Wars: Not Glorious, Ever

Revisionists challenge D-Day story
By Hugh Schofield / June 5, 2009

A revisionist theme seems to have settled on this year’s 65th anniversary commemoration of the Normandy landings.

The tone was set in Antony’s Beevor’s new book, D-Day, which tries to debunk certain received ideas about the Allied campaign.

Far from being an unmitigated success, Mr Beevor found, the landings came very close to going horribly wrong.

And far from being universally welcomed as liberators, many troops had a distinctly surly reception from the people of Normandy.

The reason for this was simple. Many Normandy towns and villages had been literally obliterated by Allied bombing.

The bombardment of Caen, Mr Beevor said, could almost be considered a war-crime (though he later retracted the comment).

Many historians will retort that there is nothing new in Mr Beevor’s account.

Harrowing experience

After all, the scale of destruction is already well-established.

Some 20,000 French civilians were killed in the two-and-a-half months from D-Day, 3,000 of them during the actual landings.

In some areas – like the Falaise pocket where the Germans were pounded into oblivion at the end of the campaign – barely a building was left standing and soldiers had to walk over banks of human corpses.

As for the destruction of Caen, it has long been admitted that it was militarily useless.

The Germans were stationed to the north of the city and were more or less untouched.

Twenty-five years ago, in his book Overlord, Max Hastings had already described it as “one of the most futile air attacks of the war.”

Though these revisionist accounts were written elsewhere, it is in France that these ideas strike more of a chord today.

It is not as if the devastation wrought by the Allies is not known – it is just that it tends not to get talked about.

And yet for many families who lived through the war, it was the arrival and passage of British and American forces that was by far the most harrowing experience.

“It was profoundly traumatic for the people of Normandy,” said Christophe Prime, a historian at the Peace Memorial in Caen.

“Think of the hundreds of tons of bombs destroying entire cities and wiping out families. But the suffering of civilians was for many years masked by the over-riding image – that of the French welcoming the liberators with open arms.”

‘Sullen’ welcome

According to Prime, it was during the 60th anniversary commemoration five years ago that the taboo first began to lift.

At town meetings across Normandy, witnesses – now on their 70s – spoke of the terrible things they had seen as children.

At the same time an exhibition at the Caen memorial displayed letters from Allied servicemen speaking frankly about their poor reception by locals.

That too was an eye-opener for many Normandy people.

For example, Cpl LF Roker of the Highland Light Infantry is quoted in another new book about the civilian impact of the campaign, Liberation, The Bitter Road to Freedom, by William Hitchcock.

“It was rather a shock to find we were not welcomed ecstatically as liberators by the local people, as we were told we should be… They saw us as bringers of destruction and pain,” Mr Roker wrote in his diary.

Another soldier, Ivor Astley of the 43rd Wessex Infantry, described the locals as “sullen and silent… If we expected a welcome, we certainly failed to find it.”

Sexual violence

In his book, Mr Hitchcock raises another issue that rarely features in euphoric folk-memories of liberation: Allied looting, and worse.

“The theft and looting of Normandy households and farmsteads by liberating soldiers began on June 6 and never stopped during the entire summer,” he writes.

One woman – from the town of Colombieres – is quoted as saying that “the enthusiasm for the liberators is diminishing. They are looting… everything, and going into houses everywhere on the pretext of looking for Germans.”

Even more feared, of course, was the crime of rape – and here too the true picture has arguably been expunged from popular memory.

According to American historian J Robert Lilly, there were around 3,500 rapes by American servicemen in France between June 1944 and the end of the war.

“The evidence shows that sexual violence against women in liberated France was common,” writes Mr Hitchcock.

“It also shows that black soldiers convicted of such awful acts received very severe punishments, while white soldiers received lighter sentences.”

Of 29 soldiers executed for rape by the US military authorities, 25 were black – though African-Americans did not represent nearly so high a proportion of convictions.

Happy and thankful

So why did the “bad” side of the Allied liberation tend to disappear from French popular consciousness?

The answer of course is that the overwhelming result of the Allied campaign was a positive one for the whole of France.

It was hard for the people of Normandy to spoil the national party by complaining of their lot.

The message from on-high was sympathetic but clear: we know you have suffered, but the price was worth it. Most people agreed and were silent.

In addition, open criticism of British and American bombings raids had long been a hallmark of French collaboration.

In Paris – which, it is often forgotten, was itself bombed by the British – pro-German groups staged ceremonies to commemorate the victims, and the “crimes” of the Allies were excoriated in the press.

After the war, abusing the Allies would have seemed like siding with the defeated and the dishonoured.

Of course, in some communities the devastation was never forgotten.

There are villages in Normandy where until recently the 6 June celebrations were deliberately shunned, because the associations were too painful.

