On the 50th anniversary of D-Day in 1994, I was a young Navy commander serving as captain of my first ship, the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer Barry. She’s still in commission — a grizzled veteran of America’s wars over the past three decades.
But in those days, she was state-of-the-art, and we were afforded a remarkable honor: to pass in review before Queen Elizabeth II at Spithead, U.K., then to sail across the English channel to the shores of France.
Our short voyage mirrored the launch of the D-Day operation the night of June 5, 1944, and we ended up anchoring off the beaches of Normandy in position to be part of the backdrop for the speeches by the allied heads of state, including President Bill Clinton. It was a meaningful moment for my young crew to sail through the waters our predecessors had in Operation Neptune, the naval portion of the larger
It is now 75 years since
D-Day, and its lessons are timeless. But how, specifically, can looking back help the U.S. and its allies deal with the security challenges of the 21st century?
First, we must recognize that the oceans continue to matter deeply as fields of both strategic and tactical maneuver.
In order to keep the Allies from opening a second front in Europe, Hitler was forced to create the so-called Atlantic Wall. This meant defending vast stretches of coastline from the Arctic tip of Norway to southern France, thus thinning out his defensive capability.
When the combined forces of the 13 allied nations stormed ashore at Normandy, they included more than 150,000 troops on nearly 7,000 vessels of all sizes. The oceans provided tactical surprise because the opponent could not know exactly where the hammer blow would fall.
That same ability to use the world’s oceans for strategic and especially tactical surprise is why the Navy still maintains highly sophisticated amphibious assault ships, and why there are more than 200,000 active and reserve Marines.
A second abiding lesson of D-Day is the value of surprise, deception and operational security.
Knowing that Hitler would have a major intelligence effort directed against the invasion planning, the Allies concocted a detailed “fake army” led by General George Patton. The ruse included false units (complete with divisional patches), fake training exercises and dummy message traffic — all designed to make the Nazis believe the attack would come farther north than the actual target at Normandy.
A third lesson is something prosaic, yet critical: We cannot control the weather (at least not yet).
Looking back on the hand-wringing and back-and-forth of decision-making by General Dwight Eisenhower and his leadership team, it is striking how much depended on the weather. The final lesson is the simplest and the most important – count on the courage, honor and commitment of U.S. and allied military forces.
As the sun rose on the overcast June morning in 1994, I stood on the bridge of the Barry — just like, I imagine, those D-Day ship captains had 50 years earlier — and looked in awe at the formidable cliffs of Pointe du Hoc.
On D-Day, 225 American Rangers scaled those heights and destroyed a key set of German large-caliber defensive guns. All but 90 were killed or wounded.
In today’s increasingly authoritarian world, it is easy to lose sight of the basic values worth upholding. The Millennial U.S. troops walking through Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria today understand that as deeply as the troops fighting the Nazis did.
The most important lesson of D-Day is that the free world must continue to support and nurture young men and women who are willing to go forward and defend democracy — as the boys of Pointe du Hoc did so well.
James Stavridis is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist.