Issue of the Week: War
D-Day, June 6, 1944–June 6, 2019, 75th anniversary, Time
It is impossible to overstate the importance of D-Day, June 6, 1944, the largest amphibious invasion in history, of Nazi occupied Europe on the beaches of Normandy, by the allied forces in World War Two.
75 years ago last Thursday.
Almost all of the first wave of Americans landing, or attempting to, on Omaha beach, were killed. The hideous percentages of deaths in each succeeding wave slowly diminished.
These boys, and mostly they were, many if not most of whom had left their home towns for the first time–came to what for them was another planet–to save the world.
All of this has been said over and over. And it can never be said too much.
The allies, first in the Battle of Britain, then in North Africa and Italy and other places, mainly the Americans and British, but with forces from many nations, in bombings throughout the Nazi empire and of Germany as they dominated the air over time, and the Russians everywhere in their own country, with millions of dead, finally inch by inch at Stalingrad, had already turned the tide.
But there was nothing certain yet.
The Normandy invasion could easily have failed and nearly did, by the whims of weather, scattered and often butchered paratroopers behind the lines, and mostly on Omaha beach, which would have affected everything else. The heroism and sacrifice of thousands dying on that beach, and the other landing points in the invasion, and those who pushed forward with fortitude and strategic intelligence–with the grace of God, a higher power, or whatever you want to call it–saw the allies through.
The world since, with all its best, worst and at least the possibilities for a future of human needs and human rights provided for all humanity, was in effect created that day. There was a reason, as we have observed at length in many posts, that the alllies were called the United Nations, under a charter for the future signifying what the United Nations after the war was intended to be.
The remaining survivors are in their mid to late nineties. If seeing them during the 75th anniversary commemorations didn’t bring tears to your eyes, then seek help. Starting with education on every aspect of what led to that day, what happened that day, what could have happened if the invasion failed, and what has happened since as a result of its success.
We wrote much last year of the end of civilization as we knew it and what this meant, and as noted before, we’ll be back to it. For now, we remind that there was at best no clear path forward for civilization without the success of D-Day. Many days in human history have been critical, but none more so.
We have noted before that perhaps the closest any of us not on Omaha beach that day will ever come to experiencing it is in the first part of the movie Saving Private Ryan. One of the writers here posed the question to another after seeing it–did we really have to do this?
It was that horrible.
Then in the same instant the word “Nazis” flashed through consciousness. Question asked and answered.
But that is how horrible war is and how seriously one must look at it before ever embarking on it.
The writers here have personally and professionally experienced extreme trauma in life, including journalistically with bullets flying past and life at risk. Trauma for all of us is unavoidable to some extent, and to attempt to avoid it can be unhealthy and a deflection of duty, decency and growth. But extreme trauma should only be endured as necessary to prevent a greater trauma and injustice.
The New York Times Magazine on Sunday had a magnificent piece on D-Day–and war–without blinders, by David Chrisinger, The Man Who Told America the Truth About D-Day, through the eyes of the iconic American war correspondent, Ernie Pyle. It follows.
It is critical to remind that while women could not officially serve in combat at that time, they were often the key difference in winning the war. Women spies made all the difference for instance, as reported in the excellent piece in the June issue of The Atlantic by Liza Mundy, Female Spies and Their Secrets. The article also follows.
After that, we conclude with an excerpt from our series, The End Of Civilization As We Knew It, and our encounter with one of the heroes of D-Day and the battles that followed.
. . .
By David Chrisinger, June 9, 2019, The New York Times Magazine
Most of the men in the first wave never stood a chance. In the predawn darkness of June 6, 1944, thousands of American soldiers crawled down swaying cargo nets and thudded into steel landing craft bound for the Normandy coast. Their senses were soon choked with the smells of wet canvas gear, seawater and acrid clouds of powder from the huge naval guns firing just over their heads. As the landing craft drew close to shore, the deafening roar stopped, quickly replaced by German artillery rounds crashing into the water all around them. The flesh under the men’s sea-soaked uniforms prickled. They waited, like trapped mice, barely daring to breathe.
