What Provokes Greatness?
This thought came to me while standing on Omaha Beach, one of the American landing beaches on D-Day. I think about the future and it is clear to me that humanity will need to find greatness to face some of the issues it faces now and in the next decade. We need to rise up to a level of commitment, collaboration, will and innovation that seems far from universal today. There is no question but that we can and that we will need to do so. The question is how we rise up to this level of greatness.
Standing on Omaha Beach, and later the same day on Utah Beach I was struck by the magnitude of D-Day. The heroism, valor, loss of life, and incredible stories of individual and collective victory are usually what comes to mind when thinking of this invasion. Those thoughts usually are of the soldiers, but there were larger forces at work. Things were done that had never been done before. Plans were created based on no prior human experience. Let me give you just one example.
The Nazi military command built unprecedented fortifications on the coast of France. They had them up and down the coast of France, but they concentrated in two areas. The first area was, of course, where France was closest to Britain, the English Channel. The second was around every port and harbor on the coast. The thinking was obvious: the Allies could not sustain any invasion without having a port to offload war supplies. Churchill came up with an idea: to create a major port and harbor from scratch, and do so in a matter of days. When challenged he said â€œlet us not dwell on the problems of this great task as they will present themselves and we will confront and solve themâ€. The sleepy beach town of Arromanches, which lay between the five assault beaches was picked.
Starting on June 7, the day after D-Day large merchant marine ships were taken into position and sunk, creating the foundation of a breakwater. Then on top of them, 115 football field-sized, five story tall concrete structures were towed into position on barges and sunk, creating not only a breakwater, but a landing station. Seven floating piers with extendable legs were established, and four ,mile-long floating roads of pontoons were extended to the beaches, one for soldiers, one for tanks and vehicles and the other two for constant 24 hour a day loading and unloading of supplies from the ships. In the first six days of operation, 54,000 vehicles, 326,000 troops and 110,000 tons of goods had been delivered. Albert Speer, the architect of Hitler’s industrial might said in describing Churchillâ€™s idea that became this harbor â€œWe built fortifications that would last for centuries and, with one creative idea, they became uselessâ€
Today this would be called â€˜out of the box thinkingâ€™ or â€˜changing the paradigmâ€™ or even innovation. It is often done, but not on the scale needed to solve the problems, such as global warming, that we face today. Three countries, the U.S., Great Britain and Canada, led the D-Day invasion and all three countries had dedicated major national resources, and all the best and brightest, to the task of liberating Europe. That is what is needed today on a global scale.
The day I stood on Omaha beach was the day after the fifth anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. D-Day was on June 6, 1944 and VE Day was May 8, 1945 or 11 months afterward. The greatest military machine the world had ever known was defeated in 11 months due to total mobilization of many Allied nations, fierce commitment, intense planning for all possible scenarios and breakthrough creative ideas. Five years after an invasion of Iraq that had none of these components, we are still involved in a war with no way out. This of course was a depressing irony that day. It was lessened by the knowledge that the incompetent execution of the Iraq war can be laid at the doorstep of the Bush administration and that the majority of people in the world did not agree with it. Other than Nazi Germany and Japan, the rest of the world supported the D-Day invasion.
As humanity faces itsâ€™ problems of the future we must come up with ideas that have never be tried, unite globally to implement them, and find a reason, in this case survival, to find the commitment to do whatever it takes to bring them to fruition. This is our collective duty, as the golden possibilities for us all if we do so are bright and practically unimaginable.