News that the Army is moving to a new, retro, uniform modeled on World War II-era designs got my military friends buzzing. Not so much about the “new” (old) uniform, but all the badges, ribbons, tabs, and related baubles and doodads that adorn U.S. military uniforms today, a topic I’ve written about before at TomDispatch.com and here at BV.
First, the new uniform. World War II was the last “great” war America truly won, so it’s hardly surprising the Army is reaching back to the era of the “greatest generation” and the “band of brothers.” Why not tap nostalgia for that “good” war, when Americans banded together against the Nazis and the Japanese? It’s also consistent with Trump’s message about “Making America Great Again”; we can even substitute “the Army” for “America” and keep MAGA.
For Trump, this mythical “great” America seems to center on the 1950s, whereas for the Army it’s WWII and the 1940s. Still, these MAGA uniforms and hats seem to say the Army and America are currently not great, and that the path to greatness is a retrograde one, a return to the past. (That return apparently does not include a revival of the draft and America’s citizen-soldier tradition.)
But it was an image of Dwight D. Eisenhower that got my military friends buzzing. Ike led the invasion of D-Day and was the architect of victory in Europe as supreme allied commander, yet you’d never know it from his simple, almost unadorned, uniform. Consider the image below of Ike that accompanied the story in the New York Times:
As one of my military correspondents, a retired command sergeant major who fought in the infantry in Vietnam, wrote to me:
[Ike was] A man from a cow town in Kansas, Abilene, who was a lower rung grad at West Point and came back from WW I as a Major. Twenty years later as a LTC enters WW II and comes back a Five Star General, one of only about five ever made and he has two, count them, two tiny rows of ribbons, no hero badges, not even a bolo badge to show what a great marksman he is, no para wings, no ranger tab, no CIB/EIB and FIVE, COUNT THEM, FIVE STARS on his shoulders. He also ran for, won, and was a pretty damned good [Republican president] for eight years. The Generals we have had since, starting with Westy [William Westmoreland] were all losers although they all had badges, ribbons, medals, patches all over their sorry asses BUT no VK medals, no VVN medals, no Victory Medals from any damned place I can think of. Well, maybe Grenada or Panama, or a bar fight in Columbus, GA. Home of Ft Benning… Something to think about, eh?
All those “bells and whistles” on military uniforms today “are like Vanity License Plates for one’s car,” this same command sergeant major noted. Speaking of vanity, a retired colonel told me there’s a company “that’ll miniaturize your ‘rack’ so you can wear your ribbons on your lapel—all of them—when you separate [from the military]. LOOK AT ME: I’M A HERO!”
One thing is certain: We have a ribbon- and badge-chasing military. (General David Petraeus was the worst.) People literally want to wear their “achievements” on their sleeve — or blouse — or jacket, even after they leave the military. Military members chase these baubles. They “achieve.” But what about quieter achievements that you can’t wear? How about integrity, honesty, commitment, fairness? What about intelligence? Dedication to the craft of arms that doesn’t involve getting a fancy badge like jump wings from France?
The Army’s retro-chic uniforms won’t be of any value if we keep valuing the wrong things. A Boy Scout military that keeps chasing merit badges for the sake of promotion of self is a very bad thing, irrespective of uniform design.
Yet there’s another side to all this. As my colonel-friend put it:
Here’s the real cost of this ribbon chasing. There’s an enormous number of man-hours expended on writing and chasing the paperwork to award these doodads… At a time when the military is allegedly overtaxed and burned out, why are they wasting so much effort on this nonsense? Why are some units hiring editors to keep the decorations moving? In survey after survey, AF pilots cited decorations and other administrative nonsense, not deployments, as the reason they don’t want to stay in. But since generals groom and promote only those who think like them (having selected them when they were captains), nothing changes. “You have to take care of your people,” they say, and if you listen to E-9s [the senior enlisted] people are happiest when they get doodads.
As another close military friend put it: “And don’t even get me started on the ridiculous number of ribbons and badges today. A captain today will have as many ribbons as a circa-1944 two-star [general]. [In their new retro uniforms,] they’ll just look like extras in a war movie.”
In sum, a jury of my peers has come back with a verdict on the Army’s new retro uniform: Love the look, but can you please bring back as well the humble citizen-soldiers of Ike’s era, the ones who won wars without all the gratuitous self-promotion?
In my latest article for TomDispatch.com, I discuss how and why the U.S. military has a sustained record of turning victory (however fleeting) into defeat. What follows is an excerpt from my article.
A Sustained Record of Losing
During World War II, British civilians called the “Yanks” who would form the backbone of the Normandy invasion in June 1944 (the one that contributed to Nazi Germany’s unconditional surrender less than a year later) “overpaid, oversexed, and over here.” What can be said of today’s Yanks? Perhaps that they’re overfunded, overhyped, and always over there — “there” being unpromising places like Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, and Somalia.
Let’s start with always over there. As Nick Turse recently reported for TomDispatch, U.S. forces remain deployed on approximately 800 foreign bases across the globe. (No one knows the exact number, Turse notes, possibly not even the Pentagon.) The cost: somewhere to the north of $100 billion a year simply to sustain that global “footprint.” At the same time, U.S. forces are engaged in an open-ended war on terror in 80 countries, a sprawling commitment that has cost nearly $6 trillion since the 9/11 attacks (as documented by the Costs of War Project at Brown University). This prodigious and prodigal global presence has not been lost on America’s Tweeter-in-Chief, who opined that the country’s military “cannot continue to be the policeman of the world.” Showing his usual sensitivity to others, he noted as well that “we are in countries most people haven’t even heard about. Frankly, it’s ridiculous.”
