Just to take note of what happened on this date in 1944

Approaching Omaha Beach, June 6, 1944.

Approaching Omaha Beach, June 6, 1944.

I don’t have anything new to say about it at the moment, but I thought I’d take note of the date.

Today was the day that the United States, Great Britain, Canada and our other allies put 175,000 men onto a hostile shore. Field Marshal Erwin Rommel had done everything he could to keep them off of it, and to ensure that if they did land, they would die.

But we managed it anyway. Or rather, our forebears did.

Who were these guys we sent to do this thing? One of the most interesting paragraphs in Stephen Ambrose’s book about the invasion is this one:


Look at this one sentence again: “He was twenty-six years old, five feet eight inches tall, weighed 144 pounds, had a thirty-three-and-a-half-inch chest, and a thirty-one-inch waist.”

These were little guys! Even after they’d bulked up, their chests were 34.5 inches! Today they’d have to go to the boys’ department to buy a sport coat.

But they got the job done.


46 thoughts on “Just to take note of what happened on this date in 1944

  1. Doug Ross

    June 6, 1944: A Day That Will Live In Apathy

    Since its the end of the school year, maybe high schools should show Saving Private Ryan instead of Finding Nemo ( yes, that was shown at my daughter’s high school about 5 years ago).

  2. Bryan Caskey

    Even with cruise missiles, drones and A10’s, putting that many boots on the ground at Normandy today would be daunting. Standing on those cliffs and looking down makes you realize how absolutely incredible the assault was.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      One of the things I enjoyed about reading Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose was the different mindset of the late-medieval characters. They believed those who went before them were greater than they were, that they were midgets who stood on the shoulders of giants.

      Today, people assume they are so much better, so much more enlightened, than they themselves were five minutes ago, much less people who lived and died before them.

      I look at D-Day and I wonder whether it would be possible for us, today, to accomplish anything so difficult, given the same circumstances.

      In fact, take the Germans and the Ost battalions overlooking the beaches out of it. Remove the obstacles and mines and hostile fire from the equation. Say there’s no one trying to prevent us from landing there.

      Even under those circumstances, could we get our act together enough to land 175,000 men on that shore in a day?

      Mind you, we live in a country in which Congress can’t even pass a budget.

      Is it even in us to work together to accomplish anything as difficult as the Normandy landings?

      1. Bob Amundson

        I wish someone with military experience were running; I’d feel much more confident about “accomplish(ing) anything.”

      2. Doug Ross

        “Is it even in us to work together to accomplish anything as difficult as the Normandy landings?”

        Depends. Are you talking just about fighting a war? We’d probably have to wait until there was a legitimate war against an actual country to find out. Haven’t had one of those in my lifetime.
        Anyway, there’s no NEED to fight wars in that manner any more. One kid with a joystick can direct a drone to go anywhere. Our next world war will be fought from remote locations or high in sky or way offshore with drones, bombs, and missiles. And then if things get tough, we just drop some nukes.

        1. Mark Stewart

          That’s not how it will go. Every few generations we slip into that complacency, Doug.

          War is hell. There will be another; and it will be hell.

          Iraq and Afghanistan were wars of small unit engagement. And mobility. But they were not land, sea, air, space, cyber all out warfare. One day, we will again face that situation. Our Cold War interregnum is over. We need to be prepared to defeat Russia, or China, or both at the same time. That’s the scope of what we must face.

          1. Doug Ross

            You really think a World War will involve ground troops marching across China and/or Russia? With today’s technology, any large group of soldiers/tanks could be targeted very quickly.

            It will be bombs and missiles and robots and drones and who knows what else is being cooked up by defense contractors.

            1. Brad Warthen Post author

              Yes and no.

              Yes, technologically there seems little need for mass movements of troops a la Patton.

              But ethically, taking cities is preferable to obliterating their population. And that takes lots of boots on the ground. Which other men in boots will try to stop.