And on the ideological front, there have been intellectuals of both left and right who justified their anti-Americanism by recalling the grimmer aspects of the French campaign – like the “cowardly” way the Americans bombed from high altitude, or their reliance on heavy armour causing indiscriminate civilian casualties.

But in general, France has gone along with the accepted version of the landings and their aftermath – that of a joyful liberation for which the country is eternally grateful.

That version is the correct one. France was indeed freed from tyranny, and the French were both happy and thankful.

But it is still worth remembering that it all came at a cost.

Source / BBC News

Thanks to Deva Wood / The Rag Blog

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8 Responses to Wars: Not Glorious, Ever

  1. Steve Russell says:

    There’s some odd shit here.

    “Reliance on heavy armor?” Excuse me? Reliance on the Sherman tank, called by it’s drivers the Ronson “because it lights every time.” Look up the number of tankers killed on our side v. the Germans. Their heavy armor ate our tin cans alive. We won because we had more of them.

    Rape? You bet, and we prosecute rapists.

    Stalin, on the other hand, defended rape publicly.

    Racism in military justice? You bet. That was a time of racism in CIVILIAN justice, and as one who works in the contemporary justice system I would argue that we are nowhere near flushing the racism out of it.

    And that is relevant how to whether beating Hitler was a heroic enterprise and whether the people who did it were heroes?

    I don’t doubt that Leonidas probably had some unsavory characteristics, and some of them might not even be bound to his contemporary culture. But to Spartans then and Greeks since, he was a hero. With good reason, I say.

  2. richard jehn says:

    What makes it possible for a nation (or a person) to grow is constant reassessment of its history. It is arrogant to believe that the end justifies the means, and that “the people who did it were heroes.”

    As I said in the headline, “Wars: not glorious, ever,” despite what Americans may think of the outcome of World War II. It was not glorious – it was ugly and murderous, the same as every other war in history.

  3. Steve Russell says:

    True in a sense, Richard. I agree to the extent of knee jerk opposing any use of military force unless and until I’m shown a very good reason. We will have to disagree if you don’t think stopping Hitler was a good reason.

    But every culture in the history of humankind has had to fight wars…or not be here.

    If Leonidas decides to run, all of history is different. For good or evil is speculation but his descendants have an opinion.

    The Germans had a culture that was impressive in many ways…ditto the Japanese and the Italians. But they were off the rails such that they were a danger to everybody.

    I would support stopping them nonviolently.

    Since that was not an option at the time, I express my gratitude to those who gave up their lives so I can have mine.

  4. b.f. says:

    A book that was published over 15 years ago (long before the BBC News or the U.S. Big Media Monopoly apparently were willing to publicize this fact much), The French Resistance by Frida Knight, also included some references to the civilian casualties caused by the U.S. war machine’s on D-Day:

    According to The French Resistance: 1940 to 1944 by Frida Knight, during the days and weeks after D-Day in France, “towns and villages” in Normandy were “mercilessly bombed by the Allied planes;” and around the city of Caen, “the Allied Command ordered air-raids almost as cruel as those on Germany.” As a result, according to the same book, “hundreds died and thousands lost their homes;” and “when the Canadian division finally entered and `liberated’ Caen there was little left of the town” and “the population had declined from 32,000 to 12,000.”

    The French Resistance book also asserted that “in Le Havre, the last Normandy town to be freed, where 1,500 tons of high explosives were dropped in two hours, there were between 2,000 and 3,000 dead, while 35,000 were completely bombed out of 10,500 homes;” and “it is now recognized but not always admitted that had the Allies understood the role of the French Resistance and incorporated its forces into their plans there would have been no need for the raids with their tolls of tragedy and harvest of bitterness…”

    What might also be mentioned is that German imperialism’s war machine in 1944 apparently stationed over 250 of its divisions or brigades on the German-Russian eastern front, but apparently less than 70 divisions on its Western Front. So former Columbia University President and U.S. President Eisenhower apparently faced a less difficult task becoming a “war hero” than his Russian counteparts–ten years before Eisenhower secretly escalated the U.S. war machine’s morally disastrous intervention in Indochina in 1954 (after the French imperialists finally relinquished control of their Indochina colony).

  5. Steve Russell says:

    There’s more you left out. And, by the way, I posted something on The Rag list a couple of weeks ago showing that civilian collateral damage was greater in WWII France than Iraq and Afghanistan put together. I said then and say now that the reasons more hell is raised now are two.

    First, the Normandy battle was over fairly quickly.

    Second, the French really did want the Germans gone a lot more than, say, the Afghans wanted the Taliban gone.

    In spite of that, there was a major hoo-hah in the wartime censored media about the bombing of Caen into rubble. The decision was roundly criticized at the time, so I’m not sure what the deal is with people claiming now it’s some dark secret. You can’t read a history of D-Day without finding it out.