Yet Trump’s inconsistent calls to downsize Washington’s foreign commitments, including vows to withdraw all U.S. troops from Syria and halve the number in Afghanistan, have encountered serious pushback from Washington’s bevy of war hawks like Republican Senator Lindsey Graham and his own national security advisor, John Bolton. Contrary to the president’s tweets, U.S. troops in Syria are now destined to remain there for at least months, if not years, according to Bolton. Meanwhile, Trump-promised troop withdrawals from Afghanistan may be delayed considerably in the (lost) cause of keeping the Taliban — clearly winning and having nothing but time — off-balance. What matters most, as retired General David Petraeus argued in 2017, is showing resolve, no matter how disappointing the results. For him, as for so many in the Pentagon high command, it’s perfectly acceptable for Americans to face a “generational struggle” in Afghanistan (and elsewhere) that could, he hinted, persist for as long as America’s ongoing commitment to South Korea — that is, almost 70 years.
Turning to overfunded, the unofficial motto of the Pentagon budgetary process might be “aim high” and in this they have succeeded admirably. For example, President Trump denounced a proposed Pentagon budget of $733 billion for fiscal year 2020 as “crazy” high. Then he demonstrated his art-of-the-deal skills by suggesting a modest cut to $700 billion, only to compromise with his national security chiefs on a new figure: $750 billion. That eternal flood of money into the Pentagon’s coffers — no matter the political party in power — ensures one thing: that no one in that five-sided building needs to think hard about the disastrous direction of U.S. strategy or the grim results of its wars. The only hard thinking is devoted to how to spend the gigabucks pouring in (and keep more coming).
Instead of getting the most bang for the buck, the Pentagon now gets the most bucks for the least bang. To justify them, America’s defense experts are placing their bets not only on their failing generational war on terror, but also on a revived cold war (now uncapitalized) with China and Russia. Such rivals are no longer simply to be “deterred,” to use a commonplace word from the old (capitalized) Cold War; they must now be “overmatched,” a new Pentagon buzzword that translates into unquestionable military superiority (including newly “usable” nuclear weapons) that may well bring the world closer to annihilation.
Finally, there’s overhyped. Washington leaders of all stripes love to boast of a military that’s “second to none,” of a fighting force that’s the “finest” in history. Recently, Vice President Mike Pence reminded the troops that they are “the best of us.” Indeed you could argue that “support our troops” has become a new American mantra, a national motto as ubiquitous as (and synonymous with) “In God we trust.” But if America’s military truly is the finest fighting force since forever, someone should explain just why it’s failed to produce clear and enduring victories of any significance since World War II.
Despite endless deployments, bottomless funding, and breathless hype, the U.S. military loses — it’s politely called a “stalemate” — with remarkable consistency. America’s privates and lieutenants, the grunts at the bottom, are hardly to blame. The fish, as they say, rots from the head, which in this case means America’s most senior officers. Yet, according to them, often in testimony before Congress, whether in Iraq, Afghanistan, or elsewhere, that military is always making progress. Victory, so they claim, is invariably around the next corner, which they’re constantly turning or getting ready to turn.
Indeed, when three of them were still in Donald Trump’s administration, the pro-war mainstream media unabashedly saluted them as the “adults in the room,” allegedly curbing the worst of the president’s mad impulses. Yet consider the withering critique of veteran reporter William Arkin who recently resigned from NBC News to protest the media’s reflexive support of America’s wars and the warriors who have overseen them. “I find it disheartening,” he wrote, “that we do not report the failures of the generals and national security leaders. I find it shocking that we essentially condone continued American bumbling in the Middle East and now Africa through our ho-hum reporting.” NBC News, he concluded in his letter of resignation, has been “emulating the national security state itself — busy and profitable. No wars won but the ball is kept in play.”
Arkin couldn’t be more on target. Moreover, self-styled triumphalist warriors and a cheeringly complicit media are hardly the ideal tools with which to fix a tottering republic, one allegedly founded on the principle of rule by informed citizens, not the national security state.
About fifteen years ago, I wrote a short history of World War II for an encyclopedia on military history. I was supposed to be paid for it, but apparently the money ran out, though my article and the encyclopedia did appear in 2006. Having not been paid, I still own the rights to my article, so I’m posting it today, hoping it may serve as a brief introduction for a wider audience to a very complex subject. A short bibliography is included at the end.
Dr. William J. Astore
World War II (1939-1945): Calamitous global war that resulted in the death of sixty million people. The war’s onset and course cannot be understood without reference to World War I. While combat in the European theater of operations (ETO) lasted six years, in Asia and the Pacific combat lasted fourteen years, starting with the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1931. Unprecedented in scale, World War II witnessed deliberate and systematic killing of innocents. Especially horrific was Germany’s genocidal Endlösung (Final Solution), during which the Nazis attempted to murder all Jewish, Sinti, and Roma peoples, in what later became known as the Holocaust.
Rapid campaigns, such as Germany’s stunning seven-week Blitzkrieg (lightning war) against France, characterized the war’s early years. Ultimately, quick victories gave way to lengthy and punishing campaigns from mid-1942 to 1945. Early and rapid German and Japanese advances proved reversible, although at tremendous cost, as the Soviet Union and the United States geared their economies fully for war. The chief Axis powers (Germany, Japan, and Italy) were ultimately defeated as much by their own strategic blunders and poorly coordinated efforts as by the weight of men and matériel fielded by the “Big Three” Allies (Soviet Union, United States, and Great Britain).
Militant fascist regimes in Italy and Germany and an expansionist military regime in Japan exploited inherent flaws in the Versailles settlement, together with economic and social turmoil made worse by the Great Depression. In Germany, Adolf Hitler dedicated himself to reversing what he termed the Diktat of Versailles through rearmament, remilitarization of the Rhineland, and territorial expansion ostensibly justified by national representation.
