The Lincoln Plawg - the blog with footnotes

Politics and law from a British perspective (hence Politics LAW BloG): ''People who like this sort of thing...'' as the Great Man said

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Sunday, June 06, 2004

Now the New York Times fantasises over World War 2

You'd have thought, with their experience with Iraqi WMD, Judith Miller and all, that Times editors would have broken with tradition and started actually reading the stuff that they put out.

Apparently not.

Roger Cohen pens a piece (June 5) from Colleville-sur-Mer, location of the Normandy American Cemetery, comparing and contrasting D-Day with the Iraq adventure, with special reference to current politics.

Now, ordinarily, piling on Bush for his vicious war is fine with me. But if brains have to rot in the process - not so much.

The lede, apparently remembrance boilerplate, is, in context, putrid:
The 9,387 marble headstones, most in the form of a cross, some in the form of a Star of David, provide a luminous tribute to American wartime sacrifice in France. The valor commemorated here is as clear and unsullied as the white of the stone.

Cohen slithers forth thus:
Perhaps such moral clarity at a time of a contested war is particularly alluring.

Now, it's certainly true that the 1944 invasion of Normandy and the 2003 invasion of Iraq are fundamentally different, and that USG weaselling to compare the two needs to be attacked.

However, one had rather do it by a demonstration of fact, rather than indulging in an equal and opposite fantasy to the Bushies'.

Use of the word valor inevitably reminds me of Falstaff's speech on honour in Henry IV Part One - and Wilfred Owen's Dulce et decorum est.

Which is not to say that acts of bravery did not occur; but is to say that the appropriation of the high-flown rhetoric of bravery for political purposes is as reprehensible as the acts themselves were laudable.

Just in case we've failed to catch his drift, Cohen keeps the pile-driver going:
"Who can find anything to say against the greatest generation?" asked Charles Maier, a Harvard historian. "That is reassuring in troubled times."

Now, I am very far from an expert on the invasion, a subject boasting umpteen experts. However, my interest piqued by the Cohen piece, I naturally do a little searching.

And come up with an article from the November 1960 Atlantic Monthly called First Wave at Omaha Beach by US Army historian SLA Marshall.

It has a striking feature lede:
UNLIKE what happens to other great battles, the passing of the years and the retelling of the story have softened the horror of Omaha Beach on D Day.

Marshall, as the lede promises, has the real dope to put the record straight:
In everything that has been written about Omaha until now, there is less blood and iron than in the original field notes covering any battalion landing in the first wave. Doubt it? Then let's follow along with Able and Baker companies, 116th Infantry, 29th Division. Their story is lifted from my fading Normandy notebook, which covers the landing of every Omaha company.

And he duly tells the story of these two companies.

About half-way down the piece, we get the following:
BAKER Company which is scheduled to land twenty-six minutes after Able and right on top of it, supporting and reinforcing, has had its full load of trouble on the way in...Outside the pall, nothing is to be seen but a line of corpses adrift, a few heads bobbing in the water and the crimson-running tide. But this is enough for the British coxswains. They raise the cry: "We can't go in there. We can't see the landmarks. We must pull off."

In the command boat, Captain Ettore V. Zappacosta pulls a Colt .45 and says: "By God, you'll take this boat straight in." His display of courage wins obedience, but it's still a fool's order...

Some Limeys, apparently, were valorous only with their backbones stiffened by a Yankee firearm pointing at their heads!

Now, it seems - caveat lector! - that Marshall's story fed into that of Mr Band of Brothers, Stephen Ambrose (D Day: June 6, 1944: The Climactic Battle of World War II).

Unfortunately, the Tale of the Cowardly Coxswains is disputed. A Dr. Kevan A. Elsby has eye-witness testimony - from Zappacosta's radio operator Bob Sales - that the stick-up never happened [1]. And, from what I've read, something of a prima facie case of fabulation is developing against Marshall more generally.

One should surely honour the complexities of the information available about the invasion, and the difficulties in analysing and elucidating them, rather than resorting to comforting bromides.

To highlight the extraordinary badness of the Iraq invasion - from the fairyland grand strategy of spreading democracy through war through to the incompetent logistics of the shortage of body-armour plates - does not require the whitewashing of US action in World War 2.

As I've mentioned before, the war in the Pacific was largely fought without quarter given on either side. Some of the greatest generation would cut off the ears of dead Japs for souvenirs.

And, in North Africa, follow the Operation Torch invasion of November 1942, the US prudentially cooperated with the Vichy Admiral Darlan, and made no fuss about the continuation of the anti-semitic laws. (AIPAC was not around to chi-ike, of course.) Very sensible - but nothing clear and unsullied about it.

One could say the same about the dropping of the A-bombs on Japan.

Cohen makes one or two useful discussion points:
  • Europe and the US have a natural divergence of interest, based on geography, history and culture; de Gaulle kept the flame burning through the deep-freeze of the Cold War, and now Russia is much diminished in power, pent-up frustrations can be unleashed.

  • Europe, with its double hecatomb in the 20th century, has had enough of war; the US, with its relatively slight losses, has not.

The US gives the appearance of being that very dangerous thing, an unsatisfied power [2]. It has energy to burn and a manifest destiny to fulfil. It is on the qui-vive for places to project its undoubted strength, and is unafraid to pull the tails of sleeping dogs.

And substituting Kerry in the top job is not going dramatically to affect those facts.

  1. It seems from this discussion that Elsby's father-in-law, Jimmy Green,
    was...the Royal Navy officer in command of the boats landing 1st Battalion 116th Infantry Regiment from the transport ship SS Empire Javelin.
    Elsby also says that
    it was...physically impossible for any soldier to point a gun at the head of the coxswain, who sat alone, protected in his armour plated cabin.
  2. How can the hyperpouvoir be unsatisfied?

    One might contrast the US position with that of the British towards the end of the 19th century: by no means as powerful as the US is today, in rapid relative economic decline, and with imperialist zealots like Cecil Rhodes - somewhat analgous to the neocons - looking for gold and glory in the most available continent. Which lead to the shambles that was the Boer War. How far the British weakness thus displayed contributed to motivating German expansionism, I know not.

    Being Top Nation is clearly not necessarily an appetite-suppressant. But, equally clearly, this analogy needs work!


A propos of the Normandy invasion, I mentioned a couple of times before the Sherman M-4 A-4 tank - the infamous Tommy cooker (October 17 2002 and September 29 2003).

So dismally bad were the Shermans issued to the British Army (the type issued to the Yanks was much better, apparently) in comparison to the enemy's machine, the Tiger, that it apparently took four Shermans to kill one Tiger, with three of the Shermans being blown up in the process.

How was the Tiger defeated? The Sherman may have been crappy, but American factories were churning them out at such a rate that, even at that kill ratio, the Germans more or less ran out of Tigers.

Pity about the boys inside those shoddy Shermans, though. Dulce et decorum?


Another piece challenging the product and methods of SLA Marshall. Piquantly, its lede checks a piece in Roger Cohen's own paper:
"Historian's Pivotal Assertion On Warfare Assailed as False" read the headline in a story featured on the front page of the New York Times on February 19, 1989. The subject of the story was Brigadier General S.L.A. Marshall, one of the most influential military historians of the twentieth century, most famous for claiming that a majority of American foot soldiers failed to fire their weapons in combat during World War II. The Times story was based on an upcoming article in American Heritage by Frederic Smoler, an historian at Sarah Lawrence.

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