Lessons Learned from Combat

Lately, I have been on a history book kick. A few months ago I finished the biography of John Adams, David McCullough (took me a year to read it, but I read the last half in two months). Next, I’d like to start reading Eric Metaxas’ biography Bonhoeffer. And recently, I just finished Stephen Ambrose’s Citizen Soldiers. If you’ve never had the good pleasure of reading Ambrose’s books, you must. I also read his book Band of Brothers. In both of these books Ambrose retells GI’s stories that make me wish I was an Allied soldier fighting to liberate Europe from the Nazis. Of course, my view on the valor of WWII is highly romanticized. At any rate, Citizen Soldiers is worth your time namely because it gives you first hand accounts of soldiers on the front lines. It seeks to tell the history of WWII as the GIs saw it.

Citizen Soldiers goes from Ike and his generals’ broad plans in the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force, all the way down to the impact of these decisions for each man on the line. Ambrose puts you in the foxholes with the Allied men to revel at their countless heroic deeds by America’s Greatest Generation. Ambrose’s ability to humanize war causes you to grieve the death of the millions of men who died fighting for the freedom of Europe and saving the Jewish people.

When I think about it, I am amazed by the execution and final outcome of the entire European Theater of Operation. Millions of people, and millions more of resources (e.g. food, clothing, guns, artillery, bombs, tanks, jeeps, planes, boats, gas, medical supplies, etc), came together to overcome Hitler’s Third Reich. The communication and the coordination needed to accomplish such a feat is truly awe inspiring. The potential for failure was great; but the determination to rise against the odds was greater.

I have spent some time reflecting on what I read in Ambrose’s book. To be honest, I was struck by the principles needed for war that could be applied in everyday life. Citizen Soldiers has helped refresh my perspective on my life as a civilian (e.g. I’ll never have to sit in a foxhole under the barrage of heavy enemy artillery fire) and given me anecdotes for the necessity and implementation of these principles. Below are a list of 10 lessons I learned from combat that I never fought in. And probably never will thanks to the GIs of WWII and our current armed American forces. To them, I am extremely grateful and truly humbled before God by their service.

