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Thin Red Line of Heroes

Unsung and underappreciated, the British Army deserves a country more worthy of its valor.

12:00 AM, Jun 6, 2009 • By STUART KOEHL
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Today marks the 65th anniversary of Operation Overlord, the Allied invasion of Normandy. Too often Americans tend to think of it as the American invasion of Normandy--witness the accidental oversight regarding the invitation of Queen Elizabeth II (the only current head of state who actually served in the military during World War II) to the Franco-American commemoration ceremony by Presidents Obama and Sarkozy, not to mention the absence of the British from recent films and television series about the invasion, such as Saving Private Ryan and Band of Brothers. Oh, of course, the Brits were featured in Cornelius Ryan's 1962 film The Longest Day, but the centerpiece of the film was the airborne assault on St. Mere Eglise, General Norman Cota clearing the way on Omaha Beach, and Teddy Roosevelt Jr. deciding to start the war from wherever they had landed on Utah Beach. As compared to that, Peter Lawford as Lord Lovat strolling into battle with his favorite shotgun and personal piper is almost a cameo appearance.

From all that, it is no surprise that most Americans do not know that there were more British soldiers than Americans on the beach that morning, and that all the Americans were under the command of a British general, Field Marshal Bernard L. Montgomery. The Americans had two beaches, the British had three (Sword, Gold and Juno--the latter formally assigned to the Canadians, but with more than half of the troops actually British). The Americans used two airborne divisions, but the British used their 6th Airborne Division (the Red Devils) to secure the left flank of the Allied beachhead, including a daredevil coup de main against a bridge over the Caen Canal, as recounted in The Longest Day as well as Stephen Ambrose's Pegasus Bridge (after the badge of the British Parachute Regiment). It was all done rather matter-of-factly, with a minimum of fuss and bother, and as a result, it doesn't get nearly as much attention as the near catastrophe of Omaha Beach or the dog's lunch that was the U.S. airborne operation.

Something similar is happening today: the British role in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is slowly being consigned to the memory hole. To listen to most American commentators on the wars, you would not even know the British are there. Indeed, we only hear about them when one is accidentally killed by U.S. fire, or when they are reducing their troop commitments (which makes it look like they are running away). Even conservative American commentators have had a somewhat condescending attitude towards the British forces, blaming them for the policies of the British government that, e.g., had them passively watch while Iranian Guards took a Zodiac full of British sailors hostage, or when it had them stand by while Shiite militias occupied their former base camp. But soldiers only follow the orders they are given by their civilian masters, and would we really want it any other way?

It is fortunate, therefore, that British veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan are finally putting their stories down on paper, and that these books are beginning to make their way into the American market. Two recent releases document with perception, wit, and humanity the unique experiences of two extraordinary British soldiers, which should put to rest any idea that the British army is becoming effete or less capable than it has been since Marlborough's day.