A Lesson from History
Within the stark building that houses the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa – perhaps the most anti-war war museum I’ve ever visited – is a relatively small exhibit devoted to one of the greatest blunders of the Second World War – the 6,000 man raid on the French port city of Dieppe in 1942.
Canadian bravery on the beaches of Dieppe is celebrated in the exhibit, not so the nearly criminal decision making that brought about the disaster.
As the photo nearby gruesomely explains, the Dieppe Raid – poorly conceived, horribly lacking from a strategy and planning perspective, and in no way adequately supported by naval and air forces – cost the lives of more than 1,000 brave Canadian infantrymen and British Marines in the space of a few short hours. Another 2,300 men were captured on the beaches in front of Dieppe and hundreds more of the wounded were evacuated back to England. The then-new British tank, the Churchill, saw action for the first time at Dieppe and most of the armor was left burning and destroyed as the survivors fought desperately to shed their weapons, get back to landing craft and escape across the English Channel.
In the annals of historic military disasters, Dieppe ranks high – or, perhaps, low.
What didn’t go wrong at Dieppe was the bravery of the mostly Canadian troops who went ashore at first light on the 19th of August. What did go wrong was the planning, larded with hubris, that marked virtually every step on the way to the death of so many of those brave men. No historian of the Raid has ever questioned the courage and resolve of the Canadians and to this day Dieppe conjures up a particularly melancholy memory among those who remember the sacrifice. Those who conceived and ordered the Raid have, in the fullness of time, been found wanting at every turn.
As historian Robin Neillands has written in his story of the raid: “If common sense had ruled the day rather than hubris,the Raid would either have been cancelled or the plans drastically revised. It was not one of those operations that begin well and then deteriorate. It failed from the very first moment the troops stepped ashore and got worse thereafter.”
Only later, as Neillands points out, was the Dieppe adventure justified – by Lord Louis Mountbatten, among others – as a trial run for the Normandy invasion in 1944. In none of the pre-Raid discussions had that rationale ever emerged as a reason for landing at Dieppe. Only later did it also become clear that virtually all of the assumptions made by the planners of the Raid were wrong. They underestimated German military strength and capability. They casually rejected what turned out to be the absolute necessity of naval and air support for the landings. And, amazingly, very senior British and Canadian military men and their civilian bosses dismissed the complexity of getting men and equipment both on and off a beach, under intense enemy fire, and all in the space of one high tide.
What was fundamentally wrong at Dieppe – and to draw the historical parallel to the current debate about the next steps in Afghanistan – was a sound, achievable objective. The Raid had no real purpose. At a time when British troops had suffered setback after setback, and before American GI’s were engaged in combat anywhere, the Raid would apparently prove that offensive action against the German Army was possible. As a result, the effort to put Allied troops on a French beach took on a life – and death – of its own as political and military leaders made the worst possible mistakes. They assumed that in war the best will happened and they planned for the obvious, not the possible. In the end, the planners of the Dieppe Raid failed, at any point, to stop, question, assess and ask the awkward question – including the most basic question – what are we trying to accomplish?
It is difficult to tell from the news coverage of the current Afghanistan strategy review – coverage heavily influenced by political calculations from the White House, the Congress and the last administration, particularly Dick Cheney – what is really being considered. Is our Afghan mission to destroy Al-Qaeda (and capture or kill the elusive Bin Laden), are we trying to defeat the Taliban, are we trying to prop up and then reform a corrupt Afghan regime, or are we trying to bring a 21st Century democracy to a tribal nation that, by most accounts, has never had a stable central government?
Not unlike the questions that should have confronted those who conceived the Raid on Dieppe in 1942, the questions in Washington today are simple to ask, but very hard to answer: What are we trying to accomplish and what must be done to realistically achieve success?
None of this is to question the bravery or commitment of the soldiers, airmen and Marines deployed – and likely deployed in the future – to Afghanistan. The troops will try to do whatever is asked of them without question. Leaders must have the wisdom and cold-eyed clarity to ask them to achieve objectives that really are possible and not based on fuzzy strategy or mere wishful thinking.
The great military historian B.H. Liddell Hart once wrote: “Throwing good money after bad is foolish. But to throw away men’s lives where there is no reasonable chance of advantage is criminal.”
With due respect to the former vice president, trying to get a strategy right is hardly dithering. In fact, it is altogether fitting and proper to question, debate and analyze before committing men and women to battle, or continuing battle. If there is any enduring lesson from the last half century of American military deployments it must be that asking and answering the “what are we really trying to do” question is essential.
After the Dieppe Raid had come to a disastrous end after just a few hours on the killing ground of that narrow French beach, a German interrogator said to one of the Canadian prisoners: “Too big for a raid, too small for an invasion…what were you trying to do?”
That is a very good question – always – when American troops are sent to war. What are we trying to do? A little dithering (or thinking) in the interest of developing a real strategy – a strategy with a chance to realistically succeed – can be a very good thing. Let’s hope we get it right.