Overlord

“Our landings in the Cherbourg-Havre area have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold and I have withdrawn the troops. My decision to attack at this time and place was based upon the best information available. The troops, the air and the Navy did all that Bravery and devotion to duty could do. If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt it is mine alone.”

This is an excerpt from the letter General Dwight D. Eisenhower, Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force, wrote 75 years to the day that I write this. He never sent it. The invasion, of course, was successful.

Had it not succeeded, we don’t really know where the arc of liberal progress would have landed. History tells us that it’s not likely Nazi Germany would have been able to hold Europe forever. No one ever has. The Allies would have sued for peace eventually. Hitler may have lived and anchored a fascist hold out in Europe.

Perhaps the Russians would have gotten to Berlin on their own and the iron curtain may have fallen as far west as the shores of Normandy. More likely, they would have simply outlasted the Nazis at Leningrad. Or burnt Moscow to the ground and let the cruel Russian winter do the rest as it did to Napoleon. Whatever counter history might have played out, it’s reasonable to say that Europe, as we know it today, would be quite different. And so would the world.

We’ve learned a few things over the last 75 years. And forgotten some things too. Modern liberal societies don’t try to conquer each other. And so there’s value to the spread of liberalism. But we also know it’s not the predestined end state for all peoples. The world does not simply move towards liberal progress. And so where it has, it takes commitment to keep it. A willingness to believe in it. And a will to fight for it.

75 years ago, the fate of liberal society was on trial. And the case was being argued on the backs of the sons of the free world as they went over the beaches in Normandy. It was, and still is, the largest military landing force the world has ever seen. And it was fighting for the greatest cause. To prove that the free peoples of the world would fight to stay that way. It was the answer to Lincoln’s plea on the battlefield at Gettysburg. That government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

With a collective will that seems all but impossible today, we insisted that it survive. And through the iron nerve of men willing to do the unimaginable, and a collective will of a people that mobilized resources at a scale never before seen in history, it did.

Operation Overlord broke the back of fascism in the West. And it stayed broken. It was the type of victory our people look to in order to validate our way of life. My children’s great grandfathers went over the beach and fought in the Battle of the Bulge. And they know it. Because D-Day is an American hero story.

People need a hero story.

For the past 75 years, our society has marched forward towards equality, abundance and relative peace. Our wars have been voluntary. The rights we promised have been expanded. Our standard of living is the highest in the history of our species.

There is no shining past to look upon that is brighter than what we have today. The march has been forward. Imperfect. Incomplete. And riddled with the type of backsliding that takes effort and activism to get through. But forward nonetheless. Forward from the brink of catastrophe.

Forward for 75 years.

Today we’ll tell the stories of a time when it was all in question. And I hope we take the message meant to come from that type of storytelling. We had to fight for what we have. And so we should expect to fight to keep it.

The Veteran’s Paradox

Dick Winters became a production supervisor at a plastics adhesive factory after the war. He eventually bought a farm and started a business selling animal feed in Pennsylvania.

The books and movies about his life didn’t make him rich and famous. They didn’t start until 50 years after the war was over. He wrote his memoir at 86, no doubt with some arm twisting from a few publishers and agents.  Continue reading

The Day We Shrunk the World

There’s a common narrative about the meaning of what happened in Hawaii 75 years ago this past week. It sounds something like this. The forces of evil, previously growing unchecked in their pursuit to conquer the world, had finally awoken a sleeping giant. And though they dealt her a vicious blow, they sealed their doomed fates that morning. The forces of the free people of the world answered back and with a clear and decisive victory for good in an inarguable statement of the strength of moral and just authority.

It’s not a bad narrative. And it’s not entirely untrue. There has been no more clear example of the greatness of the American expression of liberty, democracy and capitalism than the conduct of our people, our industry and our government during World War II. And for a little while, those that perpetrated the injustice of pitching the globe into a war that would kill 60 million men and women did suffer harsh and near final consequence. But both our greatness and their destruction were perhaps less permanent than any of us like to admit. Germany and Japan, a within the span of two generations are now the third and fourth largest economies in the world. Their people enjoy a stability and quality of life reserved for a handful of societies in human history. And we Americans, the victors, have found ourselves tangled in near constant war and have enjoyed the spoils of victory much differently than perhaps we would have thought.

A few centuries ago, before he became a musical and then a political debate, Alexander Hamilton pointed to the true consequence of Pearl Harbor, a century and a half before it happened. As he urged the American people towards union and the acceptance of the newly created Constitution, Hamilton pointed to the poor state of Europe after centuries of war and division.

“The history of war, in that quarter of the globe, is no longer a history of nations subdued and empires overturned, but of towns taken and retaken; of battles that decide nothing; of retreats more beneficial than victories; of much effort and little acquisition.”

Hamilton dreamed of a union unlike Europe, so vast and sturdy that we would be free from threat of external incursions. And he was right. For 150 years, the only material damage ever dealt to us was by our own hand in the bloody war against ourselves to end slavery. But Hamilton could never have dreamed of a world where huge ships could travel the Pacific in a week’s time and launch things called airplanes to destroy an entire fleet of ships in an hour. And he could never in his wildest dreams imagined atomic energy and the horrors of nuclear warfare that ultimately answered them. Pearl Harbor was the moment in time when the world shrunk. And thereafter, no one was ever too big or too united to be free from threat. Pearl Harbor was the stark realization that forever more, anything worth owning was to be owned by someone with the means to defend it.

