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As the entry below from today’s Writer’s Digest dramatizes, this day in 1862 was the bloodiest in American military history. But the Vietnam War, to be dissected in tonight’s debut of the new 10-part series by Ken Burns, claimed more than twice the American lives, plus 3 million Asian lives.  Yet this country of ours continues such fruitless combats, and the waste that was Vietnam echoes in our continuing crusade in Afghanistan, now America’s longest, and perhaps must futile, war ever.

It’s the anniversary of the Battle of Antietam, fought near Sharpsburg, Maryland, along the banks of Antietam Creek (1862). It was the bloodiest single day in American military history, with nearly 23,000 casualties, and it ended in a tactical draw. One regiment, the First Texas Infantry, lost 82 percent of its men.

The 12-hour battle began at dawn, in a cornfield on David Miller’s farm. It was the first Civil War battle fought in Union Territory; the second, the Battle of Gettysburg, would happen less than a year later. Confederate General Robert E. Lee had brought troops into Maryland — which was still part of the Union, even though it was a slave state — to try to replenish his dwindling supplies. Encouraged by word of Stonewall Jackson’s capture of Harpers Ferry, Lee decided to make a stand in Sharpsburg rather than return to Confederate Virginia.

Union Major General George B. McClellan commanded twice as many troops as Lee. Not only that, but he also had a copy of Lee’s battle plan. But McClellan fumbled these advantages, failing to fully collapse the Confederates’ flanks and advance his center — which meant that more than a quarter of McClellan’s men never entered the battle. In the afternoon, Union troops advanced and a victory seemed imminent, until late-arriving Confederate reinforcements held them off. By sundown, both sides simply held their own ground. A veteran of the battle later recalled, “[The cornfield] was so full of bodies that a man could have walked through it without stepping on the ground.”

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scan0009I’m not much on war movies, but I guess with the Oscars coming up, I finally caught up with Bradley Cooper in American Sniper, Brad Pitt in Fury, and by mistake while looking for Fury, a 2014 film called Ardennes Fury starring no one ever heard of. I had some basis for “expertise,” in that I was commissioned an Armor officer, after graduating from the Armor School at Fort Knox through OCS in 1967, nearing the height of the Vietnam War. I earned my Tank Driver’s License in the M48 and M60 main battle tanks in service at the time, though I never entered the hatch of a tank after Armor School.

Back to the movies, I was struck at how in Fury, depicting Sherman tank action in Germany near war’s end in WWII, that the lieutenant in charge of the tank platoon was depicted as a timid guy in a crisp green uniform (who was blown up early in the film), while Brad Pitt was the seasoned non-com (with a 2015 hairdo) who was the real leader and father-figure of the unit, which was staffed by rumpled ner-do-well’s of low pedigree. The Germans were portrayed as ruthless, which justified the same behavior by the Americans. All were savages, and it was a clear anti-war film, grisly and disgusting, even when desperation and bravery prevailed. The other tank film,Ardennes Fury, was a cheaply produced film with almost no plot, wherin an isolated tank crew at the edge of oblivion in the Battle of the Bulge in Belgium’s beautiful Ardennes forest (which we visited last year), break out to try to save an orphanage staffed by nuns. I don’t know how it came out, though I suspect they succeeded.

And then there is American Sniper, where Bradley Cooper transforms into the most famous sniper of our recent set of wars. He suffers from PTSD, yet returns for multiple tours of duty voluntarily. He does as told, because he believes he is saving American lives. He personifies the perils of today’s professional soldiers — estranged from the comforts and safety of civilian lives, and in a final irony, just as he is re-assimilating, a veteran with PTSD he is trying to help, shoots him on a firing range. This too, to me, is an anti-war film, though it appears that to many Americans, it is all about heroism. I just don’t get that. I got nothing out of any of these films, other than a harsh reminder of the rationalized, institutionalized, insane violence called war.

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