Concealing his megalomaniac intent within a cloak of reasoned rhetoric, Hitler persuaded Britain’s Neville Chamberlain and France’s Édouard Daladier that his territorial demands could be appeased. But there was no appeasing Hitler, who sought to subjugate Europe from the Atlantic to the Urals, re-establish an African empire, and ultimately settle accounts with the United States. For Hitler, only a ruthless rooting out of a worldwide “Jewish-Bolshevik conspiracy” would gain the Lebensraum (living space) a supposedly superior Aryan race needed to survive and thrive.
Less ambitious, if equally vainglorious, was Italy’s Benito Mussolini. Italian limitations forced Il Duce to follow Germany. Disparities in timing made the “Pact of Steel,” forged by these countries in 1936, fundamentally flawed. The Wehrmacht marched to war in 1939, four years before the Italian military was ready (it was still recovering from fighting in Ethiopia and Spain). Yet Mussolini persevered with schemes to dominate the Mediterranean.
Japan considered its war plans to be defensive and preemptive, although in their scope they nearly equaled Hitler’s expansionist ambitions. The Japanese perceived the alignment of the ABCD powers (America, Britain, China, and Dutch East Indies) as targeted directly against them. The ABCD powers, in contrast, saw themselves as deterring an increasingly bellicose and aggressive Japan. As the ABCD powers tightened the economic noose to compel Japan to withdraw from China, Japan concluded it had one of two alternatives: humiliating capitulation or honorable war. Each side saw itself as resisting the unreasonable demands of the other; neither side proved willing to compromise.
Nevertheless, Japan looked for more than a restoration of the status quo. Cloaked in the rhetoric of liberating Asia from Western imperialism, Japanese plans envisioned a “Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere,” in which Japan would obtain autarky and Chinese, Koreans, and Filipinos would be colonial subjects of the Japanese master race. In their racial component and genocidal logic, made manifest in the Rape of Nanking (1937), Japanese war plans resembled their Nazi equivalents.
European Theater of Operations (ETO), 1939-1941
1939-1941 witnessed astonishing successes by the Wehrmacht. With its eastern border secured by the Molotov-Ribbentrop Non-Aggression Pact, Germany invaded Poland on 1 September 1939. Two days later, Britain and France declared war on Germany. As French forces demonstrated feebly along Germany’s western border, Panzer spearheads supported by Luftwaffe dive-bombers sliced through Poland. Attacked from the east by Soviet forces on 17 September, the Poles had no choice but to surrender.
Turning west, Hitler then attacked and subdued Denmark and Norway in April 1940. By gaining Norway, Germany safeguarded its supply of iron ore from neutral Sweden and acquired ports for the Kriegsmarine and bases for the Luftwaffe to interdict shipping in the North Sea, Arctic, and North Atlantic. Throughout this period, Germany and France engaged in Sitzkrieg or Phony War.
Phony War gave way on 10 May 1940 to a massive German invasion of the Low Countries and France. A feint on the extreme right by Germany’s Army Group B in Belgium drew French and British forces forward, while the main German thrust cut through the hilly and forested Ardennes region between Dinant and Sedan. The German plan worked to perfection since the French strategy was to engage German forces as far as possible from France’s border. The Wehrmacht’s crossing of the Meuse River outpaced France’s ability to react. Their best divisions outflanked, the Franco-British army retreated to Dunkirk, where the Allies evacuated 335,000 men in Operation Dynamo. The fall of Paris fatally sapped France’s will to resist. The eighty-four-year-old Marshal Philippe Pétain oversaw France’s ignominious surrender, although the French preserved nominal control over their colonies and the rump state of Vichy.
Surprise, a flexible command structure that encouraged boldness and initiative, high morale and strong ideological commitment based on a shared racial and national identity (Volksgemeinschaft), and speed were key ingredients to the Wehrmacht’s success. Intoxicated by victory, the Wehrmacht’s rank-and-file looked on the Führer as the reincarnation of Friedrich Barbarossa. Higher-ranking officers who disagreed were bribed or otherwise silenced.
Hitler next turned to Britain, which under Winston Churchill refused to surrender. During the Battle of Britain the Luftwaffe sought air superiority to facilitate a cross-channel invasion (Operation Sea Lion). This goal was beyond the Luftwaffe’s means, however, especially after Hitler redirected the bombing from airfields to London. By October the Luftwaffe had lost 1887 aircraft and 2662 pilots as opposed to RAF losses of 1023 aircraft and 537 pilots. Temporarily stymied, Hitler ordered plans drawn up for the invasion of the Soviet Union. Stalin’s defeat, Hitler hoped, would compel Churchill to sue for peace.
Hitler’s victories stimulated Japan to conclude, on 27 September 1940, the Tripartite Pact with Germany and Italy. Japan also expanded its war against China while looking avariciously towards U.S., British, Dutch, and French possessions in Southeast Asia and the Pacific. Meanwhile, Mussolini, envious of Hitler’s run of victories, invaded Greece in October. The resulting Italo-Greek conflict ran until April 1941 and exposed the Italian military’s lack of preparedness, unreliable equipment, and incompetent leadership. Italian blunders in North Africa also led in Libya to Britain’s first victory on land. The arrival of German reinforcements under General Erwin Rommel reversed the tide, however. Rommel’s Afrika Korps drove British and Dominion forces eastwards to Egypt even faster than the latter had driven Italian forces westwards. Yet Rommel lacked sufficient forces to press his advantage. Meanwhile, German paratroopers assaulted Crete in May 1941, incurring heavy losses before taking the island. Events in the Mediterranean and North Africa soon took a backseat to the titanic struggle brewing between Hitler and Stalin.
