Bruce Hoffman

The Way of War

Bill Millin died last week aged 88. Those who have seen the 1962 film, The Longest Day, or read the book of the same title by Cornelius Ryan, will forever remember Millin as the Highland bagpiper who landed on D-Day, 6 June 1944, at Sword Beach as part of the Allies’ massed assault on Germany’s Festung Europa (Fortress Europe). He was the personal piper of Lord Lovat (equally memorably portrayed in the film by Peter Lawford attired in a very un-military white turtle-neck sweater and firing a bolt-action hunting rifle), commander of the British Army’s 1st Special Service Brigade and the only piper landed as part of the invasion force. His exploits in Normandy as the tide of World War II decisively turned, illustrate just how much war has changed in the past half century.

Attired in the kilt of the Cameron Highlanders, his regiment before joining Lovat’s elite commando unit, Millin bravely plunged into the icy waters from the marginally sea-worthy and over-crowded landing craft transporting him and his comrades. Undaunted by neither gun nor mortar nor artillery fire, Millin waded ashore soaked to the skin but defiantly playing “Hieland Laddie.”

Men were dying and suffering all around him. The noise was as hellish and frightening as it was deafening. Yet Millin projected an outward bearing of complete composure and utter determination. As his fellow soldiers crouched and ducked, racing from one foxhole to another, Millin walked slow and steady ahead, piping “Road to the Isles” in answer to Lovat’s request for another rousing tune.

Later on, when the commandos came under intense sniper fire, Millin pressed forward, rallying the troops behind him. He himself was surprised not to have been picked off straightaway. Millin subsequently mentioned this to some German soldiers his unit had captured who told him that they hadn’t bothered to shoot because they thought he was completely mad.

I thought of Millin this morning while reading Craig Whitlock’s front-page article in the Washington Post about al Qaeda’s enigmatic presence in Afghanistan. “Although U.S. officials have often said that al-Qaeda is a marginal player on the Afghan battlefield,” Whitlock writes,

an analysis of 76,000 classified U.S. military reports posted by the Web site WikiLeaks underscores the extent to which Osama bin Laden and his network have become an afterthought in the war.

The reports, which cover the escalation of the insurgency between 2004 and the end of 2009, mention al-Qaeda only a few dozen times and even then just in passing. Most are vague references to people with unspecified al-Qaeda contacts or sympathies, or as shorthand for an amorphous ideological enemy.

Millin, by comparison, fought against a both a tangible, lethally numerous, and readily identifiable enemy, attired in uniform that distinguished him from the surrounding, indigenous civilian population, on a more or less clearly demarcated battlefield. In every respect, the war today in Afghanistan is dramatically different. Attacks involving roadside I.E.D.s (improvised explosive) or suicide bombings are the norm as opposed to armies that once clashed directly—and not infrequently decisively—with each other.

Further, a major part of the war in Afghanistan now is not even fought man-to-man but by remote control, often thousands of miles and a couple of continents away by warriors wielding joysticks at bases deep inside the U.S. Finally, as courageous and committed to the mission as Millin’s contemporaries in the British ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) contingent serving in Afghanistan doubtless are, it impossible to imagine any of them sallying forth into battle today behind the distinctive sound of a piper leading the way.

The biggest difference, though, may be in the attitude of soldier and civilian alike. World War II was perhaps the last genuinely existential war fought by the U.S. and Britain. As one of Millin’s comrades-in-arms later recalled,

I shall never forget hearing the skirl of Bill Millin’s pipes. It is hard to describe the impact it had. It gave us a great lift and increased our determination. As well as the pride we felt, it reminded us of home and why we were there fighting for our lives and those of our loved ones.

The notion of fighting to protect kith and kin on the home front—and perhaps also enjoying their undivided support—has become a thing of the past. This may be why British public support for that country’s military deployment in Afghanistan has fallen to 32 percent—a decline of at least six points since February. And doubtless is also why the newly elected Prime Minister David Cameron has announced that British forces will leave Afghanistan no later than 2014—when the next national election in that country is most likely to be called.