Capstones | 6.6.14
By Alan W. Dowd
As they do every five or so years when the calendar turns to
6 June, presidents and prime ministers are descending
on Normandy to commemorate the D-Day landings. They will intone about the
price of freedom, draw parallels between today and yesterday, and somehow try
to associate themselves with the heroes of Normandy. Of course, the more
someone learns about D-Day, the clearer it becomes how unique that day and the
men who lived it were.
Just consider Gen. Marshall’s
orders to Gen. Eisenhower: “Cross the channel, enter the heartland of Germany and free the continent of Europe.” To secure that mammoth
objective, Gen. Eisenhower hurled 160,000 men, 6,000-plus ships, 2,300 planes
and 840 gliders across the English Channel. The U.S. element of the invasion
force lost 2,500
dead in the first 24 hours—more than the United States has lost in
Afghanistan in 13 years.
That’s how enormous and momentous
and staggering in scope D-Day was—and remains 70 years later. Not surprisingly,
it offers lessons for today.
First, deterring war is preferable to the alternatives:
waging war or surrendering liberty. The past 2,000 years of history illustrate
that peace through strength works. It’s far less costly in treasure and blood
than scrambling to respond to aggression, rescue fallen continents or recover
lost freedoms. For evidence, compare the costs of liberating Europe, North
Africa and the Pacific Basin with the costs of deterring the Red Army.
Of course, if the sequestration guillotine falls with
full force, much of America’s deterrent strength will be sacrificed. As
Washington hacks away at the big stick, China’s military-related spending has grown 170 percent in the past decade, giving it
the confidence and capability to challenge America’s once-unquestioned primacy
in the Pacific; and Russia, in the midst of a 108-percent increase in military
spending, is trying to reverse the once-settled outcomes of the Cold War.
Second, alliances are important. D-Day involved American, British, Canadian and
French forces. On this foundation of alliances, the Atlantic Charter was
written, Hitler and Tojo were defeated, the Berlin Airlift was launched and
West Berlin saved, Germany and Japan were rehabilitated, NATO was built, and
the Cold War was won. Today, as Moscow redraws Europe’s map, the NATO alliance is
as important as ever. Indeed, there’s a reason Putin has dismembered Georgia
and Ukraine with impunity while keeping his hands off the Baltics and Poland.
That reason is NATO. However, if NATO’s members don’t start taking NATO’s
all-for-one collective defense clause seriously—and soon—one wonders how long Putin will.
A third D-Day lesson comes courtesy of the man who commanded
the invasion force. The night before the landings, Gen. Eisenhower scribbled a
short note that spoke volumes about its author. “Our landings in the
Cherbourg-Havre area have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold, and I have
withdrawn the troops,” the general of generals wrote. “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.”
Ike’s words are a study in responsibility and leadership. As NPR’s Scott Simon observes,
“It’s telling to see today where Eisenhower made changes in his note. He
crossed out ‘This particular operation’ to write ‘My decision to attack,’ which
is emphatic and personal. And he drew a long, strong line under ‘mine alone.’”
Gen. Eisenhower’s letter is a striking contrast from what
passes for leadership, responsibility and courage nowadays: public servants
hiding inside legal labyrinths to avoid responsibility; “courageous”
whistleblowers fleeing to Russia rather than taking a stand in the open; billion-dollar
bailouts and multi-million-dollar memoirs rather than consequences for bad corporate
or public policy; policymakers blaming the other party or their predecessors for
their own failures.
Fourth, some things are worth fighting for (or against). The
hard truth is that we’re in the midst of a war. It may a different kind of war,
but as in 1944, it’s a battle for our way of life, for freedom, for
civilization itself. Too many of our countrymen fail to grasp this. Instead, they
try to airbrush“war” out of our lexicon, even as Americans fight and die in battle; speak of
“man-caused disasters” rather than terrorism; convince themselves that words—“the receding tide of war,” “leading from
behind,” “red lines,” the “Pacific Pivot,” “bring back our girls”—are somehow equal to actions; talk of deploying troops to
defend “our vital national interest” in the same breath as promisingto begin withdrawing troops. It’s difficult
to imagine FDR putting an expiration date on “our vital national
interest” on, say, D-Day Plus 10—or perhaps a better parallel, Ike or JFK
announcing plans to withdrawU.S. forces from West Berlin or South Korea.
Fifth, America remains
indispensable. No country enfolds the full spectrum of power (economic,
military, cultural) and embraces
universally appealing attributes (political pluralism, rule of law, economic
opportunity, cultural openness) like the United States. To be sure, some
countries possess some of these attributes, but only the United States enfolds
all of them. No matter what the declinists say, this confluence of strengths
gives the United States an edge in the 21st century. No matter what the
isolationists say, this confluence of strengths gives the United States a
special responsibility to serve as civilization’s first responder and last line
of defense. And no matter what those who yearn for a “post-American world” say,
this confluence of strengths makes America indispensable and exceptional.
That leads to a sixth and final D-Day lesson.
Americans have every reason to be patriotic and proud about yesterday—and
optimistic about tomorrow. Sadly, the patriotic optimism
so characteristic of the World War II Generation is something many of their
children seem to scorn and many of their grandchildren and great-grandchildren simply
With their blood and sweat, the
heroes of Omaha Beach and Utah Beach freed a continent. Most of us will never grasp
what it cost to preserve our freedom, what they
endured, what they saw, what they left on the battlefield, what they carried home. Of course, hundreds of
thousands of them never made it home. But those who did would build “The American Century.” The least we can do in return is to revive the free-enterprise system they handed down to us,
keep our word in international
dealings and defend those who defend us.
If we do
these things, the 21st century will be another American century. If we don’t,
it will be shaped by someone else. For
a preview of what that might look like, take a glance at what’s happening in Eastern
Europe and the Western Pacific.
Capstones is the publication of the Sagamore Institute Center for
America’s Purpose, where Dowd researches and writes on America's role in the world.