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On top of the record $708 billion defense budget on the table for 2010, the Obama administration is preparing to ask the Congress for an additional $33 billion to fund his escalation of the war in Afghanistan.
At this time I thought it would be nice to take a little journey back through time. Not too far, just sixty-five years and a few days. To a time when America was last on the verge of winning a war.
Most Americans are familiar with the story of the 101st Airborne’s heroic defense of the Belgian town of Bastogne toward the end of World War II in what was called the Battle of the Bulge. Heavily outnumbered, outgunned and surrounded, the successful American defense of Bastogne proved to be the pivotal battle in repelling Hitler’s final offensive of World War II; a last gasp attempt at breaking out across the Siegfried line through the lightly defended Ardennes Forest.
The unheralded story behind the story of the Battle of the Bulge was the five-day battle that pitted three German Armies against the woefully under-manned, under-defended American positions in the cold and foggy Belgian forest. If not for the fierce defense of every square inch of the Ardennes by the beleaguered and battered Americans, the 101st Airborne would never have made it to Bastogne to make their valiant stand.
In early December, 1944, the Ardennes Forest in Belgium was considered a “quiet area” along the relatively static Siegfried line. American commanders were certain that Hitler was in no way capable of launching a major offensive, much less through the difficult terrain of the Ardennes. Little did they know that was exactly what Hitler was planning.
The 28th Infantry Division, consisting mostly of raw troops, fresh from the States, was tasked with maintaining the porous defensive line while easing their green soldiers into combat readiness. At some points in the line the gaps were hundreds of yards between forward listening posts and other sparsely defended positions. In addition to the 28th Infantry and fresh from savage fighting in the nearby Hurtgen Forest, resting elements of the 9th and 10th Armored Divisions were also scattered among the small towns and villages in the Ardennes, taking advantage of the peaceful serenity of the forest and the hospitality of the recently liberated Belgian people.
At some points along the line, the German and American positions were separated by only a few hundred yards. Patrols would often encounter each other and go their separate ways. Germans were often seen in unoccupied towns, rummaging for food or souvenirs. GI’s would often see local prostitutes visiting German pillboxes at night for a little morale boost. All was normal in the “quiet” sector.
In the few days and hours leading up to the surprise German offensive, front-line positions began reporting increased activity across the Our River, along with the evidence of increased German incursions into towns along the forward line. These reports, together with increased reports of heavy equipment movements across the Our, were all but ignored by American commanders up the chain. They were convinced that a German attack in this sector was impossible and highly unlikely. In fact, two full days into the battle American commanders were still convinced that this was merely a spoiling attack and not a major offensive.
As the evening of December fourteenth plodded along like so many others before, many Americans along the forward lines sensed that something big was in the works. Assurances from commanders above did little to assuage the growing unease felt by many GI’s as the calendar turned to December 15, 1944; the last night of rest for many of these soldiers. Death was lurking in the inky darkness, poised to strike. In just a few hours, the Ardennes would explode into violence, and the Americans would be forced to take the full brunt of Hitler’s war machine in a desperate attempt to delay the German advance to Bastogne.
The Ardennes Forest was lightly populated, dotted with small villages and towns, some consisting of only a crossroads and a few buildings. One such town, Clervaux, had a medieval castle overlooking it from a nearby hillside. As the town was overrun, its last surviving defenders were pushed behind those impenetrable walls, along with a few German POW’s and several civilians. For more than two days a small band of American GI’s from the 110th Infantry Regiment held off elements of three German armies under relentless artillery barrage and tank and infantry assault.
Facing imminent destruction, low on ammunition and food, and concerned for the safety of the civilians in the castle, Captain John Aiken made the difficult decision to surrender. It was well known that the Germans were executing many prisoners in cold blood, so when the Americans emerged from the castle to be met with the sight of mounted machine guns, they thought their fate was sealed.
The German commander was absolutely furious that such a rag-tag group was able to not only hold up for two days the German advance to Bastogne, but that they were able to kill so many of his infantry; more than three hundred Germans lay dead in the narrow streets of Clervaux. As the Americans were lined up against the castle wall for execution, their former POW approached the German commander and surprisingly intervened on their behalf.
One GI spoke a little German and was able to piece together some of the conversation. The POW was relaying to the commander that his treatment by the Americans was quite good, and that he and his soldiers were well taken care of, well fed, and protected by the Americans during the artillery barrage. Other German soldiers were overheard wondering how they would feed the prisoners and where they would take them. After all, the advance to Bastogne had already been badly delayed; they absolutely had to beat the Americans to that important objective. Germany’s very future may well depend on who gets there first.
After the conversation, the German commander turned to his prisoners and said, “You men are now prisoners of the Third Reich. Originally my intent was to shoot you for…all my dead soldiers. But this sergeant tells me that his treatment in your captivity was good.” (1) And with that, the prisoners were led off to the rear of the German lines, but not before they were tasked with burying the enemy dead.
There were many tales of heroism during those five days of hellish battle in the Ardennes Forest. There were countless acts of bravery, and even a few of cowardice; many tales of atrocities and barbaric behavior, unimaginable human suffering and carnage; stories of unfathomable courage in the face of overwhelming odds and certain, brutal death.
And as it turned out, the 101st Infantry made it to Bastogne with nary a second to spare, and so commenced the Americans’ storied defense of the little Belgian town.
That was then.
How the roles have reversed. Today it is America on the offensive, ostensibly in defense of the fatherland – er, I mean the homeland. Hell-bent on dominating the planet and inflicting our “values” on the rest of the world through force of arms, with little or no regard for international law or basic human decency, history or culture.
Our military and intelligence services are whipped into a feeding frenzy based on misguided nationalism, ready to wage war on any one and every one that dares defy our bid for global supremacy. The world is ours, and we must have it. We deserve it, because we’re the greatest damn people on the planet.
In the span of sixty-five years, we have become the very embodiment of global tyranny that an entire generation had mobilized to defeat. We have forgotten the lessons of World War II and the Battle of the Bulge. As Americans in 1944, we stared death in the face in the cold, hard Belgian winter and emerged victorious. We held the moral high ground and refused to cede even an inch of it. We selflessly defended freedom almost to the last man.
These wars we fight today are not about defending freedom. These are not honorable wars against significant, imminent threats to our survival. They are wars of aggression and empire – fought for ancient reasons, using ancient jealousies and suspicions.
They say that history repeats itself. It is with much sadness that in our own very short history, we find ourselves for the first time on the wrong side of it.
We were supposed to be better than this. Where did we go wrong? And do we have the will and desire to stand up and correct it? Do we even want to?
(1) Taken from “Alamo in the Ardennes: the untold story of the American soldiers who made the defense of Bastogne possible” by John C. McManus, 2007.
Also read “Battle: the story of the Bulge” by John Toland, 1959