mer, featured in the opening and closing scenes of Saving Private Ryan. It is located just yards from Omaha Beach, one of three American landing areas in the D-Day invasion. The fighting here was the day’s fiercest, responsible for almost half of the nearly 6,000 Americans killed and wounded.

Paris 09 097 Today it is difficult to imagine a battle here. The German fortifications have been removed and the craters filled in, replaced with an official memorial and the graves of 9,387 American men and women who died in Europe during the World War II.

To get to the graves you walk on a path along the top of bluffs overlooking the beach. It is a serene view. Dense, green shrubbery runs down the hillside and ends at a wide, sandy shore. Two paved walkways make it easy to go from the beach to the heights. It is a beach you could take your family to and not once think of men at the top and bottom of the bluffs trying to kill each other and stay alive at the same time.

The path ends at the structures and statue formally designated as the memorial. The structure contains things better suited for a text book: Maps swarmed over by large red arrows showing the outlines of the battle at the most impersonal scale. The statue, Spirit of American Youth, is a highly polished bronze giant. It is rendered in a WPA/socialist realist style meant to embody Every Man and therefore reminiscent of no one.

Look out from the statue and you see the cemetery. It  immediately makes all the other construction superfluous. Row upon row upon row upon row of white headstones, crosses and the occasional Star of David, all perfectly aligned – as if still in military formation. Kneel directly in front of one and look down the row and they seem to curve over the horizon. This emphasizes the group over the individual. It is easy to be awed by the number of dead without a trace of the grief which comes from the loss of a person you actually know.

The largest German cemetery in Normandy is a few miles away from Omaha in the town of La Cambe. It gets far fewer visitors than Omaha, which is a major tourist attraction. The cemetery here is a muted, hidden place. It sits close to a highway but is screened from it by a high wall. Near the wall is a stone marker with this inscription:

The German Cemetery at La Cambe: In the Same Soil of France Until 1947, this was an American cemetery. The remains were exhumed and shipped to the United States. It has been German since 1948, and contains over 21,000 graves. With its melancholy rigour, it is a graveyard for soldiers not all of whom had chosen either the cause or the fight. They too have found rest in our soil of France.

Paris 09 127 Entering the cemetery all you see are groups of five small, dark crosses placed far from each other. They bring to mind small groups of people separated by vast distances who are not part of any greater cause or effort. Initially the lack of headstones is disconcerting. Walk a little farther in and you see the markers lie flat on the ground, filling the areas between the crosses. The multiple crosses are a reminder that many graves here contain several bodies. Because of this La Cambe has far fewer graves than Omaha but contains more than twice as many dead.

At the center of the graveyard is a large stone cross atop a circular mound. The mound is a memorial to some 300 unknown soldiers buried beneath it. At the foot of the mound are a number of wreaths, most donated by former foes.

At Omaha there is a memorial with this inscription: “This embattled shore, portal of freedom, is forever hallowed by the ideals, the valor and the sacrifices of our fellow countrymen.” This statement was made for the living, not the dead. The US cemetery is designed to console the survivors that those who died here did so for an important and worthwhile reason.

While losers of wars often make similar claims for their dead, in World War II the Nazis’ acts made this impossible. As a result the private group that built and maintain this German cemetery was free to ask a question their foes could not: Why do we still consider war to be just “a continuation of politics by other means?”

Robert McNamara: An appreciation … of sorts

The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones

McNamara, dead today at 93, embodied The American Century.

Born two years after the start of World War I, he got his MBA from Harvard in 1937, in World War II he served in the Air Force in the Pacific Campaign, became president of Ford in 1960 – when that was still something to aspire to – then secretary of defense under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson during both the Cuba Missile Crisis and the Vietnam War, finally president of the World Bank. He was neither Zelig nor Forrest Gump – he was in the foreground of the pictures Gump and Zelig snuck into.

He received – justly – a lot of blame for Vietnam. This is the man who, on his first visit to South Vietnam in 1962 said “every quantitative measurement we have shows we’re winning this war.” While McNamara had clear doubts about the war he lacked the courage of his convictions. He was unable to convince President Johnson – who also knew the war was unwinnable – to change his policies. He was unwilling to commit apostasy and tell the US public what he knew to be true.

