Victor Davis Hanson

Sixty-three years ago this week, we landed on the Normandy beaches. As on each anniversary of June 6, 1944, much has been written to commemorate the bravery and competence of the victorious Anglo-American forces.

All true. But as we ponder this achievement of the Greatest Generation that helped lead to the surrender of Nazi Germany less than a year later, we should remember that the entire campaign was, as Wellington said of Waterloo, a near-run thing.

Our forefathers made several mistakes. They attacked nonexistent artillery emplacements. Planes dropped paratroopers far from intended targets. Critical landing assignments on Omaha Beach were missed.

Once they left shore, it got worse. Indeed, D-Day was soon forgotten in the nightmare of GIs being blown apart in the Normandy hedgerows by well-concealed, entrenched German panzers.

Apparently, no American planners - from Army Chief of Staff Gen. George Marshall down to the staff of Allied Supreme Commander Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower - had anticipated either the difficulty of penetrating miles of these dense thickets or the deadliness of new German model tanks and anti-tank weapons.

So we landed in Europe with the weaponry we had - and it was in large part vastly inferior to that of the Wehrmacht .

The most brilliant armored commander in U.S. history, George S. Patton, had been sacked from theater command for slapping an ill soldier the prior year in Sicily. Gens. Omar N. Bradley and Bernard L. Montgomery lacked his genius and audacity - and tens of thousands of Allied soldiers were to pay for Patton's absence at Normandy.

We finally broke out of the mess, after using heavy bombers to blast holes in the German lines. But again, these operations were fraught with foul-ups.

On two successive occasions we bombed our own troops, altogether killing or wounding over 1,000 Americans, including the highest-ranking officer to die in the European Theater, Lt. Gen. Lesley J. McNair. The nature of his death was hidden from the press - as were many mistakes and casualties both leading up to and after Normandy.

When the disaster in the bocage near the Normandy beaches ended over two months after D-Day, the victorious Americans, British and Canadians had been bled white. Altogether, the winners of the Normandy campaign suffered a quarter-million dead, wounded or missing, including almost 30,000 American fatalities - losing nearly 10 times the number of combat dead in four years of fighting in Iraq.


Victor Davis Hanson

Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and a recipient of the 2007 National Humanities Medal.