A blanket of smoke hid the heavily defended bluffs above the strip of sand code-named Omaha Beach. Concentrated in concrete pill boxes, nearly 2,000 German defenders lay in wait. The landing ramps slapped down into the surf, and a catastrophic hail of gunfire erupted from the bluffs. The ensuing slaughter was merciless.
But Allied troops kept landing, wave after wave, and by midday they had crossed the 300 yards of sandy killing ground, scaled the bluffs and overpowered the German defenses. By the end of the day, the beaches had been secured and the heaviest fighting had moved at least a mile inland. In the biggest and most complicated amphibious operation in military history, it wasn’t bombs, artillery or tanks that overwhelmed the Germans; it was men — many of them boys, really — slogging up the beaches and crawling over the corpses of their friends that won the Allies a toehold at the western edge of Europe.
That victory was a decisive leap toward defeating Hitler’s Germany and winning the Second World War. It also changed the way America’s most famous and beloved war correspondent reported what he saw. In June 1944, Ernie Pyle, a 43-year-old journalist from rural Indiana, was as ubiquitous in the everyday lives of millions of Americans as Walter Cronkite would be during the Vietnam War. What Pyle witnessed on the Normandy coast triggered a sort of journalistic conversion for him: Soon his readers — a broad section of the American public — were digesting columns that brought them more of the war’s pain, costs and losses. Before D-Day, Pyle’s dispatches from the front were full of gritty details of the troops’ daily struggles but served up with healthy doses of optimism and a reliable habit of looking away from the more horrifying aspects of war. Pyle was not a propagandist, but his columns seemed to offer the reader an unspoken agreement that they would not have to look too closely at the deaths, blood and corpses that are the reality of battle. Later, Pyle was more stark and honest.
For days after the landing, no one back home in the States had any real sense of what was happening, how the invasion was progressing or how many Americans were being killed.
. . .
Liza Mundy, Books, June 2019 Issue, The Atlantic
An old-boy operation was transformed by women during World War II, and at last the unsung upstarts are getting their due.
D-Day Girls: The Spies Who Armed the Resistance, Sabotaged the Nazis, and Helped Win World War II
Madame Fourcade’s Secret War: The Daring Young Woman Who Led France’s Largest Spy Network Against Hitler
A Woman of No Importance: The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War II
Code Name: Lise: The True Story of the Woman Who Became WWII’s Most Highly Decorated Spy
Are women useful as spies? If so, in what capacity? Maxwell Knight, an officer in MI5, Britain’s domestic-counterintelligence agency, sat pondering these questions. Outside his office, World War II had begun, and Europe’s baptism by blitzkrieg was under way. In England—as in the world—the intelligence community was still an all-male domain, and a clubby, upper-crust one at that. But a lady spy could come in handy, as Knight was about to opine.
In a memo “on the subject of Sex, in connection with using women as agents,” Knight ventured that one thing women spies could do was seduce men to extract information. Not just any woman could manage this, he cautioned—only one who was not “markedly oversexed or undersexed.” Like the proverbial porridge, a female agent must be neither too hot nor too cold. If the lady is “undersexed,” she will lack the charisma needed to woo her target. But if she “suffers from an overdose of Sex,” as he put it, her boss will find her “terrifying.”
“What is required,” Knight wrote, “is a clever woman who can use her personal attractions wisely.” And there you have it—the conventional wisdom about women and spycraft. Intelligence officers had long presumed that women’s special assets for spying were limited to strategically deployed female abilities: batting eyelashes, soliciting pillow talk, and of course maintaining files and typing reports. Overseeing operations? Not so much.
