Glorious Infantry

1 Feb

The glorious infantry … the queen of battles …
the spear carriers … from here to Eternity … and all that stuff.

This is one man’s reverent view of our chosen service. He sees the millions en massed, from the beginnings of time: They stand against the tyrannies of fear, jealousy, anger, hate, politics, religion, greed, poverty and despair. They put the boot to the ground, often in agony and exhaustion – “but with strength of purpose and determination, with hope and a prayer that with Divine Help we will accomplish what we must and this day will pass.” The enemy sang the same presumptuous song.

That’s a grey opening. It contrasts with the sharp, clean uniforms, marching bands, flags and pennants flapping. The steady thud of twenty thousand boots on the parade ground counterpoints to seventy six trombones. The fifes, horns and drums playas they did at Megiddo and Yorktown. What spirited martial air are they playing now … to make us proud, strong and brave, to conceal the deathly cost of our purpose? Is it Le Marseillaise, or God Save the Queen or Der Vaterland, Canadian, Australian, American, Korean, Egyptian, Israelite, Philistine, Persian? Who are these people who overflow the Heavens with their spirits? The bagpipes wail at Culloden. Forward March. “Yankee Doodle went to ” “My soldiers have no shoes and they haven’t been paid, Congressmen,” said Washington from Valley Forge.

The beat of the big brave drum is slower than that of a heart. It’s the music of Waterloo, Saratoga and Sharpsburg where the ranks closed and stepped out with weapons pointed at the ready. The generals stood militarily on the hill, knowing the whole ghastly thing was out of their hands but interesting, nonetheless. The lines move slowly — then quickly as the banging of axes on shields, or the cannon and the drums sound the cadence. “Gh, the Yellow Rose of Texas…..” The men in the first ranks are a motley mix: Romans, Hittites, Huns, Mongols, Egyptians, Greeks, Macedonians, Moors, Pennsylvanians …. look straight front and mutter “Hollllleee XXXXX” in their colorful native tongue.

“How gloriously they died,” Napoleon observed, he was cool. Alexander barely noticed, nor did Hannibal Barca. He lost his elephants. Such detritus was and is forever, amen, the price of empire. “For God’s sake, give me back my legions,” cried the distraught Augustus when he heard the news of Teutoburg where three of Rome’s finest legions gave up 18,000 souls to a bunch of rowdy Germans. “These grounds have been sanctified,” sadly muttered Lincoln … and someone whispered, “Fertilizer.” “It was my fault,” Lee cried at Gettysburg. 7,500 men fell that day on the fields before Cemetery Ridge, mostly Pickett’s tired boys. Antietam was a good one: 28,000 casualties, and in the Wilderness, May 18th, 17,000 more. Sadly, many had been family and friends. “Nothing’s more brutal than a family fight” said my cousin, a street cop. A Chaplain prayed as his tears fell, “From dust to dust ….” and the heavy dirt fell, too. Luzon, Lipa, 1945. A miserable dirty, muddy ditch. My optimistic friend lies there staring at the light he can’t see.

The living infantryman possesses fine qualities: skills in weaponry, strong legs and back, acute eyesight and hearing, sensitiveness, resourcefulness, determination and his bond with his company. He may not, however, know why he is there. Did you? Within his pack he carries silent fears and overbold courage, patience and impatience, a letter from home and foreboding. He wants to believe that he will rise again from the cauldron and finish reading his wrinkled paperback book. He is glorious in his faith and certainly has talked to his God in love, supplication, hope and anger. We understand ‘glorious.’ It’s what generals used to say when nothing else seemed fit. I’ve never heard a tearful comrade say ‘glorious’ as his buddy was carried away. He thinks, “It could have been me.”

What clearly elevates the Infantry (the warrior class) is … numbers. Numbers of men entangled in conflict; usually but not always equal opposing numbers with equally fashionable but artless weapons, equal predicaments and unequal leaders. Then, at the end there are, as best can be counted, presumed or guessed at, the numbers remaining after subtracting killed, wounded (slightly or severely), sick, captured, missing, deserted and those jittery ones with pictures that won’t go away.

