By ARTHUR I. CYR
Scripps Howard News Service
From ancient times to the present, amphibious military operations have been rightly regarded as particularly challenging. The largest such enterprise was the Allied invasion of France in World War II on June 6, 1944 -- D-Day as it was known.
The Normandy invasion combined thorough planning, mobilization of vast material, and great imagination. When the operation already underway was publicly announced, a U.S. newspaper highlighted a front-page drawing of Allied soldiers cascading into Europe, as a terrified Hitler fled. A year of very brutal almost continuous combat lay ahead, but the end of Nazi Germany was in sight once the beaches were secured.
The rule of supreme allied commander Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower was crucial. He demonstrated great executive ability in supervising an unprecedented logistical challenge, and his remarkable interpersonal skills welded and held together the most diverse military alliance in history. Related to this, Ike was able to establish overall unity of command. This was never achieved even among the American military alone in the Pacific theatre, where Gen. Douglas MacArthur constantly pursued one strategic vision, while Navy admirals took a competing approach.
Extensive bombing of transport routes and supply depots in France was proposed as part of the enormous effort to prepare the way for invasion. Such air action would bring an estimated minimum of 60,000 civilian casualties, and perhaps many more. For that reason, American and British air commanders resisted widespread destruction, and argued for a much more limited bombing effort.
Eisenhower was adamant about the absolute need for extensive bombing, arguing that less would put the invasion at severe risk. He was able to turn to the leader of the Free French, Gen. Charles de Gaulle, whose nation was the target. De Gaulle agreed completely, and gave unequivocal support. Ike had managed to establish an effective working relationship with the very difficult French leader that few others could.
Simultaneously, the American leader never lost awareness of the terrible human costs of war, borne primarily by the enlisted ranks. He constantly stressed the fundamentally important role of the combat soldier, and regularly went to see troops in the field. This dimension is captured especially by classic photographs of his visit with young American paratroopers about to depart early on D-Day.
Ike had the gift of imagination. During heavy fighting for Sicily in 1943, Gen. George S Patton Jr. slapped two U.S. soldiers suffering from combat stress, and in the ensuing very public maelstrom he was almost fired. Simultaneously, the controversy was dismissed as propaganda by Nazi leaders; the German military annually routinely executed thousands of their own men for various infractions.
Eisenhower responded by isolating Patton in England, where an entirely fictitious army was created around him. Actors were assigned roles, bogus information generated, phony structures constructed of cheap materials. The great trick worked. On D-Day and immediately thereafter, crucial German units were held back, in part because Patton's (fictitious) forces had not yet moved.
Carthage College faculty over the years have made good use of the ancient classic "The Art of War'' by Chinese philosopher Sun Tzu, who stressed the importance of deception. I don't know if Eisenhower read the book; I do know he could have written it.
When Eisenhower died, then-Pres. Richard M. Nixon rightly compared him to George Washington as "first in war, first in peace and first in the hearts of his countrymen''' On this 65th anniversary, there are important lessons for current leaders.
Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College and author of 'After the Cold War' (NYU Press and Macmillan/Palgrave). E-mail him at acyr(at)carthage.edu.
Copyright (c) 2009 Scripps Howard News Service
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