Historically, women had indeed counted on their charms in practicing espionage, mostly because charms were often the only kind of weapon permitted them. During the American Civil War, when a group of elite hostesses relied on their social connections to gather intelligence for both sides, Harriet Tubman was an outlier who actually ran spying efforts. But the aggression, vision, and executive capacity required to direct an operation were not considered within the female repertoire.
Even as Knight was ordering his memo typed, however, change was at hand. World War II, a “total war” that required all able male bodies for global fighting, offered new opportunities. In the United States, “Wild Bill” Donovan recruited blue-blooded women for his Office of Strategic Services, the forerunner of the CIA. Among them was the future chef Julia Child. But most OSS women were consigned to the secretarial pool, the “apron strings” of Donovan’s outfit, in his words. Those who went far beyond their brief—his secretary Eloise Page helped plan Operation Torch, the invasion of North Africa—got little recognition.
Europe presented more possibilities. Spy agencies were expanding to cope with the need for covert action in countries where insurrection had to be plotted under the noses of occupying Germans. The French Resistance called on women’s courage, as did the Special Operations Executive, or SOE, created by Winston Churchill to “set Europe ablaze” by planting bombs, stealing plans, and stoking internal opposition. Colloquially known as the Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare, the SOE sought agents willing to parachute into occupied France or be off-loaded by air or sea. Behind enemy lines, SOE operatives had to recruit locals as agents, establish networks, receive clandestine shipments, set up safe houses, manage communications, suss out traitors.
The SOE’s leaders were readier than the old boys of MI5 and MI6, the foreign-intelligence agency, to grant that women enjoyed certain advantages. Many French men had been sent to labor camps in Germany, so women operatives were better able to blend in with a mostly female population. As Sarah Rose writes in D-Day Girls: The Spies Who Armed the Resistance, Sabotaged the Nazis, and Helped Win World War II, a British captain who recruited three female SOE agents, Selwyn Jepson, believed that women were psychologically suited to behind-enemy-lines work—“secretive, accustomed to isolation, possessed of a ‘cool and lonely courage.’ ” Some officers thought women had greater empathy and caretaking instincts, which equipped them to recruit and support ordinary citizens as agents. Women were considered good couriers—a high-risk role—because they could rely on ingratiation and seeming naïveté as tools in tight spots. The war also provided openings for women to show that they could execute operations, making strategic life-and-death decisions.
In intelligence, as in computer science and so many other fields associated with male prowess, women have made far more important contributions than they have gotten credit for—but a recent boom in attention to their stories is remedying that. “In the French resistance as a whole, women played crucial roles,” the historian Lynne Olson writes in Madame Fourcade’s Secret War: The Daring Young Woman Who Led France’s Largest Spy Network Against Hitler, her masterful biography of Marie-Madeleine Fourcade, the patronne, or boss, of Alliance, one of the largest Resistance networks. Nazi sexism helped: Germans’ stereotyped ideas about female domesticity blinded them, early on at least, to women spies in their midst.
In some cases, women had their own blinkered views of female leadership to overcome. Barely 30 when she was recruited in 1940, Fourcade had lived abroad, and relished the liberated environment of 1930s Paris. Still, she was astonished when “Navarre,” the code name for Georges Loustaunau-Lacau, asked her to be his deputy. Being a woman surely ruled her out, she protested to the World War I hero, who was secretly mobilizing citizens worried by Nazi aggression in Europe. That was precisely why she would be above suspicion, he told her. “Good God—it’s a woman!” cried another recruit, who became one of her most trusted aides. After Navarre was arrested in Algiers in 1941, Fourcade became the undisputed leader of Alliance.
