In response to:
The Last Disaster of the War from the September 24, 1987 issue
To the Editors:
That wartime generals believe what they want to believe is, I submit, a corollary of Sir Brian Urquhart’s article “The Last Disaster of the War” [NYR, September 24]; to wit, the British operation “Market Garden” in Western Europe of September 1944.
The Ardennes offensive which followed in December confirms his point. After the Germans had been driven out of The Bulge, a high ranking general is reported to have announced that no one was to be hurt because we had been surprised. Someone lower in the hierarchy added except the men who had been killed, wounded, or captured.
And surprised we were, but need not have been. At one command a series of requests for counterreconnaissance aerial missions over certain unloading points and marshaling yards in a region east of the Ardennes raised suspicions that were increased with the identification in the area of a Panzer division which had disappeared from the west for two months, possibly spent in refitting. The officer who deducted from this evidence that preparations were underway for a major German offensive was “pooh-poohed” by the next higher headquarters.1
At another command it was argued that Clausewitz’s dictum that “desperate men take desperate measures” should be kept in mind when evaluating the evidence. Thus since we faced a desperate if not insane Hitler, the withdrawal of experienced troops from the front lines and their replacement by second-class units, while the artillery remained in place, and the complete radio silence, indicated preparations for a large-scale counter-attack.2 The same higher head quarters would not even listen.
Therefore if wartime generals believe what they want to believe, do peacetime politicians do so too, or do they just dream?
Adolph G. Rosengarten, Jr.
Brian Urquhart replies:
Concerning Mr. Rosengarten’s specific claim, I believe it is true that at least one intelligence officer, Monk Dixon, persistently prophesied the Ardennes offensive and was equally persistently told to shut up. It is perhaps rather sweeping, however, to draw the conclusion from my Market Garden article that “wartime generals believe what they want to believe.” This is certainly sometimes true. I think, for example, of the Israeli General Staff in the weeks before the October war when there must have been plenty of satellite and photographic intelligence on the Egyptian buildup. On the whole I would think it would be truer to say that generals, as well as politicians, tend to have preconceived ideas about their adversaries that sometimes turn out to be completely misleading. These preconceived ideas are certainly more strongly held if they happen to militate in favor of something the generals want to do—as in the case of Market Garden.
January 21, 1988