              Also… couldn’t drones and other high-tech weapons be taken out by a few electromagnetic pulse weapons? A few of those could eliminate drones, manned aircraft and probably our tanks and other ground vehicles as well — leaving us to go mano a mano with low-tech rifles and bayonets, and making us as blind to what the enemy is doing as generals in the Civil War were…

              1. Doug Ross

                We can’t win a ground war in China (we’re outnumbered) and we can’t win a ground war in Russia (weather/geography).

                Could we even fathom a ground war on our own soil? So many key cities that could cripple the economy if they were targeted. Losing the Twin Towers was devastation. We won’t let the troops near our land. It will be annihilation of our enemy first.

                1. Bryan Caskey

                  “Could we even fathom a ground war on our own soil? So many key cities that could cripple the economy if they were targeted. Losing the Twin Towers was devastation. We won’t let the troops near our land. It will be annihilation of our enemy first.”

                  True. It is hard to fathom a foreign power invading the mainland United States. We are blessed to have benign powers on our northern and southern borders, and two large oceans on our eastern and western borders.

                  Oh, and if through some stroke, the United States were invaded, I don’t think it would work out so well for the invader. The accurate (but misattributed to Admiral Yamamoto) quote sums up how that would go:

                  “You cannot invade the mainland United States. There would be a rifle behind every blade of grass.”

            2. Bryan Caskey

              Don’t make the mistake of thinking that drones are the first weapon in the history of war to have no countermeasure. For every sword, there is a shield. Militaries around the world are woking on anti-drone technology.

              Just like radar changed aerial tactics for a time, we now have radar jamming technology, radar defeating technology, and radar-seeking missiles. It’s an age-old dance of measure and countermeasure. There’s no magic bullet.

              And you’re assuming that we can target opposing ground troops from the air because we have air superiority in that theater of war? Well what if we don’t have air superiority? Sure, the recent wars in the middle east have not presented an opposing force with any measure of air power, but China and Russia have significant air power capability. A war with either would not be a simple matter in terms of gaining air superiority.

              If you want to hold territory, at some point, you’re going to need a man standing on a corner holding a rifle.

              Hopefully, we don’t need to invade mainland China or march on Moscow, but we may need to drive them back from whence they came.

              1. Doug Ross

                “If you want to hold territory, at some point, you’re going to need a man standing on a corner holding a rifle.”

                We don’t have enough men to outnumber the Chinese (they outnumber us 4:1). And we don’t have enough men to cover the vast expanse of Russia.

                We’re good at shock and awe in a small region like Iraq which has a population less than California. Any war against a large country will depend on firepower not foot soldiers.

                  1. Bryan Caskey

                    And Jupiter is also really big compared to Venus. No one is saying we should be conquering Russia. What’s your point?

                1. Doug Ross

                  Maybe what I started with?? — that ground troops won’t ever be necessary in a world war situation again.. especially a Normandy style invasion. That’s ancient history. You suggested they would be needed to hold territory. I’m saying that won’t happen because it is not possible due to being outnumbered or due to the geographic challenges. We have about a half million Army soldiers and another half million reserves. How would you suggest we “hold” any of the more than 100 cities in China that have more than a million people? What purpose would that serve.

                  We’ll just blow stuff up (including innocent people). There’s no other way.

                  1. Bryan Caskey

                    “Maybe what I started with?? — that ground troops won’t ever be necessary in a world war situation again”

                    Well, you’re just wrong about that. You’re always going to need boots on the ground. You can’t win a war with drones and air power alone.

                    “You suggested they would be needed to hold territory. I’m saying that won’t happen because it is not possible due to being outnumbered or due to the geographic challenges.”

                    Yes. I did suggest that because it’s true. You do need actual people on the ground to hold territory. That’s the definition of holding territory – having your people there in control of the ground. Simply reducing land to ashes makes it no-man’s-land. I’m not sure why you’re fixated on the idea that because we can’t invade and conquer Russia and China (two of the world’s largest countries by area and population) that our infantry and armor are somehow obsolete. Simply because you need soldiers on the ground to hold territory doesn’t mean that holding territory is the only objective in a war.