The Alliance network, backed by MI6, comprised thousands of agents; its main mission was to infiltrate German submarine bases along the coast and report on U-boat movements. The head of a shipyard provided crucial plans and drawings. On the bases, bartenders and prostitutes listened to chatter, which Fourcade passed on to the British in code. She and her lieutenants hiked into fields at night, waving in planes flown by Royal Air Force pilots. Fourcade’s code name—POZ 55 at first, and later Hedgehog—initially enabled her to hide her gender from the old-line British officers. She feared they wouldn’t take her seriously, and she didn’t want to risk the lives of agents in her network, who depended on British support and funding. When she did meet one U.K. colleague, she was accompanied by a male deputy. “This is a joke, isn’t it?” the British agent said. Looking at the man, he asked: “You are the real POZ 55?”
Fourcade showed the skeptics who was boss—not least by pushing the British to alter their communications routine to protect her agents. In occupied Europe, being a wireless-radio operator was one of the most dangerous jobs, and it often fell to women. Nazis on patrol would look for a signal emanating from a house or a hotel room, and then strike. For Fourcade’s agents in touch with London, every moment spent awaiting a British response put them at risk. She wanted the Brits to make contact first. Hammering at the war bureaucracy of men in pin-striped suits, she persisted in making the case for her department’s safety and welfare.
The intelligence her network provided was astonishing. One of her assets was the brilliant Jeannie Rousseau, who spoke five languages and at age 20 began working as a German translator. Rousseau hung around with Nazi officers, who seized the chance to mansplain their exploits, including a new rocket technology, the V‑2, the first ballistic missile. As she later put it: “I was such a little one sitting with them, and I could not but hear what was said. And what they did not say, I prompted.” They also showed her their plans. Rousseau had a photographic memory. Fourcade passed the material to the British, who bombed the rocket plant at Peenemünde. Impressed, the British sought to bring Rousseau to London for debriefing. En route, she was captured and taken to a concentration camp, where she survived through remarkable acts of defiance.
In 1943, when the Germans began to crack down on saboteurs in grim earnest, the Alliance network was a chief target. Scores of agents were arrested in successive waves. Among them were women tortured by Klaus Barbie, the “Butcher of Lyon,” who burned their breasts with cigarettes. “In my network, no woman ever faltered, even under the most extreme kinds of torture,” Fourcade later remembered. “I owed my freedom to many who were questioned until they lost consciousness, but never revealed my whereabouts, even when they knew exactly where I was.” She was exfiltrated to England, after a two-and-a-half-year career running operations against the Nazis—most Resistance leaders lasted no more than six months in place before their cover was blown—and continued to work from there. “I’ve often wondered what you were like,” one male British colleague confessed upon meeting her.
If obstacles hone leadership (as research suggests), few female spies cleared more hurdles than Virginia Hall, one of the SOE’s first operatives of either gender and the subject of A Woman of No Importance: The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War II. She became, as the British journalist Sonia Purnell writes, “the most successful Allied female secret agent,” unimpeded by her sex or by a wooden leg she nicknamed “Cuthbert.” (According to a famous anecdote, Hall was trekking across the snowy Pyrenees to escape the Gestapo, and radioed to her handlers that Cuthbert was giving her trouble. The response from a novice: “Have him eliminated.”)
Born into Baltimore high society in 1906, Hall grew up outdoorsy, adept with horses and guns. She ditched a boring fiancé, attended Barnard College, traveled to Jazz Age Paris, and studied in Vienna. When her father lost his fortune during the Depression and then died, she took jobs as a clerk in the American embassies in Poland and Turkey (where, while snipe-hunting, she blew off her foot and nearly died of sepsis). She tried over and over to join the U.S. diplomatic corps, but the State Department kept turning her down on flimsy pretexts. After war broke out, she began driving an ambulance in France, among the few active jobs for which women, even one missing a leg, were accepted.What many of these women spies had in common—along with grit and remarkable courage—was a man who saw their potential. Key in Hall’s case was George Bellows, an undercover British agent milling around a Spanish border-town train station in 1940, gathering intelligence for the SOE. He chatted with Hall, whose sights were set on England as the Nazis overran France. The British realized that an American—the U.S. was still neutral—could move freely without attracting suspicion in occupied France.