Without setting any of that aside, let us acknowledge one thing: the war could have been a lot worse without McNamara.

Vietnam was a fiasco in large part because it was unwinnable. The US sent troops to try to preserve a fiction: the “Republic” of South Vietnam. It sent soldiers to fight over something that was of no importance to the nation whatsoever. The fall of South Vietnam to the Communists – who were certainly despotic and brutal – meant nothing to the US. At least the French had been fighting for a revenue-producing colony. As Yeats put it in An Irish Airman Foresees His Death:

I know that I shall meet my fate
Somewhere among the clouds above;
Those that I fight I do not hate,
Those that I guard I do not love;
My country is Kiltartan Cross,
My countrymen Kiltartan’s poor,
No likely end could bring them loss
Or leave them happier than before.

While Vietnam was a fiasco, at least – and I say this without irony or sarcasm – it was a well-run fiasco. McNamara, a brilliant logistician and administrator, saw to it that the troops were fed , armed, deployed, medically cared for and treated in as professional a manner as was possible. The mail was delivered on time to the soldiers, sailors and airmen. Let no one underestimate how important that is. If you think this is not a major accomplishment then look at our two current wars. Because Iraq was run from the White House by people with no idea of what was needed to run a war:

  • The wrong troops were sent to do the wrong jobs, thus the tragedy of Abu-Gharaib – a prisoner of war camp run by military police with no training or experience in running a prison.
  • Troops were sent into combat with inadequate supplies of water, body armor, ammunition and God know what else.
  • Soldiers were forced to weld metal plates onto vehicles in an attempt to give them the armor needed.
  • Because of a political decision overruling the military’s recommended troop requirements, the same units were and are repeatedly deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan – whether or not they are combat ready and, at the same time, further degrading the combat readiness they already had.

Vietnam, by comparison, was renowned (and sometimes reviled) as one of the most over-supplied conflicts in history. In addition to those basic things like ammo and water, units in the field were even provided with everything from beer to ice cream. (As ice cream creates thirst rather than sakes it, this was a very dubious benefit.) McNamara stepped down as secretary of defense in 1968 and within four years the US Armed Forces were falling apart in Vietnam.

Also to McNamara’s credit – he took responsibility for his actions and mistakes. In his 1995 memoir, In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam:

McNamara said he and his senior colleagues were “wrong, terribly wrong” to pursue the war as they did. He acknowledged that he failed to force the military to produce a rigorous justification for its strategy and tactics, misunderstood Asia in general and Vietnam in particular, and kept the war going long after he realized it was futile because he lacked the courage or the ability to turn President Johnson around.

He never said history would vindicate him or that he was just following orders.

In Errol Morris’ brilliant documentary Fog of War, McNamara became human for the first time for many people. During it he discusses Vietnam and the formative World War II incidents that shaped him. McNamara served under Gen. Curtis LeMay, who lead the bombing campaign against Japan. He quotes LeMay as saying  that had the U.S. lost the war, he fully expected to be tried for war crimes. Despite all that happened in Vietnam, I suspect that type of action was what McNamara was trying to avoid.

In one well-publicized incident, [McNamara] rejected a list of bombing targets that the military officers wanted to hit, including targets near Hanoi and other civilian population centers. The joint chiefs off staff went over his head to Johnson, and the president authorized the strikes.

It is easy to say the road to hell is paved with good intentions and that certainly was the case here. However it is important to remember and learn from those intentions. The failure to live up to them had terrible costs for the US, Vietnam and Robert McNamara.

Why you should read A.J. Liebling

Liebling “In the twilight, as we walked to our dinners, German planes would come like swallows out of Sicily, far away, and jettison their bombs before reaching the center of our magnificent anti-aircraft display, like a beehive drawn in lines of orange tracer. … Then, in the dark after the third armagnac, we would steal away to a place of enchantment called the Sphinx, where girls would act charades that graying members of the American Legion still dream of in Terre Haute. It was a schizoid existence: in Tunisia, with your belly pressed to ground, the Hotel Aletti seemed a mirage, but when you were in Algiers, you wondered whether you had lived on the Foamy Fields or imagined them.”

— AJ Liebling, “Confusion is Normal in Combat,” Mollie & Other War Pieces