More Reflections On The War In North Africa
Author Patrick Lencioni, an expert in establishing healthy dynamics at work, wrote in his book The Advantage that businesses, organizations, and individuals must make adjustments in the face of setbacks.
“People in a healthy organization, beginning with the leaders,” he wrote, “learn from one another, identify critical issues, and recover quickly from mistakes.”
And as you may have read here last week, that is basically what happened with American military forces who were fighting on the other side of the Atlantic 75 years ago.
Americans suffered a terrible defeat at the hands of Germany at Kasserine Pass in North Africa, but the leadership — under General Dwight D. Eisenhower, General Omar Bradley, and General George S. Patton — quickly determined what was wrong and set out immediately to make changes.
We cannot always make the assumption that principles that work in a business in the 21st century worked equally as well 75 years ago and brought success on battlefields on the other side of the world.
It’s just not that simple. But there are some parallels.
In the 1970 movie entitled Patton, actors George C. Scott (who played Patton) had a telling conversation with actor Karl Malden (who played General Bradley).
Patton: Tell me Brad, what happened at Kasserine?
Bradley: Apparently everything went wrong.
Patton: I understand we had trouble coordinating the air cover.
Bradley: The trouble was no air cover. There’s one other thing I put in my Kasserine report. Some of our boys were just plain scared.
Patton: That’s understandable. Even the best fox hounds are gun-shy the first time out.
Patton: You wanna know why this outfit got the hell kicked out of ‘em? A blind man could see it in a minute. They don’t look like soldiers, they don’t act like soldiers, why should they be expected to fight like soldiers?
Bradley: You’re absolutely right. The discipline is pretty poor.
Patton: Well, in about 15 minutes we’re gonna start turning these boys in to fanatics. They’ll lose their fear of the Germans. I only hope to God they never lose their fear of me.”
After that, Patton went to work, and while he shouldn’t get all of the credit for turning things around, at the very least, he was a strong catalyst.
The Americans had been beaten soundly at Kasserine, but no matter what the reasons were for the defeat, there rested within most soldiers a fierce determination to come back strong.
Ernie Pyle was a Pulitzer prize winning journalist who wrote stories about the common soldier in World War II.
He was in North Africa and knew all about Kasserine, but he still believed in the American effort.
“You need feel no shame nor concern about their ability,” he wrote. “There is nothing wrong with the common American soldier. His fighting spirit is good. His morale is okay. The deeper he gets into a fight, the more of a fighting man he becomes.”
The modifications in the Allied effort brought great results.
The Americans — along with the British — would eventually run the German armies completely out of the continent of Africa.
After that, the Allies took Sicily, and then Italy, and then began gearing up for a massive invasion of the mainland of Europe.
During the early days of America’s involvement in World War II, Germany controlled almost all of Europe, but the American military had learned much from its opening defeat 75 years ago.
And while there were many battles still to be fought, Americans had gained valuable battlefield experience. Furthermore, America itself was pouring more men and materials into the fight.
They wouldn’t stop fighting in Europe until Hitler was dead and all of Germany capitulated.
Erwin Rommel, possibly the best of Germany’s generals, wrote that the American response at Kasserine was crucial.
“In Tunisia,” he said, “the Americans had to pay a stiff price for their experience, but it brought rich dividends.”