Under the cover of being a newspaper reporter, Hall operated as a “secret liaison officer,” on an ambitious and dangerous mission to build a Resistance network in Lyon, where she knew no one. “In the field, she would either learn fast or die,” Purnell writes. Hall learned fast. In a city overrun with refugees from occupied sectors, she recruited women helpers from marginalized communities. Hall quickly went way beyond her job description. She began collecting details on the political situation in France. She helped downed British pilots escape, organizing French women to escort them to safety.
Much like successful women today, Hall was called brusque, and her handlers were reluctant to formalize her authority as chief. Instead they elevated a reckless and incompetent agent codenamed Alain. Yet her self-taught professionalism and, yes, caretaking instincts made Hall a magnet for incoming operatives. “Her apartment had become the center of all resistance,” Purnell writes, and she was soon directing operations herself. Alain, her nemesis, was fired for “womanizing, boasting, and boozing.”Hall’s “success opened the gates to more women agents,” Purnell points out—agents who faced mounting danger. Nazi reprisals became savage. Hitler wrote a memo saying that saboteurs would be “annihilated without exception,” and of the 39 women sent to France by the SOE, a third never returned. Some ended up in Ravensbrück, the women’s concentration camp. Some were poisoned, others shot. Odette Sansom, one of the operatives featured in Rose’s D-Day Girls and the subject of a biography by Larry Loftis, Code Name: Lise, survived being burned and having her toenails pulled out. She never divulged the information the Germans wanted.
Virginia Hall, though hunted by Klaus Barbie and arrested at least once, always managed to get away. Eventually she was exfiltrated, and worked in Spain until late 1943. She was then finally hired by her own country, and the OSS sent her back into France, under heavy disguise. She directed guerrilla forces to support the D-Day landings by destroying railway communications, organizing roadblocks and ambushes, and cutting telephone wires. Incredibly, the OSS refused to put her officially in charge. Having a woman at the head of a paramilitary operation was considered “controversial,” so putative control was given to her petulant, often-absent male boss. Disguised as a milkmaid, she sold cheese and eavesdropped on the German Seventh Army, which, Purnell writes, helped “pave the way for the Allied recapture of Paris.”After the war, the contribution of these women was overlooked and then forgotten. The CIA blossomed, becoming institutionalized, slick, and buttoned-down—a place where, in Purnell’s words, “brilliant masculine brains and well-connected college kids had taken charge.” Hall stayed on, but nobody quite knew what to do with the person one wet-eared upstart described as “the gung-ho lady” from the war. In 1953, the head of the CIA, Allen Dulles, convened a “Petticoat Panel” to look into attitudes toward women at the agency. Compared with men, they were seen as more emotional, less objective, and insufficiently aggressive.
That was then. Now the CIA is directed by a woman, Gina Haspel, who has promoted veteran women to head top directorates. These leaders have antecedents, whether or not they know it. Thanks to these overdue volumes, they can now find out all about them.
. . .
On August 29 last year we posted the sixth installemt of our series, The End of Civilization As We Knew It. The piece was lengthy, wide-ranging and one of our more important ones. It deals with much that led up to and has transpired as a result of or in spite of the defeat of fascism in World War Two, our work and various states of public awareness and consciousness up to today, and many related topics. We recommend revisiting it in full. However, for the purpose of this post, we revisit the following:
Last year, we posted that twenty years ago tomorrow, “we arrived with our production crew from Seattle in Charlotte, North Carolina. It was Saturday night. We were starting one of the biggest shoots in our history for a public service campaign over the Labor Day weekend, in the U.S.”
A major focus of the post last year was learning of the death of Princess Diana upon arriving, the impact it had globally and why. It was being revisited in a major manner in the media at the time on the twentieth anniversary. We will revisit that post, observations then and related observations since, at another time.
The point of this revisiting of our production in Charlotte that year, is the production itself, and what happened during it.
