Ike, D-Day and the Age of Accountable Leaders

Ike, D-Day and the Age of Accountable Leaders

By Mark Salter - June 7, 2011

In this age of "mistakes were made" and "I can't say with certitude," a reminder of a time when accountability was an essential virtue of leadership arrived with the 67th anniversary of D-Day.

The day before the greatest armada ever assembled set sail for the coast of Normandy, Gen. Dwight David Eisenhower walked among the men of the 101st Airborne Division, who were boarding the aircraft that would drop them behind German lines in advance of the landings, where many of them would die. Cheerful, seemingly at ease, he asked their names and hometowns and what they had done for a living before the war. One young paratrooper stopped just as he was boarding his plane, turned around and snapped a salute to the supreme allied commander, who returned it smartly and flashed a smile. Then Eisenhower turned away and wept.

Allied casualties in the initial landings were expected to run as high as 75 percent. The odds of success were believed to be no better than the odds of failure. Winston Churchill had confessed his doubts to Eisenhower that the invasion would result in anything more than the destruction of the "flower" of English and American youth.

The invasion had been scheduled for June 5 but had to be postponed because of gale-force winds and dense cloud cover. At 4:15 in the morning of the 5th, after receiving a report from his meteorologist that there might be a brief window of bearable weather the following morning, and consulting his senior commanders -- who were divided -- Eisenhower paced the floor in silence, chain smoking, for five minutes before lifting his head and ordering, "OK, let's go." Until he had commanded the U.S. invasion of North Africa and, later, the Allied Expeditionary Force in Europe, "Ike" had never held a combat command.

The heavy burdens of his command were plainly evident in his behavior. Eisenhower drank 15 to 20 cups of coffee and smoked four packs of cigarettes a day. He had high blood pressure and migraines. He suffered from insomnia, so he often worked through the night.

Ike had a bad temper, but he never complained or gave the slightest impression he thought he deserved anyone's sympathy. He disliked flattery and had no use for the perquisites of high command. He had been given a mansion as his quarters, and rejected it for a modest two-bedroom house in a London suburb. Only to his wife did he write of his loneliness and doubts. "No man can always be right," he told her. "So the struggle is to do one's best."

His statement to his troops was broadcast at every embarkation point, ending confidently with an assurance of success:

"I have full confidence in your courage, devotion to duty and skill in battle. We will accept nothing less than full victory! And let us beseech the blessing of Almighty God upon this great and noble undertaking."

In his shirt pocket, he carried another statement. He had written it alone, and informed no one of its contents:

"Our landings . . . have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold and I have withdrawn the troops. My decision to attack at this time and place was based on the best information available. The troops, the air, and the Navy did all that bravery and devotion to duty could do. If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt it is mine alone."

Some hours later, off Omaha Beach, the commander of the invasion force, Gen. Omar Bradley, looked through binoculars at what he believed was an ensuing disaster. Allied bombers had missed the enemy pillboxes and artillery, which were chewing up the first wave of American soldiers, who sought the only cover they could find -- sand mounds created by enemy shells. Then they got up and pushed ahead and scaled the cliffs and destroyed their country's enemies.

Eisenhower wouldn't need his statement claiming sole responsibility for a disaster that would have cost him his command and likely meant a return home in disgrace. An aide rescued it from the wastepaper basket Eisenhower had tossed it in.

On June 7, Ike crossed the English Channel to observe the follow-up landings. He asked the British skipper to bring the ship closer to the beach. The ship ran aground; knocking Eisenhower and several other senior officers to the deck. When he returned to his base, Eisenhower wrote the British sea lord, taking responsibility for the incident and asking that the skipper not be punished for following his orders.

As America begins its quadrennial election of a commander in chief amid war and economic hardship, can we expect to find among the aspirants someone who will hold himself or herself to such a strict standard of accountability? Probably not. Times have changed. We will ask for promises, and promises will be made. But we should ask every candidate one question before any other. Whose fault will it be if you don't keep your word -- or if your program does not succeed? If we don't insist on an unqualified answer, then the blame will be ours.

Mark Salter is the former chief of staff to Sen. John McCain and was a senior adviser to the McCain for President campaign.

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