Thursday, December 23, 2004

Overheard in Lake Placid 

The TigerHawk family has retreated to the Adirondacks for a few days, safe behind miles of ice-covered dirt road and phone lines that snip download speeds to almost nothing.

The weather was terrible today -- a driving rain on top of snow and ice -- and we had some pre-Christmas errands to run, so we went to Lake Placid. There we took lunch at the Great Adirondack Brewing Company Restaurant, which is a pretty decent microbrewery down on the main drag.

The place was fairly empty, so toward the end of lunch I couldn't help but drop eaves on an elderly but hale man holding forth at the next table. He was telling the eight or so other people with him about the Battle of the Bulge, which began with a German attack against thin American lines on December 16, 1944, and which still raged sixty years ago this day. He spoke about the Bulge with some knowledge, because he had been there and won a bronze star after the battle. Interestingly, the old soldier said that he had no idea why he had won his bronze star, and explained to the table that he "didn't apply for it." That made me wonder whether he was taking a shot at John Kerry, or whether the controversy over John Kerry's medals is forcing decorated veterans to explain that they didn't fill out the forms for their medals. Either reason would be yet another small but sad result of the pettiness of the last presidential campaign.

The old soldier did tell an interesting story, though. If I understood him correctly, he had learned from a Belgian nurse that the Germans were preparing an attack and duly reported same to his commanding officer. Apparently this bit of intelligence was discounted or ignored or never made it up the chain of command, because it is manifest that the Germans achieved surprise in their last ditch effort to cut the Allied armies in half. Indeed, if the Germans had reached Antwerp, it would have put the Allies in a very tight spot. Only Anthony McAuliffe's famous stand at Bastogne prevented a major German victory.

This anecdote about a discounted bit of intelligence and the Battle of the Bulge tells us something about our war. First, it suggests that today's military is not the first to discount important intelligence that turned out to be valuable. Only the volume of contemporaneous recriminations has changed. Can we imagine the outrage at the end of 1944 if the Associated Press had been able to interview our soldier off the record and had published, in real time, a story that proved that the military "ignored" evidence that would have tipped us off to the German attack? Would the "greatest generation" have reacted to this sort of revealed "intelligence failure" stoically, or were Americans of that generation so resolved because they were kept in the dark?

Second, the Germans achieved tactical surprise at the Bulge because Americans thought that the Germans were not capable of launching a major counterattack. We were overconfident, and thought the Germans were once and truly licked. We appear to have made that mistake in Iraq.

Third, notwithstanding our overconfidence and the scary setback in the Ardennes forest during that December sixty years ago, we still achieved total victory over the Germans.


By Anonymous Anonymous, at Fri Dec 24, 12:20:00 PM:

Great job. I haven't been here (viewed your blog) since the election because I needed a break from politics, but I just checked in on Charlottesvillain's excerpt of my Redskins playoff chances "cash flows" and saw this.

My dad is a Navy veteran from WWII, but never saw combat. One of his brothers, an Army vet, took part in the D-Day invasion. At this time of year when we remember to give thanks for so much, we really do owe many thanks to that generation. And, it makes me sad to think of the "qualifying" that some veterans may have to resort to in order to justify what they've earned. Having said that, I wouldn't indict the entire presidential campaign for this outrage; only half of it.

As for the intelligence "failure" comment, you are absolutely right on point. If we had the same attitude towards our military operations during WWII as we do today for Iraq (and that attitude starts with media coverage), we'd all be speaking German.

I have been having this debate with a very good friend of mine for months. My friend calls himself a middle-of-the-road moderate, but has never voted for a conservative or Republican candidate in his life and has repeatedly voted for some of the most outrageously liberal candidates imaginable. Of course, in the tri-state area where people digest the NY Times and not much else, anything short of being a member of the communist party means you are a moderate. My friend thinks my mind is closed because I am conservative.

My friend firmly believes that the Iraq war is a disaster and that we can never create a democratic republic in a muslim country. He believes we did just about everything wrong in Iraq. That is, he dances to the Times tune as do nearly all NY moderates.

The irony is that my friend is Jewish and his father was in several concentration camps during WWII. I've used a WWII-Iraq analogy many times in my conversations with him. And, he does think that what the US did during WWII was tremendous and he thinks that US support for Israel, a very important point for him, is at a zenith under Bush. So, his position on Iraq is curious to me. I guess some moderates' minds do close on some issues.

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