  1. Dig in & stay alert!
    In the sky, missions required airmen to remain awake for 3-7 or more hours before they reached their target; in case enemy planes caused any trouble. “Men took care to drink only one cup of coffee and hold down on the food at breakfast.”1 On the ground, sleepless nights were plenty for men on the main line of resistance because of the potential for a night attack and the occasional artillery fire that also happened often in the day. The need to stay alert is obvious, or else the enemy would take you by surprise.
    I don’t need to protect myself from an actual enemy. But I do need to protect myself mostly from boredom, slothfulness, and my selfish desires. In our culture today, we get barraged with thousands of potential distractions a day, not to mention the bad impulses of my own heart. It’s all too easy to succumb to these distractions and let them impact my love for Christ, my marriage, friendships, career goals, responsibilities, etc. Therefore, staying alert is key. If any of us want succeed in anything we need to keep an eye out for anything that will hold us back; and guard against them.
  2. Share a foxhole.War is lonely. In many places across the front lines, foxholes could be separated by 50 plus meters. No man would dare yell to the next hole for fear of giving away his position to the Krauts and soon face mortar or other artillery fire. During the winter, a foxhole companion was necessary to keep warm. “Holding the line… meant a continual battle against trench foot and mental depression, sweating out artillery barrage [sent down at meal times and at night]… most of all it meant hours and days of deadly boredom.”2 To keep sane and gain some partial energy at night, men needed a foxhole buddy to pass the time and to switch off watching for Germans.
    In order to stay alert, sharing a foxhole is crucial. For some, this is easier to do. But if you’re like me, you need to work at it. I tend to act more independently, and often times I begrudge the help of others for the ‘comfort’ of going it alone. But the anecdote of war is the best picture I know of that proves me wrong. Either I struggle to stay alert on my own and increase my chances of injury and death (metaphorically speaking); or I lean on someone for help (as they do to me). Chiefly, my wife is best suited to do this for me. She has the best position of anyone I know to see my blind spots; as I do to her. I would do well to let her see my mind blind spots more often; as well as welcoming my close friends, co-workers, and family to point them out. It’s not a question of whether or not I need help. It’s a question of will I seek help and help others.
  3. Know and identify the objective.
    The goal of the Allied forces’ invasion into Normandy was to liberate Europe from Nazi control and force the Germans to complete and unconditional surrender. Period. If you don’t know your objective in war then your resources, plans, training, and strategy count for nothing. The same is true in life.
    As a Christian, I believe that all of us have a higher calling to love God and love our neighbors through Jesus Christ according to the unique gifts and strengths the Lord has blessed us with. Each of us also has our own individual or communal objectives. Whether it be with our spouses, families, churches, employers, city, state, or country, we all need to have a goal in mind. Otherwise, the efforts of principles 1 and 2 above count for squat. A lot of the times we may not get to see the final result. But our efforts won’t be in vain; especially if they are done for a cause that goes beyond our individual self and seeks to bless others. And frankly, having an objective and purpose in life will help prevent against a host of issues that result from an overvaluation or devaluation of our personal identities. We need to realize that we were made for a purpose. Our lives, here and in eternity, depend on it.
  4. Prepare your soldiers for combat.
    Fail to plan, then plan to fail. Operation Overlord, that is D-Day (June 6th, 1944) was an invasion two years in the making. The plans to invade France were so extensive and all encompassing that upon receiving captured plans of the Allied invasion, a German officer said “I must say that in my entire military life, I have never been so impressed… [I] knew at that moment Germany was going to lose this war.”3 In addition to logistical preparations and plans of actually liberating France, millions of men had to get on the same page and be trained for the job. This took years of physical training, learning tactical formations, developing an intimate understanding of your rifle, and receiving the skills needed for your role within your platoon.
    Well, this should go without saying, but the same is true outside of war too. America’s own education system takes 12 years to develop people for the real world. And for many of us we go on to get additional training to achieve our goals in life. I have too many postulations on how education might be done better and more adequately prepare each of us for life. But suffice it to say, training and education take a lot of individual effort. Perhaps the greatest goal an educator should have is to teach their students how to become self-learners, and to achieve a level of self-awareness that understands their strengths and weaknesses. It doesn’t do us much good to have a goal and not know how to asses what we need to attain it.
  5. Experience is the best training for combat.
    According to the GIs that Ambrose interviewed over the years, “Nothing can prepare you for combat.”4
    The best experience for these men to become toughened soldiers wasn’t through boot camp, but actually fighting the enemy. If anything the mental stamina they would need to overcome their fears was an accomplishment in itself and every man had to wrestle with the likelihood of death.
    This point may stand in the face against my previous one, but it is important to acknowledge that training can only take a person so far. It’s real-life, real-time, situations that will actually fashion a person to take what they’ve learned and apply it to their circumstances. This is called wisdom. And wisdom can only come by living life.
  6. Listen to your soldiers.
    Arguably, the greatest failure of the Allied Forces in the ETO for WWII was the Replacement System. “Had the Germans been given a free hand to devise a replacement system for ETO, one that would do the Americans the most harm and least good, they could not have done a better job.”5 “[It] was guilty of the worst sin of all in war, inefficiency.”6 Instead of focusing on the quality of the replacement soldiers the SHAEF was sending to reenforce the front lines, they focused on quantity. This error in judgment lead to the loss in lives of countless men. The staff officers and commanders rarely saw the front lines and developed their strategies largely based on what they received from intel and the maps they had in their headquarters. The Army did a terrible job of asking or listening to men on the field and heeding their feedback to be taught to the replacement soldiers reenforcing Europe. Many lives could have been saved because of this. “… in many, if not all, cases enlisted men knew better what to do in actual combat than their officers.”7
