The attack began with a barrage from 1,600 guns and rocket launchers that pounded trenches and command posts. Then came waves of tanks and infantry that surged out of the winter mist and slammed into the stunned and bewildered defenders.
It was a perfect example of shock and awe. Except that in December 1944, it was Americans who were on the receiving end.
This month marks the 70th anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge, perhaps the greatest battle ever fought by the U.S. Army. A few tired or inexperienced U.S. divisions, assigned to what was supposed to be a quiet sector in the Ardennes region of Belgium, were assaulted by thirty German panzer and infantry divisions and 600 tanks in a massive surprise offensive.
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Thousands of American troops surrendered, to be marched off to prison camps. Others fled for their lives, while still others, desperate and outgunned, made last stands against Nazi tanks.
What a different time it seems. In today's era of small wars, American soldiers fear IEDs or snipers more than enemy tank blitzkriegs. It says volumes that a single U.S. soldier captured in Afghanistan draws headlines. At the Bulge, 6,000 soldiers of the encircled U.S. 106th Infantry Division raised the white flag.
Yet the Battle of the Bulge is more than history. It is a primer of valuable lessons that still apply today.
First, never, ever underestimate the enemy. The Western Allies did have every reason for confidence in December 1944. France and Belgium had been liberated, the German armies in the West had been decimated, and U.S. troops were fighting on German soil. With the Red Army relentlessly crushing the Third Reich from the east, final victory seemed just a few weeks or months away.
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But there is a fine line between confidence and overconfidence, and the ordinary GI paid the price that dark December. Unfortunately, it wasn't the last time. MacArthur believed the Communists were licked in Korea, until Chinese human wave assaults proved otherwise. In Vietnam, the "light at the end of the tunnel" was abruptly extinguished by the Tet Offensive. And "Mission Accomplished" in Iraq turned out to be anything but. Should America go to war with China, Iran or North Korea, the question is when—not if—they will unleash some surprise tactic or weapon unforeseen by the Pentagon.
Second, just because you think an idea is crazy, doesn't mean the enemy will. Even Hitler's own generals thought his Ardennes offensive was lunatic. Who would be insane enough to send immense columns of tanks, guns and trucks down narrow, ice- and snow-covered roads, fight through densely forested hills and over rivers, and then drive 125 miles to capture the vital port of Antwerp? A more realistic German plan would have been a spoiling attack to encircle and destroy a few American divisions to disrupt the final invasion of Germany.
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Nonetheless, Hitler pursued his hopeless plan—and inflicted more than 80,000 casualties in a month. It was equally crazy for the Viet Cong to come out in the open and expose themselves to overwhelming U.S. firepower during the Tet Offensive. But they did, and the political repercussions helped turn the American public against the war. North Korea's rulers are certain to have zany schemes that they believe will defeat the United States. But lunacy does not equal ineffectiveness.
Third, don't ignore intelligence. There were some indications that the Germans were preparing some kind of attack (Eisenhower's own intelligence officer warned of them), but most Allied commanders and their staffs were so blinded by victory fever that they ignored them. Similarly, there were indications that the Mao would attack in Korea, or that the Viet Cong would launch the Tet Offensive.
The Bulge also foreshadowed the excessive American reliance on technical intelligence. Allied ULTRA codebreakers had been reading German radio messages for years. But ULTRA didn't detect German preparations, which was taken as an indication that nothing was happening. Even with the capabilities of the CIA and NSA, America was still surprised by Osama Bin Laden on 9/11.
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Fourth, flexibility is everything. As bad the Battle of the Bulge was, it could have been a lot worse. Once the Allies recovered from the shock, they moved quickly to stop and then roll back the German penetration. The 82nd and 101st Airborne divisions were moved into the path of the offensive (the 101st reached the vital crossroads of Bastogne just in time), while Patton moved his divisions with remarkable rapidity to strike the German southern flank. Despite bad blood between American and British commanders, Field Marshal Montgomery deployed British troops in an example of coalition warfare that worked.
In today's era of military micromanagement, one wonders how quickly the U.S. military could rescue an American force from defeat. Or would it take months for the Pentagon to plan it, the White House to approve it, the State Department to convince the rest of the world that it was justified and Congressional Republicans or Democrats to denounce it?
Finally, the Battle of the Bulge showed just what the American soldier was capable of. Hitler's plan rested on his belief that Americans were weak and soft and relied on abundant equipment, rather than soldierly skill and valor. There were cases where GIs panicked. But most American soldiers fought bravely.
Just as Hitler was wrong, so was the Taliban, who believed Americans were too weak to fight where the tough Soviet Army had failed. They were also wrong. Whatever the follies of America's Afghan war, lack of valor or toughness was not one of them.
As the Bulge proved, brave soldiers can make up for failed strategy. But only at an immense cost.
Michael Peck is a contributing writer at Foreign Policy Magazine and a writer for the War is Boring defense blog. Follow him on Twitter: @Mipeck1.
Image: Wikimedia Commons/Pospesch/CC by-sa 3.0 de