Imagine for a moment: America is at war. The enemy is in full retreat. U.S. forces are on the enemy’s heels. But poor weather; extended friendly supply-lines; and campaign-weary troops slow the American pursuit to a temporary halt. Fresh albeit inexperienced troops are brought forward. Combat veterans are moved to the rear for some much needed R&R.
All at once, the enemy launches a massive counterattack, striking deep in supposedly secure areas. Baffled American commanders are struggling to keep their forward-most units from disintegrating; green kids are literally breaking and running. Combat veterans are rushing forward to try and stem the enemy surge.
That’s exactly what happened 64 years ago this week in what may well be considered one of the greatest intelligence failures and resulting mass-losses of life in American military history: The Battle of the Bulge (Dec. 16, 1944 to Jan. 28, 1945) between the Allies (mostly American and British) and German forces — which we won, by the way. But not before suffering some 19,000-plus American soldiers killed of 81,000 total U.S. casualties.
But what makes that battle different than even a far less costly setback our forces might suffer today in Iraq, Afghanistan, or who knows where is the way in which the Battle of the Bulge was reported and ultimately perceived by the public.
For instance, in several Time magazine pieces of the period, facts were not sugarcoated — the situation was indeed dire and the magazine said so — but the reporting was far more balanced in terms of what the casualty figures reflected and what the attacks, counter attacks, and counter-counter attacks might actually lead to. Covert political agendas played no role in the reporting, but it was obvious the mainstream media supported its troops. And if there was hope in the midst of hell, the correspondents found and reported it.
According to Time (Dec. 25, 1944): “[The Germans] struck with more weight and fury than they had mustered at any time since their ill-fated attempt to break the Allied line at Mortain, in Normandy. … Some Germans were so inflamed with savagery by the switch from retreat to attack that they murdered U.S. prisoners and wounded.”
The same article discussed the terrible cost in lives, the Allies having been “surprised and caught off balance,” the “disconcerting” fact that the Germans were willing and able to martial its forces for such a fierce counteroffensive at that stage of the war, and the reality that the Rhine might be “much harder to reach than the Allies originally expected.” But in a ray of pro-American optimism, the magazine also surmised the German counterattack might actually “simplify, and perhaps even hasten, Allied victory in the west.”
One week later (Jan. 1, 1945), Time reported: “In General Eisenhower’s favor was the fact the enemy was now out in the open — not in the fortifications, river lines and prepared defenses of the Westwall.” On Jan. 22 it was reported: “the Allied command team was intact and operating in harmony … The team had work to do. It had been thrown for a big loss and the way to the enemy’s goal was long and hard,” and “… U.S. troops took the blow, and shoved forward again.”
Regarding air operations over the Bulge and beyond, Time reported (also on the 22nd): “Some 4,000 Allied bombers and fighter escorts, profiting by the weather break to attack oil plants deep in Germany, raised a swarm of Luftwaffe interceptors. At least 232 German fighters were downed, while the first count of Allied losses showed only 45 planes missing.”
Notice the word “only.” Not to suggest that the crews in those planes had no value — they did, to be sure — but to lend substantive perspective as regards the friendly-enemy win-loss ratio in the air.
Make no mistake, the Battle of the Bulge was a terrible miscalculation on the part of theater commanders and their intelligence chiefs, and nearly 20,000 Americans died in a five-week period as a result. But in the end, the battle was a decisive victory for the Allies. And the broader war was ultimately won thanks in no small measure to solid, balanced reporting, a huge measure of optimism and faith in the capabilities of our soldiers, and always being able to see and report the light within the darkness.
Our success going forward as we prosecute the war on terror is also heavily dependent upon how we view and expound on the light within the darkness. War by its very nature is dark. Irregular war, which is largely the kind of conflict our war on terror is, is even darker. Consequently, it is the responsibility of those of us who report or provide commentary and analysis to always look for the light.
Fact is, if a soldier believes he can win — and knows others have faith in his ability to win — he usually will win. That’s why he won at the Bulge.