"There is a profound moral difference between the use of force for liberation and the use of force for conquest." President Ronald Reagan, June 6, 1984
As this is June 6, news services, blog sites, and social media are filled with remembrances of, and commentary on, the amphibious landings on the beaches of Normandy, France, in 1944. Most all have something to do with acknowledging the tremendous sacrifices made by the many men who waded ashore under devastating enemy fire, climbed into the teeth of enemy defenses, and at the cost of 9,000 Allied soldiers on D-Day alone opened the way to the recapture of Europe and the defeat of Hitler and his murderous regime. It was an amazing undertaking involving nearly 3,000,000 troops assembled in Southern England, 7,000 ships and landing craft, and 12,000 aircraft -- the largest invasion force ever committed to battle.
I had the great privilege of visiting the landing beaches, walking the cliffs, and retracing the sites of the brutal battles through the bocage during a battle studies tour across Europe almost fifteen years ago. One can still find physical reminders of that great campaign - bombed-out gun emplacements, key terrain such as critical road junctions, canal gates, and the sites of command posts, and a wealth of museums, memorials, and even old veterans (though ever fewer these days) able to recount the realities they faced minute by minute as they pushed German forces back from the coastline and into the interior of France.
|Assembled at Pointe du Hoc|
|Utah Beach to the west|
|Omaha Beach to the east|
|German reinforced gun emplacement|
|Interior showing pre-sighted ranges and elevations for the gun at various points along the beach|
|Remaining structures and foundations of gun positions with the beaches/Channel waters just visible|
|Our group, with me (wearing ball cap) nearly hidden in the back, just left of the base of the statue|
The entire operation, the many battles preceding it, and those that followed have served as inspiring testimony to the commitment of that generation to meeting the great challenge of their time.
While keeping all this in mind, however, my thoughts also turn to the key leaders of that age. With respect to the execution of Operation Overlord, no one stands more prominently than General Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force. The operation was months in the planning and in the final days leading up to its execution, the decision to 'go' was his alone. The weather was terrible, each day of delay chipped away at the element of surprise (an absolutely essential component of the operation), and the window of opportunity to execute the plan was short. The weight of command was monstrous yet "Ike" knew what needed to be done and shouldered the responsibility as only a true leader does. Knowing that many factors were beyond his control, he was quite aware that success hung in the balance between all the preparations that he, his staff, and the assembled force had worked so very hard to accomplish, the opposing efforts of the enemy force who knew this would be a fight to the death, and the 'friction of war' that always plagues the best efforts of combatants.
Ike's actions the day prior to the invasion say as much about him as a person and his attributes as a leader as any other moments before or afterward. He penned two notes, one to be announced to the force the morning of the invasion and the other to be released in the event the operation was a failure. His second note warrants special attention:
"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."
Notice his concise description, the absence of any obfuscation or excuse-finding, his praise of the efforts of everyone else, and his complete acceptance of the responsibility for the decision and for the failure. He wrote the note, tucked it into his wallet, and went on about the business of visiting the troops, bucking-up their morale, showing them he had faith in their ability to successfully execute the difficult mission before them, and projecting the kind of assurance and confidence his people needed to see at such a decisive moment in their personal lives and in the history of their countries.
His message to the troops on the morning of June 6 conveyed the same sense of optimism, confidence and encouragement.
Note his closing lines:
"I have full confidence in your courage, devotion to duty and skill in battle. We will accept nothing less than full Victory!
Good Luck! And let us all beseech the blessing of Almighty God upon this great and noble undertaking."
I love that last part: "...And let us all beseech the blessing of Almighty God upon this great and noble undertaking."
When was the last time you heard someone in a position of leadership, especially in the most senior ranks of our national leadership (whether in government, the military, even our business community), say something like that?
We are faced with rather extraordinary challenges of our own, today. Some of them are fiscal and budgetary, others have to do with how we define ourselves as a nation, the values we hold, and what we are willing to fight for, and still others are of the type with which preceding generations of Americans would be familiar--the spread of tyranny, the odious nature of authoritarian regimes, and ideologies that demand the subjugation of freedom. There are many things beyond our control. Our 'window of opportunity' for action may be closing given our parlous state of national finances, the increasing extent to which 'government' is perceived to be the solution for any and all ills, and the general erosion of expectations that individuals should take personal responsibility for the consequences of their decisions rather than finding someone else to blame. Our challenges are difficult, complex, long-in-the-making, and likely longer in their solving. But are they any more daunting than the many others our country has successfully faced over the course of our nearly 238 years as a country?
Everyday I pray that our Nation awakens to the reality of its current condition and that we find within ourselves the ability to rise to our challenges just as previous generations have risen to meet theirs. I hope that a half-century from now, someone commemorates our 'devotion to duty' in the same way President Reagan remembered that of the "Boys of Pointe du Hoc."