June 6, 2023
It's hard to explain to the younger generation the supreme importance of the Allied invasion of France that was launched 79 years ago today. Victory was by no means assured, and things could have turned out much differently. The sense of patriotic duty and the willingness of U.S. soldiers to sacrifice their own lives for the good of the country, and indeed for the good of humanity as a whole, is sadly almost beyond comprehension in the America of today. With forces of tyranny and oppression on the rise around the world, we may once again face a challenge similar to the rise of fascism in the 1930s and 1940s. Will we be ready? One way to try to rectify this emptiness in our civic culture is to encourage more families and school groups to visit historic memorials such the National D-Day Memorial in Bedford, Virginia.
Another way to gain a better grasp of the strategic situation as the D-Day invasion began is through the use of wargames. For example, by using playing pieces to represent actual units and a map that depicts the key geographical features, one can see the advantages and disadvantages of landing on the beaches of Normandy rather than near Le Havre or Calais, where much stronger German forces were concentrated. The Germans were caught unprepared for the Normandy landings, partly due to Allied deception measures aimed at convincing the Germans that the main invasion force was gathering northeast of London, with the Calais-Dunkirk area as the target. Also, one can see that the Germans had the advantage of interior lines, being able to shift forces from one potential invasion zone to another, and therefore amassing superior forces before the Allies could build up their strength on the beachhead. (Allied air power partly nullified that advantage, of course.)
One essential characteristic of war that is very hard to recreate in a wargame is strategic uncertainty. The Germans greatly overestimated the number of Allied forces arrayed against them, partly because of the Allied deception measures mentioned above, while the Allies underestimated the difficulty of breaking out of the beachhead. The planning for "Operation Overlord," as the invasion was code-named, envisioned a gradual push out of Normandy within a few weeks of the initial landing. In fact, however, the Germans had the Americans, British, and Canadians pinned down for nearly two months before the big breakout was finally achieved. In early August, General George Patton led an American-style "blitzkrieg" westward into Brittany and then east toward Paris, which was liberated on the 25th of the month. By September, the vast majority of French territory was in Allied hands. The moment of triumphal euphoria soon passed, however, and conquering Germany ended up taking several more months. Time and again, both sides' expectations were badly mismatched with the real world.
Strategic uncertainty has been on full display in the ongoing war in Ukraine. The Russians underestimated the Ukrainian people's will to fight, and the determination of Western nations to provide Ukraine with the weapons they need to defend themselves. Throughout history, miscalculations by national leaders have led to awful tragedies and needless loss of life on a mass scale. About one year ago, it seemed that the Ukrainian army might recover from their initial losses and inflict a humiliating defeat on Russia. But Vladimir Putin's heartless sacrificing of Russian troops in the prolonged battle of attrition centered on the town of Bakhmut demonstrated that this war is likely to go on for many more months, and probably years. Yesterday's bombing of the huge hydroelectric dam on the Dnipro River revealed once again Putin's grim determination to inflict misery on the Ukrainian people. As I wrote one year ago, "for there to be a real peace, either Putin or Ukrainian President Zelensky has to go." Unfortunately, here is no indication that either leader is about to give up power, and a prolonged agonizing stalemate seems likely to continue. What the United States should do about this bleak prospect will be the topic of a future blog essay. The stakes are huge beyond measure: the very existence of an open world order in which democracy and free trade can thrive.