It Used to Be Just the Soldiers Who Died

By Gardner Botsford, the author of A Life of Privilege, Mostly (THE NEW YORK TIMES, 19/03/03):

Sixty years ago when I was drafted, howling all the way, into the infantry of the United States Army, the infantry was a dangerous place to be. I am knowledgeable on this point, because my presence in its ranks caused me to be landed, along with the rest of the First Infantry Division, on Omaha Beach on D-Day. Until I set foot on the Normandy sands, I was a chap of calm and sanguine disposition whose worst anxieties were on the order of seeing a traffic cop in the rearview mirror; now, in a single tick of a clock, I became a marionette on a string, ducking and weaving in an effort to get away from the invisible bits of metal I could hear buzzing like bees above my head and past my ears. (Useless acrobatics on my part, of course; the bullet you hear has already missed you.) Today, on the bluffs above Omaha Beach, there is a big American cemetery — those bees did their work well. It’s an impressive, silent, contemplative place. Row upon row of neat white crosses and Stars of David reach almost out of sight. The rich grass between them is kept mowed and tidy, and here and there visiting families have left bunches of flowers. I once knew men who are buried there, but I have never wanted to search out their particular graves. Somehow it would destroy the unity of the setting to single out Billy Birdsall’s cross, or Ernie Holzer’s. It’s the anonymity of the place, its reduction of so many lives into mute crosses and stars that is so affecting.

Wandering along the cemetery’s grassy paths, stopping now and then to read the name, rank and serial number of someone you never knew who took the same chances you took on June 6, 1944, but lost, you realize yet again that all too often the foot soldier’s life is all too short — always has been, from the time of Philip’s army in Macedonia to Westmoreland’s in Vietnam.

But those crosses and stars are half a century old now. These days, warfare has become much safer for the American foot soldier. Sixty years ago, the First Infantry Division had 21,000 casualties — and the division was only a flyspeck on a big canvas. The Korean and Vietnam Wars were equally hard on American soldiers. But relief was at hand when the Persian Gulf war came along: no more than 150 American casualties, all told — in fact, it was hardly a war at all in the old sense. And the numbers got even sweeter against the Taliban: fewer than 50 Americans killed in action, some of them by our own fire.

Civilians, on the other hand, have had nothing but grief since the advent of the bomber. Before World War II, they were a relatively carefree lot. For most, war was a spectacle, and sometimes they would pack up a picnic and drive their carriages out to see it, as at Waterloo and the first Bull Run. The bombers put an end to the picnics: Coventry, Hamburg, Dresden, for starters. Then came Vietnam and Cambodia, Yugoslavia and Afghanistan, with short pauses between events while the bomber people thought up new and better bombs with names like Fat Albert, Twinkletoes, Daisy Cutter and MOAB (”Mother of All Bombs,” a device so big that it has to be toted to its target in a lumbering cargo plane.)

Over the years, the material devastation wrought by bombers has been stupendous, and the civilian death toll beyond calculation. (At least we are never told what the calculation might be; whatever it is, it was increased by some 3,000 on Sept. 11.) Now it is Iraq’s turn, and one can dwell on the thought of the Mother of All Bombs being wrestled and heaved to the door of a plane’s cargo bay, and then shoved out to do its stuff on an ancient, rickety city like Baghdad, population five million.

So there we are, confronted by a paradox — a paradox, I must say, I would have found immeasurably comforting 60 years ago: If longevity is your thing, you could do worse than to join the Army.