    Currently, I don’t lead a team through my employer, own a business, have children, or have any station of leadership that is beholden to a few people. But I do have a wife. And in my ripe age of 26 and less than one year of marriage, I can already say that there are several things I should have listened to my wife before doing them. It seems to me that for anyone to effectively lead, they must maintain good communication and listen to the people they are leading. The ‘followers’ have a perspective in the situation that most leaders don’t; probably because they aren’t the ones in the trenches. Which is the great irony of it all. The best leaders will be the ones who get in the trenches with their spouse, children, co-workers, congregation, constituents or what have you.
  7. Beware of battle fatigue.
    For every man in war there is a breaking point. Battle fatigue isn’t just physical exhaustion it’s the last straw from high stress, high danger, and hellish conditions before becoming hysterical. Most men did not recognize their fatigue on their own, but good company commanders were keen to the needs of their soldiers. At the slightest sense of battle fatigue CoCOs would send their men back to the aid station for a few hours wear they could get new clothes and hot food. As Captain Winters said, it was a “miracle that would occur [for] a man about to crack if you could just get him out of his foxhole and back to the CP for a few hours… that is what he needed to keep going.”8
    There are two points to be made from this anecdote. One, we need rest. The mission cannot succeed if we never rest from the progress, or lack there of, we’ve made. Two, often times it is not us individually who can spot or observe the rest we need. Each of us needs to be on the look out for anyone who may be weary and seek to give them rest. Why? Because someday you’ll need to be told to rest too. As I said in my previous point, good leaders are in the trenches with their soldiers. Good leaders can sense the needs of their followers and seek to meet them.
  8. Reenforce your position.
    General Patton “was constantly looking for ways to improve… [toward the end of Winter 1945,] he ordered all the Sherman tanks in his army to have an additional two and a half inches of armor plate… [put on the tanks].” Because of this order, Allied tanks could finally receive a direct hit from some of the Krauts biggest guns.9 If you were an infantryman in between artillery barrages, you’d be fortifying your foxhole by digging it deeper or adding branches and logs to protect from shrapnel.
    One of the great benefits that rest provides is reflection and meditation. That is, there’s time to process all that you’ve just done, or has happened to you. In order to improve, rest is necessary. But rest must always come back to action and implement what it has gained. The inability or negligence to improve is a costly situation. Because, if you don’t figure out how to do things better than you had, then something may just come along that keeps your from accomplishing your goals/mission altogether.
  9. Keep a Reserve Army.
    By the end of February 1945, flexibility was Ike’s key tactical strength. He positioned himself and the Allies to exploit any opportunity they could against the Krauts. “‘If we jam our head up against a concentrated defense  at a selected spot,’ he said ‘we must be able to go forward elsewhere. Flexibility requires reserves.'” What [Ike] had learned in the preceding 28 months of combat was to expect to be surprised and to be ready to seize opportunities.”10
    As in war, life is full of surprises.  There are two things we can learn from Ike’s flexibility. One, there are always going to be situations that arise you could have never planned for; no matter how foresightful you are (e.g. a car engine blowing, theft, injury, etc). The best way to counter unexpected happenings is to have back up supplies. It does not matter how flexible you are as an individual and how capable you are at adapting to surprises if you don’t have the resources to overcome the challenges posed by any unforeseen event. Two, know when you’re plans aren’t working and you need to try something else. In other words, have a backup plan. For most of us in America, in order to be flexible in our plans and reactions, this boils down to money. Save your money. You’ll never know when you’ll actually need it.
  10. Keep moving!
    German fixed defenses (bunkers that could withstand a good bit of artillery fire and shelling) were quite amazing in their design and luxuries. While many GIs were hunkered down in holes dugout with shovels and pick-axes, many Germans enjoyed the comforts of showers, toilets, kitchens, storerooms and other conveniences. One would think with these amenities, and the relative amount of protection they had, the Germans could stop any offensive. However, German fixed defenses were eventually overcome not by heavy artillery, as one would expect, but by dynamite placed on the back entrance into the Germans’ bunkers. These doors were the only way in and out. Once the Allies blew open the doors, the Krauts weren’t going anywhere. “To Patton, this was yet another proof of “the utter futility of fixed defenses… In war, the only sure defense is offense, and the efficiency of offense depends on the warlike souls of those conducting it.'”11
    If you’re not moving, you’re dead. The Germans put a tremendous amount of effort and resources into building fixed defenses in which they could fight. The only problem with them was they didn’t work. Instead of trying to actually push the enemy out, they tried to keep the enemy back. The way I would liken the futility of their efforts is the same way we see companies fail in the market. If a company doesn’t keep improving their products or coming out with new ones, another company is sure to come along and do a better job. That’s exactly what happened with the Germans and their fixed defenses. Once the defenses were built, there wasn’t much they could do to make them better. The Allies on the other hand, kept moving forward. They found the weaknesses of their enemy and capitalized on them.
    The lesson here is, you will never accomplish your goal or mission if you just wait for it to happen. You need to keep moving forward.

1. Ambrose, Stephen E. Page 295. Citizen Soldiers, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1998
2. Ibid., 265
3. Ibid., 40
4. Ibid., 288
5. Ibid., 277
6. Ibid., 286
7. Ibid., 477
8. Ibid., 329
9. Ibid., 411
10. Ibid., 399
11. Ibid., 403

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