The Eastern Front, 1941
After rescuing the Italians in Greece and seizing the Balkans to secure his southern flank, Hitler turned to Operation Barbarossa and the invasion of the Soviet Union. Deluded by his previous victories and a racial ideology that viewed Slavs as Untermenschen (sub-humans), Hitler predicted a Soviet collapse within three months. Previous Soviet incompetence in the Russo-Finnish War (1939-40) seemed to support this prediction. The monumental struggle began when Germany and its allies, including Hungary, Slovakia, Rumania, Bulgaria, Italy, and Finland, together with volunteer units from all over Europe, invaded the USSR along a 1300-mile front on 22 June 1941. The resulting death struggle pit fascist and anti-Bolshevik Europe against Stalin’s Red Army. For Hitler the crusade against Bolshevism was a Vernichtungskrieg (war of annihilation). Under the notorious Commissar Order, the Wehrmacht shot Red Army commissars (political officers) outright. Mobile killing units (Einsatzgruppen) rampaged behind the lines, murdering Jews and other racial and ethnic undesirables.
The first weeks of combat brought elation for the Germans. Nearly 170 Soviet divisions ceased to exist as the Germans encircled vast Soviet armies. Leningrad was surrounded and endured a 900-day siege. But by diverting forces towards the vast breadbasket of the Ukraine and the heavy manufacturing and coal of the Donets Basin, Hitler delayed the march on Moscow for 78 days. By December, sub-zero temperatures, snow, and fresh Soviet divisions halted exhausted German soldiers on the outskirts of Moscow. A Soviet counteroffensive (Operation Typhoon) threw Hitler’s legions back 200 miles, leading him to relieve two field marshals and 35 corps and division commanders. Hitler also dismissed the commander-in-chief of the army, Walter von Brauchitsch, and assumed command himself. His subsequent “stand fast” order saved the Wehrmacht the fate of Napoleon’s army of 1812, but this temporary respite came at the price of half a million casualties from sickness and frostbite.
A crucial Soviet accomplishment was the wholesale evacuation of its military-industrial complex. By November the Soviets disassembled 1500 industrial plants and 1300 military enterprises and shipped them east, along with ten million workers, to prepared sites along the Volga, in the Urals, and in western Siberia. Out of the range of the Luftwaffe, Soviet factories churned out an arsenal of increasingly effective weapons, including 50,000 T-34s, arguably the best tank of the war. Hitler now faced a two-front war of exhaustion, the same strategic dilemma that in World War I had led to the Second Reich’s demise.
Hitler arguably lost the war in December 1941, especially after declaring war on the United States on 11 December, which soon became the “arsenal of democracy” whose Lend-Lease policy shored up a reeling Red Army. Operation Barbarossa, moreover, highlighted a failure of intelligence of colossal proportions as the Wehrmacht fatally underestimated the reserves Stalin could call on. As Franz Halder, chief of the army general staff noted in his diary, “We reckoned with 200 [Soviet] divisions, but now [in August 1941] we have already identified 360.” As German forces plunged deeper into Soviet territory, they had to defend a wider frontage. A front of 1300 miles nearly doubled to 2500 miles. The vastness, harshness, and primitiveness of Mother Russia attenuated the force of the Panzer spearheads, giving Soviet forces space and time to recover from the initial blows of the German juggernaut. When the Red Army refused to die, Germany was at a loss at what to do next. Well might the Wehrmacht have heeded the words of the famed military strategist, Antoine Jomini: “Russia is a country which it is easy to get into, but very difficult to get out of.”
The Eastern Front, 1942-1945
Soviet strategy was to draw Germany into vast, equipment-draining confrontations. Germany, meanwhile, launched another Blitzkrieg, hoping to precipitate a Soviet collapse. Due to the previous year’s losses, the Wehrmacht in 1942 could attack along only a portion of the front. Hitler chose the southern half, seeking to secure the Volga River and oil fields in the Caucasus. Initial success soon became calamity when Hitler diverted forces to take Stalingrad.
The battle of Stalingrad lasted from August 1942 to February 1943 as the city’s blasted terrain negated German advantages in speed and operational art. As more German units were fed into the grinding street fighting, the Soviets prepared a counteroffensive (Operation Uranus) that targeted the weaker Hungarian, Italian, and Rumanian armies guarding the German flanks. Launched on 19 November, Uranus took the Germans completely by surprise. Encircled by 60 Red Army divisions, the 20 divisions of Germany’s Sixth Army lacked adequate strength to break out. The failure of Erich von Manstein’s relief force to reach Sixth Army condemned it to death. Although Hitler forbade it, the remnants of Sixth Army capitulated on 2 February 1943.
Stalingrad was a monumental moral victory for the Soviets and the first major land defeat for the Wehrmacht. After losing the equivalent of six months’ production at Stalingrad, Hitler belatedly placed the German economy on a wartime footing, but by then it was too late to close an ever-widening production gap. The Wehrmacht bounced back at Kharkov in March 1943, but it was to be their last significant victory. In July Hitler launched Operation Citadel at Kursk, which resulted in a colossal battle involving 1.5 million soldiers and thousands of tanks. Remaining on the defensive, the Red Army allowed the Wehrmacht to expend its offensive power in costly attacks. After fighting the Wehrmacht to a standstill, the Red Army drove it back to the Dnieper.
The dénouement was devastating for Germany. Preceded by a skilful deception campaign, Operation Bagration in Byelorussia in June 1944 led to the collapse of Germany’s Army Group Center. When Hitler ordered German forces to stand fast, 28 German divisions ceased to exist. By 1945, the Wehrmacht could only sacrifice itself in futile attempts to slow the Soviet steamroller. Soviet second-line forces used terror, rape, and wanton pillaging and destruction to avenge Nazi atrocities. Soviet forces had prevailed in the “Great Patriotic War” but at the staggering price of ten million soldiers killed, another 18 million wounded. Soviet civilian deaths exceeded 17 million. The Germans and their allies lost six million killed and another six million wounded. Hitler’s overweening ambition and fatal underestimation of Soviet resources and will led directly to Germany’s destruction.