                    Honestly, I’m not sure what point you’re trying to make.

                2. Doug Ross

                  Again, the point I am making goes back to Brad’s original question: “Is it even in us to work together to accomplish anything as difficult as the Normandy landings?”

                  And as I have said – repeatedly now – we won’t face anything like that again. The rules are different now. We won’t (and can’t) ever “hold” a city again in a world war. It is logistically impossible to suggest we could do anything of the sort. Can you envision a case where another country could march on and occupy L.A.? Chicago? Dallas? Maybe Charleston. But then what?

                  Our current on the ground troops are just world policemen walking a beat. They aren’t going to ever be a major part of a war between superpowers.

                  1. Conventional Wisdom in July of 1914

                    “Our current on the ground troops are just world policemen walking a beat. They aren’t going to ever be a major part of a war between superpowers.”

                    Yeah, that’s what we said, too.

                    1. Brad Warthen Post author

                      Yeah, the world — or at least, the developed world — was supposedly too advanced for war then. Too interconnected, with too much to lose.

                      The century since then has shown that, even though war has grown more terrible, we have trouble avoiding it.

                      Although I suppose we can celebrate the fact that large, advanced nations haven’t engaged in total war with each other since 1945…

                3. Doug Ross

                  How’d our ground troops do on occupying cities in Vietnam? How are we doing in Baghdad? Afghanistan?

                  We aren’t fighting with rifles and bayonets any more.

                  1. Brad Warthen Post author

                    I don’t know. We haven’t really tried occupying a country, or a city, since 1945. We did fairly well then, but we had millions of men in uniform at the time. Occupation takes a lot of people.

                    By the way, have any of y’all watched the Norwegian TV show “Okkupert” (“Occupied,” in English), which streams on Netflix? It’s very interesting. I might do a post about it if there’s any interest…

                  2. Bryan Caskey

                    “We aren’t fighting with rifles and bayonets any more.”

                    Bayonet charge by British infantry in Iraq – 2004.

                    Bayonet charge by British infantry in Afghanistan in 2011.

                    Since we’re talking about bayonets, I have to relay this anecdote: I don’t recall the exact details, but the results of the Russo-Japanese war were being studied at a military conference and the bayonet charge was viewed as the obsolete culminating event of any good infantry engagement, where a certain percentage of soldiers deemed killed by bayonet was something like 3%.

                    To which which an unrepentant infantry General remarked, “Yes, but they were the decisive ones.”

                    1. Bryan Caskey

                      Oh, and our soldiers still use rifles. (You gotta have something for your bayonet to attach to, right?) 🙂

                    2. Brad Warthen Post author

                      Dave Grossman, in On Killing, maintains that the natural human reluctance to kill other humans is particularly strong when it comes to bladed weapons. There is human horror of plunging a bayonet into human flesh. Consequently, he says, most bayonet charges result in soldiers mostly using their rifles as clubs, hitting the enemy with the butts rather than the sharp end…

                    3. Bryan Caskey

                      “There is human horror of plunging a bayonet into human flesh.”

                      So imagine how much human horror is involved in getting bayoneted. I mean, as bad as it is to do the bayoneting, it has to be worse to be on the receiving end.

                    4. Brad Warthen Post author

                      That’s what I’m saying. Soldiers identify with the enemy in this case. They are reluctant to bayonet because they have a horror of being bayoneted.

                      Which gets me to thinking.

                      Grossman’s research only covers warfare since the advent of firearms. And his evidence of soldiers reluctance to fire — from all the unfired rifles found on the Gettysburg battlefield with multiple loads rammed down their barrels (soldiers, wanting to LOOK like they were fighting to their comrades, just kept on loading) to the WWII research of S.L.A. Marshall — is pretty extensive.