    Oh, you did leave out what Caen was such a big deal. That is, it was thought to be a huge objective at the time and when it was captured that actually turned out to be correct. I’m going to assume you know why rather than making my fingers even sorer.

    Another detail that moderns often overlook is the liberation of Paris.

    It was not supposed to happen when it did. The battle plan was for Paris to be bypassed to avoid a destructive fight that was as un-necessary as Caen was necessary.

    However, the French Resistance revolted against the German occupiers and broadcasted calls for help. The Free French units actually went AWOL to go liberate Paris and at some point Omar Bradley decided to roll with it. But the Free French still entered Paris first.

    The French were downright touchy about what had happened to them, so much so that Germans would rather surrender to the Allies than the Maquis.

    You also left out the terrible shelling that the Pas de Calais took when, unlike Caen, it had no strategic value. The only purpose was to maintain the deception that Normandy was a mere feint and the true invasion would come at Pas de Calais.

    It worked, as did taking Caen.

    Isn’t it just a little–oh, you insert the word–to be refighting a war the winning of which was crucial to your living, let along standard of living?

    Yes, the Russians did the heavy lifting against Hitler, but they were very pleased to finally get a third front (Italy being the second).

    Yes, Utah was easier than Omaha because Utah turned out to be defended by a division of Hitler Youth.

    Hitler moved significant numbers of crack troops away from the Eastern Front to defend France (to the delight of the Russians) but he used them very unwisely, from defending Pas de Calais to ordering an offensive when he could have saved his entire Army behind the Seine. Hitler was insane by then if he hadn’t always been, so what do you expect?

    Fact is, lots of folks signed up to fight Hitler at a time when it was rational to question whether HItler could be beaten. Were they heroes?

    War in general, I agree with Richard, is not a noble enterprise. But I part company with Richard if he thinks no good can come of it and the people who do it are not extraordinary people.

    I consider Ike no more extraordinary than his grunts or than the German commander who disobeyed Hitler’s order to burn Paris. But, all things considered, that Texas boy did pretty well.

    Did you remember that Ike ran for President as a peace candidate and he did deliver? Nobody is as reliably anti-war as a warrior. The warrior has nothing to prove and he usually despises war.

  6. richard jehn says:

    Just one key little question for you, Steve: Who gets to decide when people engage in war? You? George W. Bush?

    You just don’t get it ….

  7. Steve Russell says:

    I think I get this: every soldier decides and the aggregate of those decisions makes a war.

    Hence, we have films like The Americanization of Emily, examining the question whether we should achieve peace by glorifying cowardice rather than the martial arts. Would that be your position?

    Then there’s Lysistrata, suggesting that women can stop wars by choosing sex partners among the nonviolent rather than the violent. Probably true enough, but most women don’t agree. They admire the stud soldier and they hand out a lot of mercy fucks in wartime.

    Then there’s Apocalypse Now!, “the horror, the horror.” Yes, indeed, but it begs the question how much horror you will tolerate to oppose genocide, racism, etc.?

    No Richard, in the end we decide to go to war the same way we make any other political decision, and that differs by country, although the mechanisms of persuasion are the same and God is always on “our” side.

  8. Steve Russell says:

    One more thing, Richard.

    I know your assertion that I “don’t get it” was merely a rhetorical assertion of your superiority, but I would suggest to you that if you believe it on any level it is very much your problem–your duty–to see that I get. This would be because I’m an opinion leader and I’m heavily biased in favor of your side. If you can’t convince me, who can you convince?

    Unless you think I’m being disingenuous. Anybody who knows me from the old days will assure you I’m not.

    How biased am I in favor of your position?

    Well, in one semester I faced eight different charges for anti-war activities. My wife got her paycheck seized by the IRS for failure to pay war taxes at a time when we were living hand to mouth.

    My grandfather fought in Cuba in the Spanish-American War, and he had nothing good to say about war.

    My father fought in the Pacific in WWII, and he had nothing good to say about war.

    I volunteered for the military and to go to Vietnam and ended up making an agreement with my conscience that I would serve up to four years in prison for anti-war activities because that’s how long I supported the war with my body.

    My son is on his second tour in Iraq right now, and I said what I thought about that in the Austin American-Statesman during his first tour.

    (That said, I’m very proud of what he’s doing this time. He goes out with a couple of other guys in a humvee to collect water samples at isolated villiages. If the water is not fit to drink, they go back and treat it. He has asked me to send toys and candy for Iraqi kids in his care packages. He has gotten shot at more this tour than last tour, when he commanded a gun truck guarding ammunition convoys.)

    So I have generations of first hand beef about war and a history of taking my own government to the rhetorical woodshed.

    If you can’t convince me, who can you convince?

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