The lesson of the last 75 years, if we take the time to complete the narrative of what Pearl Harbor means, is one where we’ve realized Hamilton’s vision in painful ways. Where America has fought battles that decide nothing. Where our retreats have been more beneficial than our victories. Where we have exerted much effort with little acquisition.

The world has changed. And the threats have changed with it. Small groups of men with conviction can inflict great injury on world powers. Foreign entities can encroach through cyberspace to impact sacred instruments of democracy. These threats are real and dangerous. But they are very different. And we appear to be content to respond to them with the weapons of centuries past-generals.

Be careful when you respond to different problems with the same answer. National security in 2016 is perhaps not as dependent on military strength as it once was. I say this as someone who spent most of his adult life in the service of arms. I appreciate the notion of service and the benefits of military strength. But we should have learned over the last 75 years that fighting ideas or economic systems with armies, generally just kills our young men and women and not the ideas. And if you staff the team responsible for the security of our people in 2017 and beyond, with generals who fight kinetic wars, as the incoming administration has, then it begs the question, what, if anything have we learned?

Fighting the last war is always how the next war starts. But winning it tends to come with the realization that you’re doing it again.

Well, we’re doing it again.

Longing and Hope

Dwight Eisenhower usually didn’t vote.  When he did, he never told anyone about what or who he voted for.  For years, people speculated about his political leanings. He was old school Army.  His didn’t lean- he served.  In 1947, Harry Truman, a Democrat, offered him a crack at the vice presidency.  Ike declined.  In 1952,  18,000 people filled Madison Square Garden for a rally organized by a citizen’s committee for Ike.  The event included messages from Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall and Clark Gable, all urging him to run for office.  It ended in Irving Berlin leading a rendition of God Bless America. In his book Ike’s Bluff, author Evan Thomas detailed his response.  To a friend, he wrote “I can’t tell you what an emotional upset it is for one to realize suddenly that he himself may be the symbol of that longing and hope.”

The next day, General Dwight D. Eisenhower (retired), tentatively accepted the invitation to run for the office of president-as a Republican.

Less than a decade after he led the largest invasion in the history of mankind to defeat the most dangerous enemy in the history of mankind, Ike was sworn in as our 34th president.   He assumed office during the war with Korea and ended it within a hundred days.

Ike hated politicians-Democrats and Republicans alike.  He disliked the military brass at the Pentagon too.  “I know better than any of you fellows about waste at the Pentagon and about how much fat there is to be cut-because I’ve seen those boys operate for a long time” he told an adviser.  He hated grand-standers and “desk pounders”-having once worked for General Douglas MacArthur, the great grand-stander and desk pounder of American military history.  He knew them when he saw them and he had no patience for it.

Ironically, Ike hated war.  Not the way someone who didn’t know war hates war-out of fear or misunderstanding.  He hated it because of his familiarity with it.  As president, he avoided small military conflicts because he understood that whether or not a small conflict became a big one was really just a matter of chance.  In the new world of nuclear power,  our greatest adversary was taking territory and building ballistic missiles, launching polished satellites that flew over America, reflecting the sun’s light down for naked American eyes to see as they passed over head.  Peace wasn’t just a goal.  It was survival.

In his farewell speech, he warned of our industrial military complex, growing at an unsustainable rate-yet sadly, he understood why.  “I wish I could say tonight that a lasting peace is in sight.  Happily, I can say that war has been avoided.” he finished.   He suffered the burden of the insurmountable stress of keeping the peace during the first time in the history of mankind when a failure to do so would have resulted in the end of civilization.   It took it’s toll.  He suffered a heart attack in 1955. And a stroke in 1957.  He labored through constant, severe gastrointestinal pain.  By the end, when he left office, escorted by a lone secret service car back to his home in Gettysburg, he was a shadow of the man he once was. He had given more to his country than anyone really knew. He was duty bound to hide it-the servant leader and soldier to the end.

Not since George Washington, had a president been demanded into office by the American people the way Ike was. And not since Washington, was a president’s greatest accomplishment navigating the catastrophically delicate waters of global piece the way Ike had. Ike’s resolve to maintain peace was the fulcrum that lifted the world from the edge of destruction.  And he knew it.

Today, a day after another terrorist attack has successfully evoked a response from those seeking to fill the office Ike once filled, it’s fair to ask, which of them is worthy of his role.  Is it the one that urges us to use religion as a means to identify areas for proactive policing?  Is it the one that tells us that we need to wall America off from the outside and torture our enemies to keep us safe. Is it any of them that didn’t serve-not one day collectively-in uniform.  When we look back through history at our truly great presidential behavior, it’s fair to be disappointed with our options.  Because we’ve lost something in our search for our next leader-the notion of service.

There’s a generation just over the horizon with different values formed by different burdens though.  One, like Ike’s, defined by war and conflict-less sensitive to the populous demagoguery common to those not grounded by the selfless principles of service.  One that understands that the pursuit of power should be tempered by its purpose to aid our fellow man.  One that has seen up close and personal the toll that torture, authoritarianism and reckless hate have on the human soul.  Something happens to you when you see it.  The way Ike did. The way we did.

This too will pass.  And quietly if we’re smart. We’re struggling through the death spasms of a tired time where people who haven’t experienced the problems of today’s world are arguing the principles of a political debate that’s been dead for a generation.  But change will come.  Until then, heed Ike’s warning.  “We must not fail to comprehend its grave implications….The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.”  Wherever this goes, be wary and watchful of where we place our power.  If you can’t get it right, it’s best not to get it too wrong.