At Borodino, was it 60,000 dead and lacerated? A roughly equal count of French and Russians? Good. Such numbers should balance like in a checkbook. Both sides claimed victory but Napoleon went home unfazed to start it all up again. His swan song at Waterloo produced fine numbers: The Brits and Prussians (on the same team?) gave up about 23,000 lives while the French tossed in 30,000 more. As for the locals, there was big business in stolen boots and coats. Napoleon saw the light and checked the numbers. Someone may care but likely not. “There’s more where they came from, mon ami.” And there always were more. Had the losses been weighed in pounds, tons or gallons of blood, the carnage might be more concrete. “One death is a tragedy. A thousand deaths is a statistic.” Stalin (or Churchill) is credited with that wisdom. Certainly the landfills of Europe could handle such waste. They always have. “In Flanders fields the poppies grow.”

Battle dates enliven that otherwise dull continuum, the history time line. At those points the shape of the world and the humans who inhabit it are shifted a little to no lasting purpose with no lasting change and at monstrous cost. Writers who defend war as a human compulsion declare that if it were not for war (and the infantry) the population of the earth would have long ago replicated itself to death. Robert Heinlein claims that only mortal combat by masses of humans could have settled the world’s major political, economic and religious issues. Negotiation and diplomacy are the stuff of wimps. So, what was settled? I like the idea of champions slugging it out on behalf of their constituencies. Like the Hell’s Angels Motorcycle Club. The winner takes the head of the loser and everybody goes home to plant the corn and potatoes.

I would think a nice round of disease like the world flu epidemic or the black plague or even slow starvation would be more merciful. Diplomacy seems not to work well when the sides don’t know why they hate each other. Where else do you find tolerance, patience, sober judgments and wisdom but in the after-agony of carnage? The Crusaders and Muslims slammed immense numbers against each other in the names of their respective Gods for good and lunatic reasons, and it goes on. As a ten year old, I heard, “Yeah, well my God is better than your God.” Then he punched me out. At the battle for Constantinople in 718AD, one team with 210,000 men had only 30,000 left when it was done. Of 2,000 ships, five survived. What a distraction that was. Can you name the winner? Are you sure? I wasn’t. Napoleon started toward Moscow with 500,000 troops and opportunists. About 30,000 came home. And he never claimed the argument was about religion like the Crusaders and Saracens; he didn’t like hairy Russians and didn’t trust the respectable Czar.

Most books that describe the best battles of all time start with Megidda,1479 (Armageddon.) That was before Christ, but how could they know that. That’s when the Egyptian Thutmose knocked out the King of Kadesh. No big thing, but it was the first war reported in front line dispatches. Now, we ’embed the reporters’ who deliver tragedy via an eye in the sky, instantly. There is some rare evidence of big infantry contests in 3500BC. It was those cursed Babylonians again with their spears and archers and weapons of mass destruction.

When numbers are large, the historians usually mean Infantry, the traditionally unwashed masses, though cavalry and charioteers played bit parts in the early scenes. They were usually the rich guys who had much to gain or lose. Glory, living or dead, was important, then. Bomb bearing birds were yet to come.

The beloved Stonewall Jackson called his troops “foot cavalry” because they could march so fast. Banister Tarleton called his troops “horse infantry” because riders, two to a saddle, could travel far and then strike the enemy (us) on foot like infantry. He was a terrorist who used big horses to crush his prisoners, (us.) It has been a long haul from the chariot and the two seated saddle to the armored personnel carrier, parachute and helicopter. What’s the infantry coming to? Doesn’t anybody dig holes in the ground anymore?

There are reasonably factual books about the Infantry in the more interesting but lesser known wars and battles which produced smaller piles of cadavers. Aside from Ernie Pyle’s writings most have no soul. Except for relative bigness (Armies have no singularities) there is a sameness in the infantry. The story of a single skirmish by one Civil War private made me choke. No matter when the battle happened or where or under what conditions, command or purpose, masses of people, whether in Grey, Green, Brown or Blue or the Northmen’s furs or the Roman’s Red Robe or the Greeks in their birthday suits… move forward and back, then forward again until the sun goes down. It’s unlike bowling; more like tennis. Verdun was concluded agreeably by both sides because both sides ran out of spear throwers. The price was marked down to roughly five and a half million. Carthage was concluded because one side ran out of interest quicker than the other. The paid troops who could have won the day for the Moors … went home. Money talks. Crecy was a complete screw up. The weather won the battle for the wet and ratty English longbow men while the glittering French nobility expired in their armor on their big warhorses. It was the end of Camelot. Arthur the Pendragon said so.

