Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Lessons from Monte Cassino

The garden at Monte Cassino as it is today
I’m a Benedictine who loves history and loves to read. That led me recently to a book on the bombing of Monte Cassino, a beautiful, huge abbey in Italy. It was founded by St. Benedict in the 6th century and sits on a mountaintop overlooking the city of Cassino and the beautiful valleys and mountains surrounding it. Unfortunately, this abbey occupied a strategic position during the battle for Italy in World War II. The Germans were established on that mountain in a defensive position and were so close to the abbey walls that the Allies assumed they were actually in the abbey and using it as an observation post from which they could view any effort by the Allies to move up the mountain and capture it. The truth was that while there were no Germans in the monastery, the abbey was housing thousands of refugees from the city, along with the Abbot and the few monks who had not been evacuated to Rome when most of the historical and art treasures had been moved there.

Time and again the debate had continued over how the Allies could take the hill when the Germans had strategic position on the heights and kept killing the troops with unusual accuracy. The American commander had been told repeatedly to spare the monastery, respecting its historical importance as an ecclesiastical and artistic center, and as a monument to Western civilization. The debate about whether or not the German army was actually IN the monastery continued, and the intelligence reports on that truth differed. Finally the New Zealand and Indian commanders whose troops had been ordered to take the hill after over 1,000 Americans had been killed in a previous effort, told the General Commander that the mountain could not be taken unless the monastery was bombed and totally destroyed. This was based on their assumption that the Germans occupied the monastery and would lose their chief defensive advantage along with many of their soldiers in the bombing. The American commanders resisted that thinking for days after it was proposed. They continued to see intelligence reports which would confirm that the Germans were IN the monastery, but other intelligence reports continued to contradict that. Some said they were NOT; others said they definitely occupied the abbey.

In the final analysis the commanders pressing for the bombing and the affirmative intelligence reports won out. The result was the bombing of the abbey of Monte Cassino for days, with huge, massive tonnage of bombs. In any sense of the word, it was an extreme overkill for one single site. It resulted in the death of many civilian refugees who inhabited the abbey, and the report from the German side said that not one German soldier was killed in the bombing.

I write about this as an example of the difficulty of making decisions in war. When intelligence sources contradict each other; when the target is an important monument to Western civilization and a neutral site, what DOES constitute “military necessity?” Does one act in so serious a matter depending on assumptions alone? In this case why was a neutral observer not sent to the monastery to verify whether the Germans were really in the buildings? Why weren’t the neutral countries involved in the effort to ascertain the truth? What was lacking in the communication between commanders, intelligence officials, government leaders, that led to this disaster? Why did there have to be a frontal attack on the Germans instead of approaching and assaulting them from other directions? No doubt the same problems continue in today’s warfare as just one more example of why “war is hell.”

I asked myself what lesson I could personally learn from this disaster. I concluded the following. Continue to seek the truth in situations. Don’t act on assumptions alone. Go to the sources for the facts and then communicate frequently and accurately. Prevent disaster by making wise and informed decisions. Above all, don’t forget to ask for God’s help.

Roberta Werner, OSB

No comments:

Post a Comment