75 years ago today in the Ardennes


Seventy-five years ago, my father-in-law was one of the green troops of the 106th Infantry Division that had been placed on the front line in what was regarded as a relatively safe area. There, in the snowy Ardennes Forest, they could learn what it’s like to be on the line, maybe make some contact with the few enemy troops believed to be in the area, and in general get some seasoning.bulge map

And then, divisions of armor and infantry the Allies didn’t know Hitler had just rolled right over the 106th. There was some brief fighting — my father-in-law would be haunted by having seen a friend killed by a bullet he thought was meant for him — but the two regiments of the 106th on the line were captured en masse. That included my father-in-law, Walter Joseph Phelan, and 6,000 others, among them the novelist Kurt Vonnegut

After an arduous journey east, Mr. Phelan would spend the rest of the war in a POW camp in Germany.

It was the largest land battle fought by the U.S. Army in that war.

Years ago in a biography of Adolph Hitler, I read that he hoped to shock the Western Allies into a stalemate or negotiated peace so that he could turn all his remaining assets to trying to stop the relentless Russian advance. When I read that, it seemed insane. Everything I knew about American resolve during that war, in retrospect, made that seem impossible.

It doesn’t seem so impossible to me today, after Vietnam, Mogadishu, and other experiences. But I’m glad Hitler was wrong about us that time. And I’m deeply grateful to the Americans and Brits who fought so hard to put an end to Nazism — my father-in-law, the men of the 101st who went into battle without winter clothing or enough ammunition, this guy whom I read about this morning, all of them.

And I’m in awe of what they achieved.


23 thoughts on “75 years ago today in the Ardennes

    1. Bob Amundson

      You gotta be cool to be kind, dude. Brad should appreciate this because “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding.”

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        I’ve always thought it a great irony. There’s no more apt Elvis Costello song — in terms of attitude or style — than that one. And yet, he didn’t write it…

  1. bud

    It doesn’t seem so impossible to me today, after Vietnam, Mogadishu, and other experiences.

    That’s because those wars were different from WWII. Very different. Seems as though some folks just don’t seem to get that. I’m afraid Joe Biden is one of them. Trump is finally doing something right by drawing down troops in Afghanistan. Long past time to do so. This serves exactly zero interest to the USA. I was a bit disheartened when I read that most Democrats voted for the ridiculous $722 billion military budget. Maybe it’s time to take another look at Bernie. If Biden is the nominee I may just have to sit the election out. The man really is starting to scare me.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      “This serves exactly zero interest to the USA…”

      How on Earth can you say that?

      Look, people, we’re in Afghanistan for one reason — to keep the Taliban from being in charge again and creating a country that is safe for the likes of al Qaeda. Because, you know, the last time we let that happen (after we turned away from Afghanistan after our engagement while the Russians were there), it turned out badly for us.

      Maybe that’s not an exciting mission, but it’s a mission. And I can’t imagine a universe in which the value of that is “exactly zero.”…

      1. bud

        And I can’t imagine a universe in which the value of that is “exactly zero.”…
        – Brad

        In my universe continuing to squander money and at times a few lives, really is pointless. The Taliban are propped us a sort of boogey man by the war monger crowd to try and scare people into supporting this wasteful endeavor. And with the Afghanistan papers out we have proof. Seems like some people just are not capable of learning the lessons of Vietnam.

          1. Brad Warthen Post author

            People love that song, but as CCR songs with political points go, that one has always seemed kind of trite to me.

            I greatly prefer “Don’t Look Now,” which has an oblique sort of communitarian message.

            But that’s the thing. “Fortunate Son” expresses ideas that were popular in my generation. Not so much the oblique message of “Don’t Look Now.”

            “Fortunate Son” inspires the shake of the fist and the cry of “I ain’t no fortunate son!” It creates the sort of “us vs. them” impulse that turns me off to both Donald Trump and Elizabeth Warren. The problems of the world are all caused by those people over there… You know, from immigrants to billionaires…

            “Don’t Look Now” inspires more humble impulses, reminding us to appreciate those who put their backs to the plow for us, or make the clothes that we wear. It’s more subtle…

        1. Brad Warthen Post author

          “The lessons of Vietnam…”

          I take it the lesson is, Never Try Anything Ever. Always Give Up Before You Start.

          That’s it, right.

          I don’t think “Lessons from Vietnam” exist, to the extent that they are applicable to any other situation. The world is complicated, and every conflict is different.