 Numbers. Thanks to computer imagery we can now put infinite numbers of infantry in the field and beat the hell out of them electronically. The Lord of the Rings, I believe is the grand prize (Oscar) winner and nobody really gets hurt. Faced with such oncoming masses, all of them looking to take my scalp and advancing at a drumbeat. I would have moaned what infantry have groaned since way back when.”Come home proudly bearing your shield or being borne upon it.” Spoken by a Greek wife before Thermopylae, I believe.

How long has it been since the Infantry stopped lining up in cramping ranks, a half dozen deep, then running at each other screaming? It was a kind of equal opportunity occupation. Must be close to a hundred years. Automatic or multi-shot weapons like the Colt and the Henry-Remington repeaters put a stop to that. I can only imagine what the German infantry felt like when those first, clumsy tanks came at them at Flers-Courselette in 1916, spitting iron from their machine guns. Then the other guys came over in flying bumbershoots and did the same thing to the other, other guys. Well, turnabout is fair play, I always say. My father said the guys in the trenches cheered for both sides. There was little entertainment.

Range and rapid fire were another nuisance resolved, though modem weaponry like the Henry didn’t do much for George Custer when a bunch of starving Indians declared that they’d had enough and wouldn’t take it anymore. We’ve come a long, painful way, we of the infantry, but, in the same old way we still heave up our pack, pound our boots into the dirt and move on. We know that an enemy rifleman can nail us at a half mile or toss us skyward with a homemade mine and a garage opener. A strong Roman infantryman could toss his javelin only about halfway up a football field. Today, an angry and dirty young insurgent, about a hundred and twenty pounds of him can spit out more lead in ten seconds than an entire company could in 1864. The anti-infantry weapon that shredded us at Ft. McKinley was a 20mm Naval anti-aircraft gun from our own battleships. It fired almost flat and splintered on contact with almost anything, even grass. Even me.

Accuracy? As we approached our last mountain objective we watched a lone Japanese soldier, high up on the hillside laboring to dig a hole in the rocky grey ground. Our platoon sergeant took my M-1, adjusted the sights and dropped our oblivious enemy onto his face. Almost makes us long for the good old days when the Lobster Backs stood in the bright open and reloaded their clumsy Brown Bess muskets on Breed’s Hill. They could hit a tree at fifty yards and fire two balls a minute, but the twenty one inch bayonet did the dirty work. It was an extension of the Roman spear and the Brits conquered the world with it. Fire twice, close fast was the rule. “Steady there, gentlemen, they’re nothing but a bloody gang of traitors. Barbarian Americans. Stick it to them and we’ll all have tea.”

A Kentuckyman with a long rifle could hit a belt buckle at four times the range of a Bess and did so repeatedly. Jackson’s men routinely dispatched British officers in the New Orleans swamps in 1814. 2,000 British boys who’d had enough Americana bit the dust with 71 American backwoodsmen. The Scots and their pipes played their last dirge in a Louisiana bayou far from their Highlands. Perseverance in the light of hope is one thing. They were gloriously insane. And Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture has nothing to do with the War of 1812. It celebrates a Russian victory(?) over the French. We play it every July 4th on Boston Common. Odd.

Here are some good numbers to chew on while contemplating W-*-A – *-R: The first battle of the Marne(1914): dead, wounded and missing numbered in the millions. It was too early in the game to count. In the second Marne (1918), the Germans topped the odds with a million casualties in a mere five furious assaults. Verdun(1916) takes the cake with five and a half million lost. “An entire generation of young men was lost.” You can almost hear the bookkeeping. My family gave up one son to gas, one to shrapnel and one to a couple of slugs. How’s that for numbers?

If you’d like to feel thankful that you’re here and now rather than way back when, read “100 Decisive Battles (from ancient times to the present.)” It describes how major battles shaped history for better or worse. Or, generally, didn’t change a thing. The author/compiler, Paul K. Davis describes how great world movements and uncontrollable momentum, in the hands of a privileged and persuasive few, smashed titanic masses of humanity together in mortal, sub-human, combat … each particle being you or me or them. “In the aggregate, each of us is a grain of sand,” said a war movie director. I don’t see it that way. When I see a formation of infantry today, I look in that aggregate for somebody like me, about sixty years younger and I imagine what he feels and then I know: ” rather be here than anywhere else. Damned well right. Stand tall trooper.”


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