The purpose of the production of the public service ads was, in the most general sense, to promote community service. One of the series of ads (different lengths and venues, TV, radio, print), was focused on regular basketball games for and between youth in the community.
It was an astonishing and inspiring sight. The kids, across gender and racial identities, playing as equals together—all out. All with absolute respect and comradery. And pride, in themselves and each other.
Girls and boys racing full-court, back and forth. With incredible skill, grace and passion. With physical endurance born of doing this over and over. No gender or racial stereotypes. A human family.
It was an activist’s dream and a filmmaker’s dream.
We had a large production team and a lot of equipment. And we made the best of it—to make the best of what the kids showed us. Spinning, jumping, shooting. Fast motion passing—the ball sped up for a second laser-like. To slow motion of all the kids spread across the court, just standing together, at different depths, all eyes on the cameras.
Faces serious, eyes soulful, penetrating. Look at us, the eyes demanded. Respect us as we respect ourselves and each other. We are the future.
Then back to the game, our best shots from above the net as they took theirs.
We were looking at what we’d been fighting for all our lives.
Equality. Strength of character. Empathy. Common purpose.
The kids were from different backgrounds. Some, perhaps most, if not being where they were and doing what they were doing, would be at-risk, or more at-risk.
Then, an improbable sight.
A white man in his mid-seventies starts to play with them.
For as long as they do.
He’s one of them. And an important character in our mini-movies in this production.
We talked with him, and the kids, at-length, in between takes, and after we finished the shoot.
We learned from others that the man in his mid-seventies, 53 years earlier as we spoke, had been on the beaches of Normandy and fighting the Nazis in the hedgerows.
In film terms, the closest one could perhaps come to understanding these experiences would be in the movie Saving Private Ryan and the HBO series Band of Brothers (based on the book by Stephen Ambrose). We recommend reading everything one can about such events. But in an age when film and related media are the cultural communication currency in many ways, and are their own meaningful experience as an art form that at best can put you in the experience in a virtual manner, the above are indispensable.
When we first saw Band of Brothers in 2001, Richard Davis “Dick” Winters, the commander of “Easy Company” (who died in 2011), portrayed by Damien Lewis, reminded us—exactly—of the man on the court with the kids in Charlotte.
This is, in a way, a well-known stereotype of the young men in that generation who fought to save the world. But it is clear, from our experience of many others who served in this war, and the widely-discussed and written-about experience of nearly everyone about this generation, a stereotype that is true.
It’s utterly humbling to be in the presence of such a person. They are incredibly humble themselves. Their focus is on others. On service. The man on the court in Charlotte came every day, to be with and grow with and be a mentor, as an example, for the kids, who treated them as equals and more.
The one thing he wouldn’t do—again a stereotype that’s true—was talk about his wartime experience. Perhaps in part a stoicism that both served and hurt his generation (everyone since could use more of the stoicism—the full-range of the roots of the term need to be studied if one is not aware). But the larger reason appeared to be humility. You did your duty. It was your honor. You are, by a miracle you cannot understand, or by chance you cannot stand, still alive, instead of your brothers you watched die. You would never allow yourself to be seen as heroic or as trying to be seen that way.
Which of course just increases the level of heroism the rest of us witness.
There was a point when talking about this became naturally unavoidable.
The man started to call us by positive adjectives we can’t stand to repeat, speaking of not being able to stand something. What we do has always been our honor. But to hear this man speak of us so kindly with our saying nothing about him was unbearable. We tried not to. But we teared-up. And when he asked why, the tears rolled down one of our cheeks.
So, we talked. And we thanked him. And we kept thanking him until he stopped trying to stop us. And the moment was so genuine that it became clear in his eyes, then his words, how genuinely he appreciated it.
. . .
The appreciation, in the end, from all of us who have lived and are living since, is for him and all of his brothers and sisters who sacrficed everything for all of us.