Benghazi and the Lesson of Coventry

Anthony Cave Brown’s “Bodyguard of Lies: The Extraordinary True Story Behind D-Day” was published in 1976, just a year after many of the documents concerning intelligence-gathering in WWII were de-classified.

Much of Bodyguard concerns the Allies’ penetration of Germany’s secret messaging that relied on the Enigma machines. The Allies’ codebreaking, known as “Ultra,” was an ability they could not let the Germans know about, lest the Germans should change their encryption. In Brown’s second chapter, he describes the heartbreaking choice Churchill had to make between protecting Coventry from an impending German air raid–and thus tipping the Germans off that their codes had been broken–and letting the raid go on unimpeded, so that the Germans would continue relying on their compromised encryptions. Brown writes that “Ultra gave Churchill and his advisers at least 48, possibly 60, hours warning of the devastating raid that was planned for Coventry…How important was the security of Ultra? was it more important than the security of a major industrial city? It would be for Churchill alone to decide.”

Coventry did suffer significant damage and loss of life. Some have denied the accuracy of Brown’s account, claiming that Churchill didn’t really know that Coventry was the target. But this story is only one of dozens in Brown’s book illustrating heart-wrenching dilemmas faced by the Allies as they conducted secret warfare against Hitler’s Germany.

The Lesson of Coventry: don’t think you know why leaders are doing what they are doing. Don’t think you know it AFTER they have done it. Don’t think you know it even when documents come out! Accurate history takes a long time to establish, and in some cases will never be established.

The recent, tragic embassy attack in Benghazi, Libya comes to mind. Did President Obama willfully–and needlessly–refuse to protect American lives? The lesson of Coventry keeps me from assuming I’ll ever know the real answer, no matter how much I distrust this president.

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