The Anglo-American Alliance and the ETO, 1942-1945
In 1942 two-thirds of Americans wanted to defeat Japan first, but Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Churchill agreed instead on a “Germany first” policy. Their decision reflected concerns that Germany might defeat the Soviet Union in 1942. That year U.S. Army Chief of Staff George C. Marshall argued for a cross-channel assault, but the British preferred to bomb Germany, invade North Africa, and advance through Italy and the Balkans. This indirect approach reflected British memories of the Western Front in World War I and a desire to secure lines of communication in the Mediterranean to the Suez Canal and ultimately to India. British ideas prevailed because of superior staff preparation and the reality that the Allies had to win the Battle of the Atlantic before assaulting Germany’s Atlantic Wall in France.
Operation Torch in November 1942 saw Anglo-American landings in North Africa, in part to assure Stalin that the United States and Britain remained committed to a second front. Superior numbers were telling as Allied forces drove their Axis counterparts towards Tunisia, although the U.S. setback at Kasserine Pass in February 1943 reflected the learning curve for mass citizen armies. Fortunately for the Allies, Hitler sent additional German units in a foolhardy attempt to hold the remaining territory. With the fall of Tunisia in May 1943 the Axis lost 250,000 troops.
The Allies next invaded Sicily in July but failed to prevent the Wehrmacht’s withdrawal across the Straits of Messina. Nevertheless, the Sicilian Campaign precipitated Mussolini’s fall from power and Italy’s unconditional surrender on 8 September. Forced to occupy Italy, Hitler also rushed 17 divisions to the Balkans and Greece to replace Italian occupation forces. Churchillian rhetoric of a “soft underbelly” in the Italian peninsula soon proved misleading. The Allied advance became a slogging match in terrain that favored German defenders. At Salerno in September, Allied amphibious landings were nearly thrown back into the sea. At Anzio in January 1944, an overly cautious advance forfeited surprise and allowed German forces time to recover. Allied forces finally entered Rome on 4 June 1944 but failed to reach the Po River valley in northern Italy until April 1945.
The Italian campaign became a sideshow as the Allies gathered forces for a concerted cross-channel thrust (Operation Overlord) in 1944. It came in a five-division assault on 6 June at Normandy. Despite heavy casualties at Omaha Beach, the Allies gained a strong foothold in France. Success was due to brilliant Allied deception (Operation Fortitude) in which the Allies convinced Hitler that the main attack was still to come at Pas de Calais and that they had 79 divisions in Britain (they had 52). Germany’s best chance was to drive the Allies into the sea on the first day, but Hitler refused to release reserves. Once ashore in force, and with artificial harbors (Mulberries), Allied numbers and air supremacy took hold. In 80 days the Allies moved two million men, half a million vehicles, and three million tons of equipment and supplies to France. Once the Allies broke out into open country, there was little to slow them except their own shortages of fuel and supplies. After destroying Germany’s Army Group B at Falaise, the Allies liberated Paris on 25 August. Field-Marshal Bernard Montgomery’s attempt in September at vertical envelopment (Operation Market Garden) failed miserably, however, as paratroopers dropped into the midst of Panzer divisions. High hopes that the war might be over in 1944 faded as German resistance stiffened and Allied momentum weakened.
Hitler chose December 1944 to commit his strategic reserve in a high-stakes offensive near the Ardennes. Known as the Battle of the Bulge, initial Allied disorder and panic gave way to determined defense at St. Vith and Bastogne. Once the weather cleared, Allied airpower and armor administered the coup de grâce. The following year the Allies pursued a broad front offensive against Germany proper, with George S. Patton’s Third Army crossing the Rhine River at Remagen in March. Anglo-American forces met the Red Army on the Elbe River in April, with Soviet forces being awarded the honor of taking Berlin.
The second front in France was vital to Germany’s defeat. Yet even after D-Day German forces fighting the Red Army exceeded those in France by 210 percent. Indeed, 88 percent of the Wehrmacht’s casualties in World War II came on the Eastern Front. That the U.S. Army got by with just 90 combat divisions was testimony to the fact that the bulk of German and Japanese land forces were tied down fighting Soviet and Chinese armies, respectively. Helping the Allies to husband resources in the ETO was a synergistic Anglo-American alliance, manifested by joint staffs, sharing of intelligence, and (mostly) common goals.
The Air War in Europe
The air forces of all the major combatants, the USAAF and RAF excepted, primarily supported ground operations. U.S. and British air power theory, however, called for concerted strategic bombing campaigns against enemy industry and will. Thus these countries orchestrated a combined bomber offensive (CBO) as a surrogate second front in the air. While the USAAF attempted precision bombing in daylight, RAF Bomber Command employed area bombing by night. The CBO devastated Cologne (1942), Hamburg (1943), and Dresden (1945), but Germany’s will remained unbroken. The CBO succeeded, however, in breaking the back of the Luftwaffe during “Big Week” (February 1944) in a deadly battle of attrition. Eighty-one thousand Allied airmen died in the ETO, with the death rate in RAF Bomber Command alone reaching a mind-numbing 47.5 percent. Hard fought and hard-won, air supremacy proved vital to the success of Allied armies on D-Day and after.
Battle of the Atlantic
Nothing worried Churchill more than the Kriegsmarine’s U-boats (submarines). Surface raiders like the Bismarck or Graf Spree posed a challenge the Royal Navy both understood and embraced with relish. Combating U-boats, however, presented severe difficulties, including weeks of tedious escort duty in horrendous weather. Despite Allied convoys and fast merchantmen, U-boats sank an average of 450,000 tons of shipping each month from March 1941 to December 1942. In March 1943 the Allies lost 627,000 tons, which exceeded the rate of replacement.
