Friday, January 28, 2011

5. Crusade in Europe by Dwight D. Eisenhower

I'm having a hard time getting this post out. I'm a bit rusty! I've been busy with the new year, but it was also this 487 page tome that has been occupying my reading these last couple of weeks.

I don't know what spurred me on to my sudden Eisenhower kick a few months ago, but it led me to Crusade in Europe, which is his account of the allied forces involvement and victory in World War Two. He wrote it three years after the end of the war, so the events were still fresh in his mind (it also heavily cited and documented as well) and many of the politics that took centre stage during his presidency were only then beginning to gestate.

First of all, World War Two is mindblowing. For those of us who grew up with the last cultural remnants of that period (Time Life books, Hogan's Heroes, Sergeant Rock comics, old war movies on Saturday morning), it is sort of a basic part of our upbringing and you almost take it for granted. I did also benefit from a pretty thorough education about the Holocaust as a child, whose impact never really became trivialized in my own consciousness. I truly hope that the next generations are learning this history as well. All of us should try not to forget the incredible scale of the war. Pretty much the entire globe (certainly all the white people) were fighting. What this book brings home, though, is the sheer scale of the logistics and even more amazing is how it was succesfully managed by a relatively small command group (led by Eisenhower) reporting back to their governments, dealing with all the competing political and military interests. Eisenhower's main point is that it was crucial that one person be put in charge. An interesting thesis and one I do not have the space (nor the knowledge) to get into here.

Another element that I found gratifying and yet frustrating, was the social consciousness and general common sense Eisenhower displays in this book. It's gratifying because it is nice to be reminded that the general zeitgeist in America was once one of generosity and awareness of the rest of the world instead of the selfish consumerism and fear-based anger that dominates her thinking today (not that that stuff wasn't around back then, as it has always been a feature of U.S. history, but it was way less severe). For instance, Eisenhower was totally against censorship in the military. Only in a few instances did he hide information from the press. On the contrary, he let them in early on information on many major attacks with the understanding that they wouldn't publish the info until it couldn't harm the allies' effort (and which except in one single instance, that of the Germans surrendering, the press followed loyally). He also dedicated precious military resources to make sure that any reporters got driven and escorted to wherever they wanted to go on the battle lines.

I believed that the proper attitude of the commander toward represnentatives of the press was to regard them as quasi staff officers; to recognize their mission in the war and to assist them in carrying it out. Normally the only justifiable excuse for censorship is the necessity to withhold valuable infommation that the enemy could not otherwise obtain. during the war I personally violated this general rule by imposing temporary political censorship in North Africa and by withholding advance notice of the eventual command arrangements in Normandy. Though my reasons, on both occasions, seemed valid to me, I never failed to regret what later proved to be a mistake.

In Word War II the great body of the American and British press representatives comprised an intelligent, patriotic, and energetic group of individuals. They could, with complete safety and mutual advantage, be taken into the confidence of the commander. When this was done the press body itself became the best possible instrument for the disciplining of an individual who violated any confidence or code under which the group was operating. Throughout the campaigns in the Mediterranean and Europe, I found that correspondents habitually responded to candor, frankness, and understanding.

In the handling of the press, the American practice was to provide every facility that would permit an individual to go wherever he wanted, whenever he wanted. While this imposed upon us some additional administrative burdens, it paid off in big dividends because of the conviction in the minds of all that there was no attempt to conceal error and stupidity. These, when discovered, could be promptly aired and therefore did not grow in the the festering sores that would have resulted from any attempt at concealment. (page 300)

How mindblowing is that? I wonder what Cheney and the rest of Bush's administration thought of when they read that (assuming they actually knew any American history)? Even the basic idea of admitting fault, of admitting that there was error and stupidity at times seems lost to government and corporations and even individuals in America today.

Here's another amazing passage that really struck me:

Once the recruit of 1941 was inducted into the service the military leader had to shoulder almost exclusive responsibility for imparting such an understanding, but there was implied a glaring deficiency in our country's educational process. It seemed to me that constant stressing of the individual's rights and privileges of American citizenship had overshadowed the equally important truth that such individualism can be sustained only as long as the citizen accepts his full responsibility for the welfare of the nation that protects him in the exercise of these rights.

Every stupid teabagger and every entitled Liberal (and pretty much every Canadian as well for that matter) should read those words and think about them.

I could go and on about this book. I'll just say that it was a great read on many levels. It's a bit plain in style and at times gets a bit slow with a page or two on troops moving into position, but that never lasts more than a page or two. The story itself is astounding and followng it from the top is fascinating, enjoyable and educational. I would also recommend this book for anyone interested in leadership. Some great advice here on handling multiple allies, on maintaining morale in the people under you, in being direct, straight and respectful of your colleagues and subordinates. Overall, I found it inspiring and just kind of mind-blowing. You should read it.


Lantzvillager said...

Very interesting to read a book written by one of the major players in the conflict. I have always wanted something by Churchill but this sounds as though it might be a good alternative.

caropops said...

This is a terrific review. I have been thinking about the Holocaust lately in a much more human way. It's grotesque in its awfulness.