          But yeah, I know lots of people believe there were lessons, and they have learned them.

          I watched Ken Burns series, which was helpful because much of what created the Vietnam situation happened before I was born or when I was too young to follow it, so it was nice to have it laid out that way.

          And at each stage, I thought, what a mess. And at each stage, I was unable to see any way out of it that we could have told ourselves was a good outcome.

          Take, for instance, the situation while the French were still there. I want to be able to say, “We should have backed Ho and his independence movement, before he was completely in the communist camp.” But I just don’t see how we could have created that great a rift with the French. Maybe we could have, but it seems like that would have been a bad move at that time.

          Anyone who thinks the way we DID finally get out in any way reflects credit on this country is someone whose brain operates as differently from mine that I have my doubts that 2 and 2 adds up to 4 for those folks…

          1. Mr. Smith

            “I just don’t see how we could have created that great a rift with the French. Maybe we could have, but it seems like that would have been a bad move at that time.”

            Eisenhower did it to Britain over Suez.

            Plus, the French were keen on pursuing what they perceived were their own interests, remaining unaligned with the US to the furthest extent possible. So it wasn’t like we were blood brothers with them through thick and thin.

            1. Brad Warthen Post author

              Yes, and that’s what made the thing dicey. The relationship with the French was shaky as it was.

              What happened over Suez seemed like something the American-British relationship could absorb.

              But I’m not going to pretend to be an expert on Franco-American relations in the 1950s, or anything close to it. If I were suddenly transported to 1954 — like the protagonist of “Life on Mars,” a modern cop who suddenly finds himself a cop in 1973 — and found myself a journalist covering those issues, I’d probably have to say, I can’t do this. I’d be too far out of the loop.

              I can mouth the words “Collapse of the Fourth Republic,” but I can’t claim to have a handle on it.

              Like Twain’s Hank Morgan, I was born modest — not all over, but in spots, and this is one of the spots.

              I know just enough to be pretty sure that people who think Vietnam presented this country with a clear and obvious choice have a great deal more confidence in the simplicity of that era than I do…

        1. Brad Warthen Post author

          Right. But they don’t have secure control of the country. It’s not a safe haven for their friends, to the extent that it was leading up to 2001.

          Of course, even then, you had other groups, such as the Northern Alliance, holding swathes of the country. After all, it’s Afghanistan. But anything we can do, within reason, to keep them more off balance is in our national interest.

          If they hold this much of the country now, they’d pretty much hold the whole thing were we to withdraw.

          Look, folks, it’s not an ideal situation. It’s not 1945, with our enemy prostrate at our feet. But it’s better than the Taliban being secure and in control of the whole place…

          1. Mr. Smith

            “… anything we can do, within reason, to keep them more off balance is in our national interest.”

            You apparently missed the other memo, too: the one about it being official US policy to negotiate with the Taliban — which includes the explicit or implicit concession of allowing the Taliban a role in governing Afghanistan.

            Besides, if the only thing keeping them from controlling the “whole thing” is US military presence, that indicates dim prospects for “our side” over the long run.

            1. Brad Warthen Post author

              “that indicates dim prospects for ‘our side’ over the long run”

              Absolutely, if you think a bright prospect means we could expect a time in the near future when it would be simple and risk-free to walk away, confident that they had it well in hand.

              I’m not that optimistic…

              As for “missing the memos,” I feel that way sometimes. I look at the Post‘s series, the main thrust of which seems to be “U.S. leaders knew things weren’t great in Afghanistan, but presented a rosy picture anyway,” and I think, If that’s the case, how come I never formed that impression? Did I just not get those hunky-dory memos? I’m not saying they don’t exist. I’m not surprised the Post can produce statements supporting that position.

              But somehow I hadn’t formed that impression, based on what I saw and heard…

              1. Mr. Smith

                The WPo series didn’t come as much of a revelation, in large part because I’d read Steve Coll’s two books on our involvement in Afghanistan: Ghost Wars (2004) and Directorate S (2018) — the two best, most comprehensive histories of that involvement to date. The latter in shows how, one after another, various US military and diplomatic efforts resulted in failure, or, at best, stalemate, leaving us in no better position there now than we were in 2002, seventeen years ago.

                1. Mr. Smith

                  Kabul may be in Afghanistan but it is not Afghanistan.

                  The Taliban never actually left the country, only its leadership did. Most of them still aren’t there. But the Taliban are.

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