Yet only two months later, the tide turned against Germany. Allied successes in reading the Kriegsmarine’s Enigma codes proved vital both in steering convoys away from U-boat “wolf packs” and in directing naval and air units to attack them. Decimetric radar and high-frequency directional finding helped the Allies detect U-boats; B-24 Liberators armed with depth charges closed a dangerous gap in air coverage; and escort groups (including carriers) made it perilous for U-boats to attack, especially in daylight. These elements combined in May 1943 to account for the loss of 41 U-boats, 23 of which were destroyed by air action. Faced with devastating losses of experienced crews, Grand-Admiral Karl Dönitz withdrew his U-boats from the North Atlantic. They never regained the initiative. Germany ultimately lost 510 U-boats while sinking 94 Allied warships and 1900 merchant ships. Because the Kriegsmarine pursued lofty ambitions of building a blue-water navy, however, Germany never could produce enough U-boats to cut Britain’s economic lifeline. Poor resource allocation and strategic mirror imaging ultimately doomed the Kriegsmarine to defeat.
The Rising Sun Ascendant, 1937-1942
By 1938 the Imperial Japanese Army (IJA) had 700,000 soldiers in China. In 1939 the IJA attempted to punish the Soviets for supplying China only to be defeated at the battle of Khalkin Gol. After this defeat, and spurred on by the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN), Japanese leaders increasingly looked southward, especially as British, Dutch, and French possessions became vulnerable when Germany ran rampant in the ETO. Bogged down in an expensive war with China, and facing economic blockade, Japan decided to seize outright the oil, rubber, tin, bauxite and extensive food resources of the Malay Peninsula, the Dutch East Indies, and Southeast Asia.
After concluding a non-aggression pact with Stalin in April 1941, Japan viewed Britain’s Royal Navy and the U.S. Pacific Fleet as its chief obstacles. To destroy the latter, Japan launched a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941, followed by attacks on British and Dutch naval units and invasions of Burma, Malaya, the Philippines, and other island groups using quick-moving, light infantry. Employing islands as unsinkable aircraft carriers, the Japanese hoped to establish a strong defensive perimeter as a shield, with the IJN acting as a mobile strike force or javelin. When the Allies confronted this “shield and javelin” strategy, Japan hoped their losses would prove prohibitive, thereby encouraging them to seek an accommodation that would preserve Japan’s acquisitions.
Japan’s key strategic blunder was that of underestimating the will of the United States, partly due to faulty intelligence that mistakenly stressed American isolationism. Pearl Harbor became for Americans a “date that shall live in infamy,” which permitted neither negotiation nor compromise. Japanese leaders knew they could not compete with U.S. industry (U.S. industrial capacity was nine times that of Japan’s), but they failed to develop feasible plans for ending the war quickly.
Nevertheless, until April 1942 the Japanese enjoyed a string of successes. Pearl Harbor was followed by attacks against the Philippines, where the United States lost half its aircraft on the ground. British attempts to reinforce Singapore led to the sinking of the battlecruiser Repulse and battleship Prince of Wales. At the Battle of Java Sea in February 1942 the IJN destroyed the Dutch navy. For the Allies, disaster followed disaster. At minimal cost, Japan seized Hong Kong, Malaya, most of Burma, and Singapore. Singapore’s surrender on 15 February was psychologically catastrophic to the British since they had failed at what they believed they did best: mounting a staunch defense. From this shattering blow the British Empire never fully recovered. By May 1942 remnants of the U.S. Army at Bataan and Corregidor surrendered, and the Japanese were in New Guinea. To this point not one of the IJN’s eleven battleships, ten carriers, or cruisers had been sunk or even badly damaged.
Eclipse of the Rising Sun, 1942-1945
The IJN suffered its first setback in May 1942 at the Battle of Coral Sea, where the USN stopped Japanese preparatory moves to invade Australia. The IJN next moved against Midway Island, hoping to draw out the U.S. Pacific Fleet and destroy it. The Japanese plan, however, was overcomplicated. It included coordination of eight separate forces and a diversionary assault on the Aleutians. Planned as a battleship fight by Admiral Isoroku Yamamato, the USN was forced instead to rely on carrier strike forces. Japanese indecision and American boldness, enhanced by effective code-breaking (known as MAGIC in the Pacific), led to the loss of four Japanese carriers. Midway was the major turning point in the Pacific theater. After this battle, the USN and IJN were equal in carrier strength, but the United States could build at a much faster rate. From 1942 to 1945 the USN launched 17 fleet carriers and 42 escort carriers, whereas the Japanese launched only four, two of which were sunk on their maiden voyage. Japan also lost its best admiral when U.S. code-breaking led, in April 1943, to the shooting down of Yamamoto’s plane.
The Japanese compounded defeat at Midway by failing to build an adequate merchant marine or to pursue anti-submarine warfare to defend what they had. Constituting less than two percent of USN manpower, American submariners accounted for 55 percent of Japanese losses at sea, virtually cutting off Japan’s supply of oil and reducing imports by 40 percent. By the end of 1944 U.S. submarines had sunk half of Japan’s merchant fleet and two-thirds of its tankers.
Much difficult fighting on land and sea remained. The United States adopted a Twin-Axis strategy designed to give the army and navy equal roles. While General Douglas MacArthur advanced through New Guinea in the southwest Pacific, neutralizing the major Japanese base at Rabaul to prepare for the invasion of the Philippines, Admiral Chester Nimitz island-hopped through the central Pacific. Guadalcanal (Operation Watchtower) in the Solomons turned into a bloody battle of attrition from August 1942 to February 1943 that ultimately favored U.S. forces. Tarawa in the Gilberts (Operation Galvanic) was the first test of the Fleet Marine Concept (FMC) that shortened the logistical tail of the U.S. Pacific Fleet. U.S. landings nearly proved disastrous, however, when Japanese defenders inflicted 42 percent casualties on the invading force. But the USN and Marines learned from their mistakes, and subsequent island operations had high yet sustainable casualty rates.
Battles such as Tarawa highlighted the astonishing viciousness and racism of both sides in the Pacific, with Americans depicting Japanese as “monkeys” or “rats” to be exterminated. Reinforcing the fight-to-the-death nature of warfare was the Japanese warrior code of Bushido that considered surrender as dishonorable. Jungle warfare on isolated islands left little room for maneuver or retreat and bred claustrophobia and desperate last stands. Ruthlessness extended to the U.S. air campaign against Japan that included the firebombing of major cities such as Tokyo, where firestorms killed at least 83,000 Japanese and consumed 270,000 dwellings.