                      But what about all those thousands of years in which battles were about wading in and slashing left and right with bladed weapons? Were humans just as reluctant to fight then, or were they made of harder, crueler stuff than moderns? Maybe armies were made up mostly of the 2 percent of the male population that isn’t bothered by killing. I don’t know…

                    5. Bryan Caskey

                      “Were humans just as reluctant to fight then, or were they made of harder, crueler stuff than moderns?”

                      You mean like back in the Roman times? My inclination is to go with the latter. They used to crucify people, decimation meant something entirely different, and people generally lived closer to death. As Hobbes said, life was “nasty, brutish, and short”.

                      Fortunately, I think we may have become more respectful of life since those times.

                    6. Brad Warthen Post author

                      Since I just had Phillip agree with me that people today aren’t appreciably superior to people in times past, I hesitate to say this, but…

                      Yes, our standards of what is acceptable in war and other pursuits HAS become remarkably more civilized in the last century. Some of this is that technology has made it possible — since we CAN discriminate more carefully with drones than with carpet-bombing, we feel obligated to do so.

                      But it’s more than that.

                      I don’t know if you’ve started that Ardennes book yet, but it’s filled with things that make a modern person cringe — not just the SS massacre of American prisoners near Malmedy, but the tacitly official killing of SS prisoners by Americans after word of that atrocity got around — and it happened less than nine years before I was born.

                      But then, if you go back to the first war, you find Germans — just regular Germans, mind you, not Germans warped by Nazism — just regularly, almost casually, systematically killing Belgian civilians. This was at the very outset of the war, so it wasn’t from hatred built up through a bitter conflict. There’s no particular national or racial enmity involved, and it was decidedly not in Germans’ interest, since what they really wanted was for the Belgians to stay out of it so their flanks would be safe as they invaded France. (Much of it was motivated by German irritation that the Belgians didn’t just lie down and fully cooperate with the Germans rolling over them.)

                      We like to distinguish between Wehrmacht and SS in talking about the second war, giving the regular army types a bit of a pass. But the behavior of Germans toward civilians in the first war seems to rival much of that in the second.

                      And that was just 100 years ago…

                    7. Bryan Caskey

                      “Good heavens, cried Mr White. ‘To fire great iron balls at people you have never even spoken to – barbarity is come again.’”

                      And no, I haven’t started the Ardennes book. I’m reading Patrick O’Brian. Don’t worry, I’ll get ’round to it. I already know how it ends, anyway. 🙂

                    8. Brad Warthen Post author

                      I just started rereading Mauritius, so let’s get together and hash it over.

                      My favorite part — when Stephen arrives at the Aubrey household at the start and finds something less than the domestic bliss Jack had expected. Standard O’Brian comedy — Jack asking Stephen to take a look at the twins (whom he can’t tell apart) because he’s concerned that they’re not quite right (aside from being “only girls,” the poor things). Jack’s heart beating harder at the prospect of raising a broad pennant (“a commodore’s broad pennant!”), the significance of which is entirely lost on Stephen, the lubber…

                4. Doug Ross

                  The next wars will be won by the participants who can deliver the most firepower with the fewest people across the widest range of targets.

                  And I haven’t said there won’t be ANY ground troops in any future wars. Just that they will be ancillary to the process.

      3. Mark Stewart

        Yes, we rise to the occasion. We will again. Sometimes, we are slow to mobilize; and the costs are great as a result. But we are still the country, and the people, who can pull together in purpose.

        What we haven’t had is great leadership. Our first question should be do we have a system that can deliver Presidential leadership when it is demanded? That has been, in our history, a decisive requirement for national unity and success.

        1. Phillip

          We’re certainly not the only country and people who can pull together in purpose. If you’re talking Russia and China, those peoples have much more vivid historical recollection of war on their own soil, of foreign powers invading their terrain. It’s insane for America, Russia, or China to contemplate major war against each other in any conceivable combination. I agree with Brad that modern man flatters himself too much in believing himself to be significantly more advanced or evolved than his forebears; however, if there is any higher purpose for man’s existence on this planet, it must lie in the capacity to learn and yes, evolve as a species. Major warfare between the superpowers would involve nuclear weapons, and there will be no winners, anywhere, should that result.

