Robert B. Simpson: Unkindest cut

April 28, 2013 

It's easy to be critical of national governments and the politicians who populate them. Governments can seem large, remote, and awkward. I try to avoid criticizing ours, realizing that things are not always what they seem, and that functioning effectively as one of 100 senators or one of 435 representatives must be challenging. Still, the kind of governmental traffic jam we've experienced over the past few years makes it hard not to be critical. Sometimes seemingly small obstacles cause the whole elaborate machine to grind to a halt, even though there are plenty of historical examples of sensible compromise solving small but obstinate blockages.

A case in point is the circumcision of the son of Monsieur Pierre Moreau. On a dark night in February 1944, Moreau and his very pregnant wife were plucked out of a field near Paris by British operatives in a Lysander, the small aircraft used for inserting and removing agents in Nazi-occupied France, and flown to London. Moreau was an expert on the French railway system, and General Dwight Eisenhower needed his expertise so the Allies' staff could plan the destruction of the rail network during the 90 days of heavy bombing that would lead up to the still-secret invasion of Normandy. Once the Allies got a toe-hold on the Continent, no sure thing by any means, they would still be vulnerable to counterattack by the Germans, who would use the extensive rail system to shuttle massive forces into the area. Moreau not only knew the system, its scheduling and its choke points, but he also thoughtfully brought along three volumes of operational detail.

Monsieur Moreau set to work feverishly working out the details the Supreme Allied Commander needed, and his wife set to work giving birth to a son. Given that Moreau was performing such a vital function, even though he was kept in the dark as to the details, he felt it only fair that His Majesty's government pick up the tab for all expenses surrounding the birth, and the government agreed.

Except for one thing. Moreau, a Jew, demanded payment for his son's circumcision as well, and the government refused. Obstetrician yes, circumcision no. At this point Moreau, smart enough to know that what he was doing each day was key to what had to be the planned invasion of Europe, the most massive military operation in history, simply closed his three volumes, folded his arms, and ceased work.

In a meeting of the top officers of the Royal Air Force, Air Chief Marshal Charles Portal, head of the RAF, learned of this astonishing development that threatened to throw plans for the invasion into a cocked hat. Portal pulled a half-crown from his pocket and threw it on the conference table. Others around the table followed suit, quickly and easily amassing the relatively meager sum needed to pay for the small operation so the large one could continue. All it had taken was a little common sense and a willingness to compromise on behalf of an obstinate bureaucracy. Pierre went back to work.

It would be nice if we were being represented today by people who thought more like Air Chief Marshal Charles Portal and less like the naysayers in His Majesty's government. Once upon a time, we were. Now, not so much.

The Normandy landings were successful and German counterattacks were severely hindered by massive Allied damage to the French rail system, damage guided by the work of Monsieur Moreau. No thanks to the dunderheads, though, like some of our own, who would have scuttled the whole thing for the price of a circumcision.

Robert B. Simpson, a 28-year Infantry veteran who retired as a colonel at Fort Benning, is the author of "Through the Dark Waters: Searching for Hope and Courage."

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