The U.S. invasion of Saipan in June 1944 led to the “Great Marianas Turkey Shoot” in which U.S. pilots shot down 243 of 373 attacking Japanese aircraft while losing only 29 aircraft. Most devastating to Japan was the irreplaceable loss of experienced pilots. To pierce American defenses, Japan employed suicide pilots or Kamikazes at the Battle of Leyte Gulf in October and in subsequent battles. Leyte Gulf in the Philippines was a decisive if close-run victory for the USN, since the IJN missed a golden opportunity to crush Allied landing forces. Costly U.S. campaigns in 1945 led to the capture of Iwo Jima in March and Okinawa in June before the United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August. Together with Soviet entry into the war against Japan, these atomic attacks convinced the Japanese Emperor to surrender, with formal ceremonies being held on the USS Missouri on 2 September 1945.
Japan’s unconditional surrender highlighted what had been a fundamental, and ultimately fatal, schism between the IJA and IJN. Whereas the IJA had focused on the Asian continent to neutralize China and the Soviet Union, the IJN had identified the United States and Britain as its principal enemies. The IJA had been more influential in Japanese politics and dominated Imperial general headquarters. Interservice rivalry led to haphazard coordination and bureaucratic infighting that degraded the Japanese war effort. Like their nominal allies the Germans, Japan had essentially engaged in a two-front war of exhaustion against foes possessing superior resources. IJA gains in the China-Burma-India theater had not been sustainable, especially as British, Chinese, and Indian forces learned to counter Japanese infantry tactics under the determined tutelage of William Slim, Orde Wingate, and “Vinegar Joe” Stilwell.
Technology and Medicine
World War II is known as the “physicist’s war” due to the success of the U.S./British/Canadian Manhattan Project that developed atomic bombs, as well as the invention and use of radar. Germany was especially innovative, developing the V-1 cruise missile and V-2 ballistic missile as “vengeance” weapons. While a remarkable technical achievement, the V-2 was ultimately a waste of precious resources. Its circular error probable (CEP) of 20 kilometers and small one-ton warhead made it little more than a deadly nuisance. Germany also developed the Me-262, the world’s first operational jet fighter, but its late deployment in small numbers had little impact on the air war. Less spectacular, but more telling, was the Allied emphasis on fielding large numbers of proven weapons, such as Soviet T-34 and U.S. M-4 Sherman tanks; aircraft such as P-51 long-range escort fighters and Lancaster four-engine bombers; and Higgins boats for amphibious operations.
Penicillin and DDT, both developed by the Allies, were the leading medical developments. Penicillin saved the lives of untold tens of thousands of wounded Allied troops, and DDT vastly reduced casualties due to mosquito-borne diseases in the Pacific. The Germans developed nerve gas but decided against employing it, apparently because they (wrongly) believed the Allies also had it. Unlike the previous world war, chemical weapons were rarely used. Finally, Allied code-breaking efforts such as ULTRA saw the development of primitive computers.
Legacies of the War
World War II saw the emergence of the United States and Soviet Union as superpowers. The resulting Cold War between them created a bi-polar world until the Soviet Union’s collapse in the early 1990s. With the end of the myth of Western superiority came the decline of colonial empires and the independence of countries such as India (1947). The war also resulted in the division of Germany (reunited in 1989) and the occupation and democratization of Japan; the creation of the United Nations and the state of Israel; and the rise of leaders formed in the crucible of war, such as Dwight D. Eisenhower and Charles de Gaulle. A vastly destructive war with tragic consequences, World War II nevertheless saw the demise of Hitler’s Third Reich, a regime based on mass slavery of “inferiors” and the categorical extermination of “undesirables” (Jews, Gypsies, the handicapped and mentally ill, etc.), as well as the overthrow of a Japanese regime that glorified militarism and justified slavery and racial discrimination on a massive scale.
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There he goes again. Donald Trump has insulted our French allies, apparently in retaliation for Emmanuel Macron’s sensible speech this past weekend that assailed nationalism as divisive and dangerous to world peace. In his retaliatory tweet today, the Trumpet had the following to say about France and its war effort in World Wars I and II:
Emmanuel Macron suggests building its own army to protect Europe against the U.S., China and Russia. But it was Germany in World Wars One & Two – How did that work out for France? They were starting to learn German in Paris before the U.S. came along. Pay for NATO or not!
Suggesting the French were learning German because they couldn’t or wouldn’t fight is more than insulting: it reveals Donald Trump’s utter ignorance of history.
First, consider World War I. The French lost roughly 1.4 million men in that war. More than any other country, France should be credited for defeating German militarism. Indeed, France served as America’s “arsenal of democracy” in that war, supplying U.S. troops with weaponry and helping to train them for war as well. The French, after all, had fought the war for nearly four years before American troops showed up in large numbers. Yes, the U.S. military helped to stiffen French and British resistance in 1918 and contributed to turning the tide toward victory, but overall France deserves tremendous credit and deep respect both for its victory and for the enormity of its sacrifice.
Now, let’s turn to World War II. It was the devastation of France in World War I (along with interwar political divisions and an overly defensive mentality) that contributed to its relatively quick defeat in World War II. Because of this defeat, France paid a high price indeed under German occupation. Some French people collaborated; many more resisted and paid for that resistance with their lives.
Trump insults the memory of millions of French men and women who died resisting German militarism in both world wars, and to what end? Just so he can score cheap points with his base by tweeting ignorant insults against an ally that fought side-by-side with Americans in both world wars?
The French, of course, helped to secure American independence in the 18th century, a favor you could say we repaid during the closing stages of World War I. And while World War II was a disaster for French arms, there was no lack of fighting spirit among major sectors of the French populace.
