April 10, 2011 | Commentary on National Security and Defense
It was known as a hard luck division -- until the day it got lucky.
In Normandy, the 90th Division suffered more casualties than almost every other combat division. Two division commanders had already been relieved. Almost nothing seemed to go right. Until late July 1944.
That's when the 90th got laced by German artillery fire ... and got very lucky indeed. None of the rounds exploded. Engineers inspecting the shells found they'd been loaded with sawdust. It was noted in the unit combat log -- and forgotten.
Americans did not yet know that slave labor manufactured German munitions. Some deliberately sabotaged the ammunition bound for the front. They knew that, if discovered, their defiant acts would lead to torture and death. But these nameless, enslaved heroes did it anyway.
The soldiers of the 90th never suspected they owed their lives to that anonymous courage. They just pressed on, fighting for freedom. At war's end, they liberated one of Hitler's concentration camps -- a fitting, albeit unconscious payback.
Today, we know this story of GIs and Holocaust victims joining forces against the Nazis -- without even knowing they were brothers in arms -- but only because of the records held at the Army Historical Education Center at the Army War College in Carlisle, Pa.
A huge repository of official military records, as well as private records kept by the nation's soldiers, the center houses everything from Civil War photographs to letters home.
For decades, researchers and scholars have used these archives to inform the development of Army leadership and strategy. For example, scholars from the center used insights gleaned from its holdings to help craft the successful counterinsurgency doctrines implemented in Iraq and Afghanistan.
And, when it comes to Army history and tradition, the center serves as the indispensable keeper of the flame. Books like Rick Atkinson's Pulitzer Prize-winning "An Army at Dawn" and Ken Burns' magisterial documentary series on the Civil War could not have been created without the materials housed at the center.
Yet, the center now is on the chopping block. The Army's Training Program Evaluation Group has concluded that the center is "no longer relevant" and has "no operational impact."
It's not at all clear how the group reached this conclusion, but the motivation behind it is easy to discern. At every turn, Defense Secretary Robert Gates' campaign to eliminate wasteful Pentagon spending produces yet another poorly chosen sacrificial lamb.
Eliminating the Army Historical Education Center is anything but an act of efficiency. As one historian rightly noted, closing the center would amount to "lobotomizing" the Army.
Gates' much ballyhooed budget cuts are nothing so much as a "bait and switch" campaign fleecing the American taxpayer. On close scrutiny, many of his promised "efficiencies" look more like capability-diminishing cuts. In many cases, these short-term "savings" will cost taxpayers much more in the long term.
Short-changing the military's capacity to think thoughtfully about the past (so it can face the future more creatively) is a lot like saving a few bucks on housing costs by canceling your homeowner's insurance policy.
It's "smart budgeting" only until the moment when real disaster strikes -- a fire breaks out in the kitchen ... or a firefight in the Middle East.
A seasoned Washington insider, Gates knows exactly how bureaucracies work. When the top brass orders career guys to "find efficiencies," they'll find them -- even where they can't be found.
Gates also knows to whom he reports -- a presidential administration prone to forget that the military is the shield of the republic. Rather, this administration regards the defense budget as a cash cow to be milked to preserve pet domestic programs. These people should read some history.
James Jay Carafano is a senior research fellow for national security at the Heritage Foundation.
First appeared in The Washington Examiner