AFTER battle, the deaths stay in mind. Those live people...

Salmagundi

January 06, 1995

AFTER battle, the deaths stay in mind. Those live people, gone away.

But, sometimes, the intelligence or stupidity behind that loss of life also belongs in the books. The Battle of the Bulge was a shocker not just because of the sudden German breakthrough (until clearing skies activated the Army Air Forces), but because of the enemy brainstorm, and Allied oversight, behind the deaths of some thousands of GIs.

Pick your historical combat, from the longbows at Crecy on down. The Civil War's slaughter would have been smaller -- the war might have ended sooner -- had either side ever abandoned close-order drill for open-order; had one side spread out and flopped down on its bellies, presenting ever so much less of a target. But no, in the infantry code of Union and Confederacy alike, men were men only so long as they stood upright.

If the schoolbooks are quiet on that point, at least they do by now mention George A. Custer's blunder. Entering an Indian area, he divided his force. At Little Bighorn, the Sioux weren't outnumbered after all.

In World War I, the Germans had a bright idea: poison gas. Nowadays, people think of the Versailles Peace Treaty as hard on Germany -- forgetting the revulsion toward a nation that made thousands of Allied soldiers, at first without masks and protective clothing, die in drawn-out agony. In fact, gas wasn't even that bright an idea, given the Western Front's west-to-east wind flow.

As to Vietnam, and why we lost, any one theory still gets you other, conflicting theories. But was it good sense, sending over an army of very young men who had no knowledge of an alien people and climate?

Back to the snows of Belgium, 50 years ago. On one side, soldiers who had undergone as many as three Russian-front winters: soldiers in white.

Facing them, Americans in standard-issue helmets and overcoats. When the enemy is smashing on by, you have to get out of your holes and trenches or be enveloped. You drive or run -- olive drab amid all that whiteness.

In a company of soldiers, in a company of industry or commerce, it helps to have someone around who can see distances, ahead and behind; someone who doesn't watch just the hour hand, the co-worker or boss, the numbers at the bottom.

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