Jewish World Review Dec. 27, 2004 / 15 Teves, 5765
Call off the scalp hunt
The intelligence failure was massive - and fatal. Warned repeatedly that the enemy was preparing an attack, the U.S. military's high command insisted that was impossible. When the attack came, it was exactly where the warnings said it would be.
Because they were unprepared, thousands of American soldiers died needlessly.
That could be a story line from Iraq - but it's not. It's a summary of one of the biggest military blunders in American history - the Battle of the Bulge, which started 60 years ago. Before it was over, Hitler's desperate bid to break out of Germany in December 1944 claimed 80,000 American casualties, including 16,000 dead.
And still we honor as heroes Dwight Eisenhower and the other commanders who insisted no attack was coming.
Watching the story of the Battle of the Bulge on PBS recently, I could not help but think of Iraq and the growing criticism of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.
Although President Bush has defended Rumsfeld and asked him to stay in the cabinet, the drumbeat for his scalp is growing. Even Republican senators, including John McCain of Arizona and Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, both Vietnam vets, have signaled they have had enough.
They joined the Dump Rummy cause after two missteps by the secretary: First, on a trip to Iraq, he came off as insensitive to a G.I. who complained troops had to search scrap heaps to "up-armor" their vehicles. And then word leaked that Rumsfeld's office used an Autopen to sign his name on condolence letters to families who lost a soldier.
There's no defending Rumsfeld on either case. He seems almost proud of his tin-ear arrogance, and so he deserves a slap upside the head. Maybe it will wake him up.
But I wonder - does he deserve to be fired? And most important, what good would it do for our troops and our cause in Iraq?
Which brings me back to the Battle of the Bulge. America won that war, and so the commanders are hailed as heroes and liberators. But the loss of life from the blunder and from other World War II mistakes - such as friendly fire on D-Day - make Iraq look like a picnic.
Consider that the total American deaths so far in Iraq are about 1,325 - a number surpassed on single days in December and January of 1944. And those Bulge losses don't count the troops who had to be removed from the front because their feet froze solid in inferior boots.
As the PBS special on "The American Experience" showed in shocking detail, many of the young soldiers sent to stop Hitler's final push had little ammunition and less training. And in a section that would bring criminal charges today, participants described drugging shell-shocked soldiers, then slapping them into obedient trances so they could be sent back to the front, where most were little more than cannon fodder. Watching those confessions - and films of G.I.s being abused by their own medics - made my blood boil.
I have no brief for Rumsfeld. He ran a brilliant war to topple Saddam Hussein, but almost nothing since has gone right. The prospects for success, for a safe, stable Iraq, are iffy at best. He's in charge, so he gets the blame.
But who would do better? And what would a new defense boss do differently?
I'll join the chorus when I get good answers to those questions.
Until then, it's worth remembering that there has never been a flawless commander. The fog of war envelops them all at some point.
It's also a fact that in war it doesn't matter how you play the game. It only matters whether you win or lose. Glory awaits the victor. President Eisenhower proved that.
Michael Goodwin is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for the New York Daily News Comment by clicking here.
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