Reading Max Hastings' Armageddon, which covers the closing years of WWII in Europe, I realized that I was in the thick of yet another account of Operation MARKET GARDEN, the fabled (and failed) "bridge too far" campaign. I've read so many accounts of this particular battle, I can't accurately count them. So why read yet another one?
I'll skip quickly past the usual reasons: no one book adequately covers all the details; military historians get into interesting and important debates; even reading the same book twice may give you a slightly different understanding the second time around. My reason for mentioning the uncountable accounts of MARKET GARDEN is a bit different: you never know when you'll bump into an insight about current events, rounding a corner in an historically familiar neighborhood.
Here's the short version of Operation MARKET GARDEN: Between September 1944, the Americans and British had chased the Wehrmacht from the Normandy beaches to the banks of the Rhine. Overstrained supply lines, the ingenuity of the Germans on defense, and other factors brought the Allied offensive to a halt. After the seizure of Antwerp, the bulk of British forces faced the Germans in the Netherlands. The top British commander, Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery, looked across the Dutch landscape and saw an opportunity.
In his sector, Montgomery argued to Eisenhower, the Allies could make a surprise thrust through Holland, cross the line where German defenses were weaker, and then drive into Germany proper. The main problem was the landscape of Holland, which limited any offensive to a single highway, crossing several major rivers. If, in the first days of the battle, the Allies failed to seize all the major bridges around the Dutch cities of Nijmegen, Eindhoven, and Arnhem--and, just as importantly, prevent the Germans from demolishing them--the operation would fail.
The resulting plan, Operation MARKET GARDEN, depended on British and American paratroopers and glider-borne troops to surprise the Germans, secure the bridges, and wait for the British XXX Armored Corps to assault down the highway connecting the three critical cities. Unless the airborne troops moved quickly, the Germans would destroy the bridges. Unless the XXX Corps moved quickly, the Allied troops behind enemy lines would be the lightning rods for devastating German counterattacks.
Operation MARKET GARDEN suffered many problems, all of which contributed to a costly debacle. The Germans delayed the airborne troops from seizing their objectives as quickly as planned (especially difficult, since the parachute and glider drops took more than a single day to put all the troops into the battlezone). The tanks of the XXX Corps could not leave the highway to drive overland, given the risk of bogging down in the soft Dutch terrain. The armored advance, therefore, remained only a few tanks wide across its entire length, making it relatively easy for the Germans to bring it to a halt at any point. This geographic limitation, combined with a strange lack of urgency at key points in the battle, made it impossible for the XXX Corps to link up with the British 1st Airborne division in Arnhem, where the "Red Devils" fought a courageous but doomed defense. Aside from massive casualties, the Western Allies also suffered months of delay in finally defeating Nazi Germany.
The biggest problem with MARKET GARDEN, however, lay in the plan itself, not its execution. Montgomery's plan--unusually risky, for a general famous for his caution--depended on every element succeeding. If the Allies seized the bridges around Eindhoven, and if they seized Nijmegen, and if they seized Arnhem, and if the British armored column reached all three cities in time, MARKET GARDEN would be a success. If any link in this chain of events failed, the entire campaign would fall apart.
MARKET GARDEN, therefore, is a cautionary tale to which the practitioners of war should regularly return. Whenever someone feels tempted to take this sort of risk, they can sober up quickly just by remembering the American paratroopers crossing a river in small boats, in broad daylight, into German machine gun fire, because it was the only chance to seize the next link in the chain. Or, you might remember the slow death of the 1st Paras in Arhhem, fighting a delaying action from house to house, with inadequate weapons to combat the German tanks blasting their hiding places into rubble.
Of course, there's nothing stopping people who are ignorant of history from violating its lessons. There's also no firm barrier between ambition and sense. Just as Montgomery imagined he saw a chance for the British to claim the great prize, the killing blow to Hitler's Reich, George W. Bush and members of his Administration thought they found the moment to deal, once and for all, with the Ba'athist regime in Iraq.
As anyone could and should have seen at the time, Operation IRAQI FREEDOM depended on too many military and political "ifs" going exactly according to plan. If Iraq forces collapsed quickly, as the proponents of "shock and awe" had hoped...If a roaring success in Iraq could silence any domestic and international critics...If Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld's promises that the American forces committed to both the invasion and occupation proved to be correct...If the Iraqi populace felt more gratitude for the occupation than resentment...If the Iraqi exiles, or their counterparts who remained in Iraq, could quickly assemble a functional government...Then, of course, Operation IRAQI FREEDOM would be a success.
Again, you might fault many aspects of this military operation's execution. Had the US officials been more concerned about the shadowy insurgency than capturing Saddam Hussein, the critical first few months of the occupation might have muted the violence to come. Had the same officials thought more carefully about how the motley insurgent groups might react to American actions, instead of treating them as if they were target dummies waiting to be shot and then collected, the Americans and Iraqis might have avoided wasting the first few years of fighting a counterinsurgency war.
These questions of execution can mislead us into believing that there was just a tactical adjustment here, a few extra resources there, that might have led to a happier outcome. The problem with Operation IRAQI FREEDOM was just the same as with MARKET GARDEN: too many elements had to succeed for the overall plan to be anything but a failure.
Refusing to take the sucker's bet
The major difference, of course, was who bore the responsibility for stopping the needlessly risky enterprise (or radically re-designed it to the point where it was a different campaign entirely).
In 1944, Eisenhower should have said no to his nominal subordinate, Montgomery, even if this refusal put greater strain on the American-British alliance. In 2003, the Congress--the President's Constitutional peer--plus the American press, and ultimately the American public, should have recognized a bad plan for what it was. Even if few of them were experts on Iraq, they could have asked the obvious question: "What's the fallback plan if any part of this strategy should go awry?"
For anyone who doesn't see the point of revisiting the failures of 2003, military history poses an obvious question. If, in 2003, Americans were willing to ignore the bloody, awful lessons of 1944, what are the chances that we've really learned the lessons of 2003 yet?