Suggesting the French were studying German because they were militarily inept until Americans rode to the rescue does more than a grave disservice to history. It gravely insults the French people. Such is the idiocy of Donald Trump.
The most powerful video I’ve watched about Memorial Day is this short essay by Andy Rooney at “60 Minutes.” Each time I watch it, I get choked up a bit.
Andy makes many excellent points in this video. He says those who die in wars don’t “give” their lives for their country; rather, their lives are taken from them. He reminds us that war is the least noble of humanity’s actions, even with the displays of courage and bravery that take place during it. Finally, he wishes for a different Memorial Day, not one in which we remember the dead, but one where we celebrate the end of war and the safety and security of our children.
Andy Rooney knew war, and close friends of his died in World War II. For me, this video both captures the spirit of Memorial Day while pointing the way forward to a better day in America.
Two more anecdotes from my dad’s war letters involve the nature of military life and the future of war. In June 1945 my dad wrote about female nurses assigned to his post at Fort Jackson, South Carolina. He noted that:
“The nurses on the Post have been going out with enlisted men. They [the authorities] are trying to stop it by breaking an enlisted man that has a rating & the nurses get fined $75.00. Nurses are commissioned officers & they [the authorities] don’t like officers going with enlisted men. [The] United States is supposed to be a free country so you can see how the Army is. I don’t think the nurses would break the regulation if there were more male officers on the post.”
$75.00 was a lot of money in 1945 (two weeks’ pay, roughly, for the nurses). And busting an enlisted man was a serious punishment as well. Even with the war won in Europe and demobilization already starting, the Army was not about to look the other way when its nurses engaged in almost trivial fraternization.
The second anecdote involves my dad’s speculation about the future of war. In March 1945 he watched a short movie on the German V-1 “buzz bomb,” an unguided cruise missile. My dad wrote that:
“In a movie short they showed the German V-1 robot, jet-propelled bomb. It’s really uncanny how the darn thing goes through the sky. Also showed the damage they caused, which is really terrific. If they have another war, after this one is finished, the United States won’t have to worry about sending troops overseas. With the progress that they could make in 20 years all we’ll have to do, also the attacking country is to send the flying bombs over the oceans and on to the targets. As long as the Allied nations stick together there shouldn’t be any more wars.”
Of course, the Allied countries didn’t stick together, and we’ve had plenty of wars since 1945. But my dad was partly right about war’s future. Think about how the U.S. has launched Tomahawk cruise missiles against various enemies in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere. The Tomahawk is essentially a much more sophisticated and guided version of the unguided V-1 cruise missiles pioneered by the Nazis in World War II.
A final comment: I like the way my dad assumed the U.S. would be the defending country in future wars. Note how he writes “also the attacking country” would use flying bombs. Sadly, the U.S. nowadays is usually the aggressor, even as the government couches its acts in terms of defense.
Today, America’s wars are endless, the troops are still overseas, but at least we live in a free country, right? And now America has the best flying robot bombs as well. The Nazis called these “vengeance” weapons; isn’t it wonderful today that the U.S. leads the world in making such weapons?
Every now and again I look over my dad’s letters from World War II. He was attached to an armored headquarters company that didn’t go overseas, but he had friends who did serve in Europe during and after the Battle of the Bulge in late 1944. Also, he had two brothers, one who served in Europe attached to a quartermaster (logistics) company in the Army, the other who served in the Pacific as a Marine.
Reading my dad’s letters and those from his friends and brothers, you get a sense of the costs of war. They mention friends who’ve been killed or wounded in action; for example, a soldier who lost both his legs when his tank ran over a mine. (His fellow soldiers took up a collection for him.) They talk about strange things they’ve seen overseas, e.g. German buzz bombs or V-1 rockets, a crude version of today’s cruise missiles. They look forward to furloughs and trips to cities such as Paris. They talk about bad weather: cold, snow, mud. They talk about women (my dad’s brother, Gino, met a Belgian girl that he wanted to marry, but it was not to be). But perhaps most of all, they look forward to the war’s end and express a universal desire to ditch the military for civilian life.
All of my dad’s friends wanted to get out of the military and restart their civilian lives. They didn’t want a military career — not surprising for draftees who thought of themselves as citizen-soldiers (emphasis on the citizen). In their letters, they never refer to themselves as “warriors” or “warfighters” or “heroes,” as our society is wont to do today when talking about the troops. War sucked, and they wanted no part of it. One guy was happy, as he put it, that the Germans were getting the shit kicked out of them, and another guy was proud his armored unit had a “take no prisoners” approach to war, but this animus against the enemy was motivated by a desire to end the war as quickly as possible.
Reading these letters written by citizen-soldiers of the “greatest generation” reminds me of how much we’ve lost since the end of the Vietnam War and the rise of the “all volunteer” military. Since the 9/11 attacks in particular, we’ve witnessed the rise of a warrior/warfighter ideal in the U.S. military, together with an ethos that celebrates all troops as “heroes” merely for the act of enlisting and putting on a uniform. My dad and his friends would have scoffed at this ethos — this idolization of “warriors” and “heroes” — as being foreign to a citizen-soldier military. Back then, the country that boasted most of warriors and heroes was not the USA: it was Nazi Germany.
Discarding the citizen-soldier ideal for a warrior ethos has been and remains a major flaw of America’s post-Vietnam military. It has exacerbated America’s transition from a republic to an empire, even as America’s very own wannabe Roman emperor, Donald Trump, tweets while America burns.
Men (and women) of the greatest generation served proudly if reluctantly during World War II. They fought to end the war as quickly as possible, and they succeeded. America’s endless wars today and our nation’s rampant militarization dishonor them and their sacrifices. If we wish to honor their service and sacrifice, we should bring our troops home, downsize our empire and our military budget, and end our wars.