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Posted on Feb 29, 2004 in History News

Editor’s Letter from Issue 2

By John Antal

Destiny and Door Hinges

How would you define destiny? Let me give you an unusual definition: George, Joshua and David.

It was a terrible night. George had lost three battles and surrendered much territory. His most experienced officer scowled at him, told him that further fighting was pointless and that the cause was lost. The officer recommended retreat and surrender. George could have agreed; any reasonable man who knew the situation would have. But George wasn’t a reasonable man, so instead of retreating, he had this "experienced officer" run out of camp at gunpoint.

That night, Christmas Eve, George ordered his troops to cross an icy river. The crossing wet their gunpowder; undeterred, he ordered his men to fix bayonets. As Christmas morning dawned, George’s troops surprised the enemy in their camp. The ensuing battle lasted less than an hour. George’s casualties were light, and he captured 900 of the enemy’s best troops.


Next, let me tell you of Joshua. It was a wretched day. Late on a hot July afternoon the fate of the Army and the Nation hung in the balance for two hours. Joshua’s men had marched all day and were tired and hungry. As Joshua approached the battlefield, an officer pointed to a hill and ordered him to take his men to "hold that ground at all costs."

As Joshua’s men rushed forward, he knew they were the end of the line; if the enemy punched through, they would flank the Army, and the battle, possibly even the war, would be lost. And the enemy was coming ? lots of them.

As his men reached the hill, the enemy attacked in strength. The fight rolled backward and forward like a wave, with dead and wounded in both front and rear. Joshua’s men ran out of ammunition. The enemy came on screaming, ready to clinch their victory.

A reasonable man would have withdrawn, but Joshua was not a reasonable man. Instead, he ordered the bayonet and told his men to charge. His boys swept down like the opening of a door, and the enemy, shocked, surprised and stunned, fell back.

Now let me tell you the story of David. It was a tense, miserable morning. The big attack was scheduled for the next day. His troops were like a coiled spring, about to vault forward on his order. The fate of thousands of men rested on his shoulders.

David’s staff had prepared for everything ? except the weather. That was the one thing for which no one could plan, and the one thing that no one could control. In the end, the most thoroughly planned military operation in history was dependent on the caprice of winds and waves.

David knew if the invasion was launched in bad weather and failed, it would take months, maybe a year, to plan and mount another operation. The consequences of delay or defeat were too awful to contemplate.

The weatherman predicted the pouring rain would stop in a couple of hours, to be followed by 36 hours of relatively settled weather. But this was only a prediction, not a certainty. Whatever he decided ? whether it was to go or to postpone ? would be risky.

David was surrounded by his subordinate commanders, so he asked the 14 generals and admirals what they thought. Half wanted to go, half wanted to postpone. A reasonable man might have looked at the 50-50 split among these exceptional minds and decided that the reasonable choice was postponement. But David was not a reasonable man. He had not been taking a vote; he only wanted to know what each commander thought.

In silence, he contemplated, and then he decided: "Okay, let’s go."

Of course, most of you have guessed that the George I referred to is George Washington, who led a tattered and desperate American Army across the frozen Delaware to attack the Hessian troops at Trenton on Christmas Day. By his victory at Trenton , and later Princeton , Washington saved the Army and the Revolution. We would not have our Nation today if he had been a reasonable man.

You may also know that Joshua is Colonel Joshua Chamberlain, who led the 20th Maine Regiment in the American Civil War. Chamberlain’s bayonet charge at Little Round Top during the Battle of Gettysburg saved the Union Army and probably stopped the Confederates from winning the war. Without Chamberlain’s stubborn, audacious attack there might be two very different Americas today instead of one Nation.

Most of you have guessed that David is General of the Army Dwight David Eisenhower. Eisenhower was actually born David Dwight Eisenhower; at West Point he changed his first and middle names. There, he also picked up the nickname "Ike."

Ike’s momentous decision to risk the entire D-Day invasion force on a weather prediction is considered by many historians as one of the most critical of the Second World War. Had Ike shown less resolve on D-Day ? had he been a reasonable man ? the invasion would have been postponed. With more time, Hitler’s forces might have staved off defeat and the world would not have been wiped clean of the curse of Nazism.

I know that I am lucky to have inherited the world that we live in today. It exists only because of the sacrifice, courage and commitment of some truly great human beings; leaders like the ones I just mentioned and thousands more who make a difference, yet we will never read about.

This is a Special Edition of Armchair General to commemorate the 60th Anniversary of D-Day, the beginning of the great crusade to free Nazi ruled Europe . On June 6, 1944, the door of history swung on tiny hinges. Our world’s future depended on the skill of the airmen who supported the landings; the bravery of the paratroopers who jumped into the moonlit sky; the dedication of the sailors and coastguardsmen manning the battleships, destroyers and landing craft; and the courage of the infantrymen rushing ashore against murderous fire and impossible odds.

We at Armchair General will do everything within our means to tell their stories, reminding our readers that the sacrifices of a few ? yesterday and today ? determine the destiny of our world.

Learn more about Colonel [U.S. Army retired], John Antal here