- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 28, 2008



The Christmas season, devoted to charity and peace, is also the anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge during the World War II.

Since our national election in November, President-elect Barack Obama has reiterated campaign pledges to withdraw forces from Iraq, while devoting renewed effort to the vexing insurgency in Afghanistan. Do lessons of that earlier war apply to these current conflicts? Absolutely.

On Dec. 16, 1944, in freezing weather, Nazi Germany suddenly launched an enormous military offensive through the Ardennes Forest in Belgium. This had been a quiet sector of the western front. Berlin achieved total surprise and initially German forces gained considerable ground. For many Europeans, the attack was eerily reminiscent of 1940, when German forces quickly overran France and secured Nazi domination of the continent. At Supreme Commander Dwight Eisenhower’s headquarters, fear was visible along with alarm.

The tide of battle did not clearly turn until Gen. George S. Patton’s 3rd Army broke through to the 101st Airborne Division, surrounded in the crossroads town of Bastogne, on the day after Christmas. The overall battle continued into the New Year before the Allies could claim clear victory and begin the final offensive into Germany.

Other battles in our history were in some respects more costly or complicated. During the Civil War, Gettysburg and others resulted in higher percentages of casualties among combatants. During the World War II, such enormous amphibious invasions as Normandy, Iwo Jima and Leyte Gulf in the Philippines were inherently more complex than the Bulge in logistical terms. In the European theater of World War II, fighting on the eastern front between the Germans and Russians generally dwarfed that in the west.

Nonetheless, in American history the Battle of the Bulge remains our largest single land battle. Approximately a quarter of a million United States troops were engaged. Casualties on both sides were enormous, in both men and material. The Allies could replace them; the Germans at that point could not.

Perhaps the basic lesson of the Bulge is the essential need for realism in addressing the enormous strain of war. Eisenhower’s skills included remarkable capacity to get disparate and difficult people to work together, plus constant attention to logistics and supply. These finally blunted the initial German advantage of surprise.

Patton was always controversial, in part for demanding strict discipline. Yet he immediately, instinctively recognized the great threat represented by the Ardennes attack, and 3rd Army troops performed with monumental ability, moving rapidly over difficult terrain in terrible winter weather.

At the level of the individual soldier, Cpl. Henry F. Warner knocked out two German tanks near Dom Butgenbach, Belgium, before his weapon jammed. Cpl. Warner then fired his pistol at a third approaching tank, when the German driver suddenly backed up and withdrew. One of Warner’s shots had killed the commander, and the crew was unable to continue, a fairly common reaction by German and Japanese troops in that war. American, British and other Allied soldiers were much more likely to improvise and carry on after their officers were hit. Warner, killed in later fighting, received the Congressional Medal of Honor.

Great material and individual human resources continue to characterize the United States, and our leaders should be evaluated in by how they appreciate and employ them in contemporary military efforts. Comprehensive detailed planning and discipline have not characterized the Bush White House. Meanwhile, this holiday season we should give thanks that we are not facing threats on the scale of the World War II.

Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College. This article was distributed by Scripps Howard News Service.

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