          1. Brad Warthen Post author

            You’re right, Phillip. But can we evolve quickly enough to keep up with our technology?

            We seemed to learn pretty quickly after Hiroshima, and the miracle occurred — Mutual Assured Destruction worked throughout the Cold War. But the advent of suicide bombers, and the potential for non-state entities to get their hands on a nuke, calls that into question going forward….

            1. Jim Cross

              You might find the book _Soldiers: German POWs on Fighting, Killing, and Dying_ by Sonke Neitzel and Harald Welzer interesting. The book is based on transcripts of clandestinely recorded conversations between German POW’s in U.S. and British POW camps. It shows that Wehrmacht and SS troops were not as dissimilar in their behavior as we like to believe and that, in the right (or wrong) circumstances the reluctance to kill another human being can be easily overcome, especially the more distance (physically and emotionally) between you and the enemy.

              1. Brad Warthen Post author

                Yes, that’s a huge part of Grossman’s book. There are a number of factors that cause it to be easier to kill — acting as part of a group (say, on an artillery team) rather than individually, the encouragement of noncoms and officers on the scene, the recent loss of friends to the enemy, the knowledge that society supports what you’re doing.

                But one of the biggest factors was proximity. The closer a soldier is to the enemy, the harder it is to kill (and the greater the psychological cost when he does).

                It’s easier to kill with a knife than with bare hands, with a rifle than with a knife, with a machine gun than a rifle, with a mortar or artillery piece than with a machine gun, and perhaps easiest with bombs from a plane.

                1. Brad Warthen Post author

                  I’m not sure where drone pilots fit in that. They’re the farthest away of all, but maybe not as emotionally distant.

                  If the movie “Good Kill” was at all realistic, in terms of the quality of the video from the drone, it might feel more like killing with a rifle — but with far greater destructive force.

                2. Doug Ross

                  Wouldn’t really come down to how “invested” you are in the reason for killing someone? A soldier who was drafted might have more hesitation than one who enlisted. Part of the training process I suppose is akin to brainwashing — making them believe it is okay to kill someone else even when not personally threatened.

                  If someone threatened my wife or kids in a way that I thought they were in danger, I don’t think I would pause for a second if I had the opportunity to choke him to death with my bare hands. It would be preferable to using a gun or knife.

                  Seems like part of the process is akin to brainwashing someone to do something they might not do if allowed to think rationally.

                  1. Brad Warthen Post author

                    I’d call it conditioning rather than “brainwashing.”

                    “Brainwashing” suggests convincing someone of an idea — and that’s not what I’m talking about. It’s not “making them believe it is okay to kill someone else even when not personally threatened.” It’s not really about believing in this instance. It’s about programming in a conditioned response. It’s about reflex.

                    There are factors that involve belief — the encouragement of comrades and superiors, and of society at large.

                    But those have always been factors, long before this revolution in training…

              2. Brad Warthen Post author

                By the way, “reluctance to kill another human being can be … overcome,” as you say. And the U.S. military figured out how to do it several decades ago — before Vietnam.

                Basically, modern infantry train conditions soldier to fire accurately at the enemy without pausing to think.

                This, Grossman suggests, has had a great cost on our soldiers — because they pay the emotional price LATER.

                That, combined with lack of support on the home front (another important factor in whether men can overcome the trauma of having killed), apparently helps account for all the PTSD after Vietnam…

  3. Jim

    We should all be ashamed. We live in a land confounded by greed and apathy, We quarrel over drivel. We are as far apart today as the men who gave us the right to be complete fools were united seven decades ago.
    I wonder, if they’d known how we were to squander their sacrifices for us, if they’d have done the incredibly brave things they did on D-Day.
    I think so. They were made of better stuff.

    Watch the link below.

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