Friday, October 12, 2012

Liveblogging Smith on Ike:
Cannons to Right of Them, Cannons to Left of Them

I had a chance to audioread another chunk of Jean Edward Smith's Eisenhower last night.  We've moved now from 1942 to early 1944 by which time Ike is back in London getting ready for the main event.  In the standard reading, this is a narrative of slow, steady progress: North Africa, then Sicily, then Italy, then...Yet my dominant thought is: what a mass of cockups, or near cockups.  Migawd, the number of things that went wrong, or could have gone wrong.   

Start with the real heart-stopper:  D-day itself, and the plan therefor.  The focus for the moment is not Ike himself but his boss and protector, the incorruptible and saintly George C. Marshall.  Now I have long counted myself a big Marshall fan and remain so but here's the thing: Marshall was one--perhaps chief--of the party who wanted it to happen in 1942.    C'mon, hurry up, no time-wasting, Hitler is the main event, let's go for him.

And what a catastrophic blunder this would have been.  By just about all the evidence, we weren't remotely ready to take on Hitler at that point, and couldn't possibly have been so by summer.  And ironically it was Churchill--Churchill, the great romantic, the risk-taker--who put the kibosh on the plan.  Churchill remembered Dunkirk; he remembered Dieppe; ironically perhaps most of all he remembered Gallipoli, one of the darkest stains on his on career, and he (at least) understood just how dangerous a coastal invasion might be.  Had Marshall prevailed--well, let's just say we would have had a very different war.

As I say the focus here was not Ike per se, but the decision had huge consequences for Ike's career/  Thing is, grant that there would be no European invasion--still, Roosevelt felt strongly that he had to do something, to reassure the voters; he couldn't just let the Army sit on its duff for a couple of years.   And so we find ourselves in one of the most irrelevant campaigns ever fought: the whole North Africa business, which was a surreal sort of sideshow from the very beginning.   "Sideshow," in the sense, for starters, that Hitler should never have let himself get sucked into it: North Africa had exactly nothing to do with his grand strategy; all it did was suck away precious resources.   "Sideshow" also in the sense that the Allies felt no military necessity to win it: the dominant purpose was to reassure the public.    Grant that it did make life inconvenient for Hitler; still I suspect that would have seemed like a pretty insipid reason to the boots on the ground.

North Africa was, of course, Ike's first real command, and here we come to a greater irony (Smith calls it "luck").  Specifically: by only a mid exaggeration, you could say that Ike won the North African command precisely because Marshall didn't expect the campaign to happen: since it was paper only, why worry about who is in charge.

Which beings us to the next question: how'd he do?  The charitable answer would have to be:  about as well as Obama did in the first Romney debate.  Ike, the consummate staff man, seemed to have all the problems you would expect for a newbie learning how to lead an Army in the field.  The landing was a mess (a committee job, it appears); the Allies misjudged the Germans at every turn;  we remember now (if at all) for one of the great field disasters of the war: the Battle of Kasserine Pass, in Tunisia.  Per Smith, the  Allies prevailed in North Africa by their one inarguable trump card: overwhelming material advantage.  They could (and did) throw money, men and materiel into the field in dimensions that the Germans couldn't begin to match.

On to Sicily.  The landing here goes better and the battle went, on the whole, pretty well.  Smith doesn't address the question of how much Ike was culpable for the fact that Patton went off on a frolic of his own rather than standing tough at the side of Montgomery in front of Mount Etna.  But he does point to one glaring deficiency: how completely the Allies dropped the ball in letting Kesselring escape scot-free onto the mainland with his entire force--men and equipment--intact.  We remember Ike as the great planner but this seems to be a planning error of the first order.

And then Italy.  I think just about everyone agrees now that the Italian campaign is an embarrassment in American military history: poor in planning, lackluster in execution.  Taking Italy (which might have been a bad idea in the first place) surely proved more costly than planners had predicted--in resources, but also in time.  And at the end--no, midway, long before the end--Ike moves on to the much more awesome responsibiilty as director of the Normandy invasion.

 Whew.   It's a wonder we won at all, seeing as how our leader was a man who couldn't tie our shoes in the morning.  Oh, no, of course not.   Do I cook the books?  Oh yes, of course.  At the end of the day I still think--and so does Smith--that Ike was an extraordinary leader of near-indispensable abilities, just the right man for a job that few if any others could have carried off.  And even if you accept my catalog of misbegotten enterprise, you can put a positive spin on it: Ike's errors in North Africa (at least), with more charity also in Sicily and Italy, can count as rookie errors: one reason the Normandy campaign went so well is precisely because of the things that had gone wrong earlier, and because of Ike's capacity to learn from them (Genghis Khan once accidentally drowned his own army--didn't make that mistake again).

My larger point, though, is twofold.  One: you make decisions, you make mistakes.  No one's career is blemish-free, and the more decisions you make, the more mistakes.   The trick is to learn from them.  Ike probably never heard of Samuel Beckett, but we can read Ike as a textbook instance of Beckett's counsel to "try again, fail better." And two: there is absolutely nothing like good luck.  Patton remarked on Ike's luck with admiration and a touch of rueful envy.  Napoleon said luck was his first requisite in a general.   Victories like the Allies' in Europe necessarily (inevitably?) take on an air of inevitability on the rear view mirror.  But here as in so many cases, it is probably worthwhile to remember Wellington's verdict on his victory at Waterloo: a damn near run thing.

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