June 6, 2009 marked the 65th anniversary of the invasion of Normandy by the Allies in their effort to open a western front against Hitlerite Germany. In breaking through Hitler's "Atlantic Wall," the Allies expected a swift offensive to drive into the heartland of the opponent and finish the job in the shortest possible time. It turned out though that completing the task required a lot more than optimistic planning. Just like so many times before in history, an enemy believed to be largely spent gathered enough energy to fight back with deadly persistence for almost another year despite a desperate two-front war.Great moments in history should be continuously studied for lessons that are relevant to contemporary conditions and challenges. The Normandy invasion was the largest such operation ever planned and executed. Operation Overlord, as the Allied invasion of northwest Europe was code named, involved an enormous amount of work on the part of thousands of staff planners from several nations. Although glitches and outright leaks were not prevented, it is remarkable, by today's standards of mass communication and an ever-sniffing, laptop-carrying reportage community, that such a huge exercise was largely protected from prying eyes, both those of curious friendlies and those of enemy intelligence. It was only when the troops hit the beaches that the German command finally realized "the big one" had arrived. Jot down one for tight op secrecy.
The determination of Allied leaders to maintain unity of command was also remarkable. In a rare example of harmonious cooperation between politicians and military men, the Normandy invasion was put under a unified command with complete control of everything but the articulation of the grand strategic goals of the campaign. General Eisenhower, who would be later president of the United States, delivered perhaps the best example of a supreme operational commander in modern times. Deftly steering his senior generals on the course decided upon by the civilian leadership, Eisenhower succeeded in keeping a huge military organization operating at maximum strength with the least friction possible. Jot another one down for streamlined command at all levels.
Troops embarking on that fateful day of June 6, 1944 departed southern England with much nervous anticipation of what lied ahead but, at the same time, with a level of morale that cannot be possibly replicated in today's "modern" societies. This is a critical strategic factor without which Operation Overlord could have easily gone to pot. Compare and contrast with today's gadget-driven, all-volunteer, career-enhancing military forces that try honestly hard but suffer severe psychological impacts from lack of a true unifying team spirit and a sense of national goal.
D-Day will remain a top subject of study in military schools well into the distant future. Irrespective of time frame though, it is important not to lose sight of its central lesson: no amount of material military strength will succeed unless backed by solid politics, enlightened field leadership, and troops who move not because of pay and benefits but because of a larger purpose. Our leaders of today, so much depended on the sound bite, digital video, and Blackberry scheduling, better heed this cast iron message.