What will the little green men know of us?

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Suppose you're one of those legendary Little Green Men who visit the Earth from some distant planet and want to learn something about the race of humans that inhabits this little “third rock” from the Sun. What do you look at—our science, our art, our expertly designed structures, our farms, our cities, our education system, our health care?

None of the above. The best crash course any alien visitor can get on human history, sorry to say, is to take a hard look at all of our famous battles.

We have demonstrated our unparalleled expertise at scorching the Earth and murdering each other. From way back in ancient times when a slave ran 26 miles from the Plains of Marathon to Athens to inform the Greek leaders that its army had beaten the invading Persians, to the Tet offensive by the North Vietnamese army more than 40 years ago that finally convinced President Lyndon Johnson that the very unpopular Vietnam War was unwinnable.

In between, there has been one famous battle after another, on land, on or under the sea and in the air, and I’m sure history scholars would agree that not a single one of them, with all the destruction and bloodshed, ever really settled anything.

Let’s list a few of the more important battles and please forgive me if I miss any you may think of.

There was the Battle of Hastings in ancient Britain where William the Conqueror’s Norman knights crossed the English Channel and defeated Anglo-Saxon forces to change European history forever.

There was the Battle of Agincourt, celebrated in several movies about England’s hero king, Henry V, when English long bows beat gaudily armored French nobles mounted on horseback and, temporarily, conquered France.

During the reign of the Elizabeth I, a scrappy bunch of English ships defeated a huge fleet of would-be conquerors of England, the Spanish Armada, in the English Channel by the clever expedient of setting fire to some of their own ships and sending them into the middle of the invading fleet.

In another sea battle, probably the biggest ever fought by sailing ships, the British fleet lead by young Admiral Horatio Lord Nelson, beat Napoleon's French fleet off a Spanish cape called Trafalgar. Nelson was fatally wounded by a French sniper.

Let’s move up to a couple of years after a new country called the United States was created by delegates at a Continental Congress in Philadelphia. A little skirmish in a meadow in a village in Massachusetts called Lexington started a war for independence England couldn’t believe it lost.

In 1812, England and its former colonies got mad at each other again and fought a big battle in New Orleans. With the help of a French pirate named John Lafitte, the American Army led by General Andrew Jackson, a future president, won but it wasn’t really necessary. The war was already over. A treaty ending it was signed in Paris a few days before the battle, but there was no cable, radio or TV in those days to let them know about it.

There were lots of major battles in our bloody Civil War, but the one most people think about was fought for four days around a tiny Pennsylvania town called Gettysburg. It didn’t end the war, but it proved that Robert E. Lee and the Confederate army, which had penetrated that far north, were going to lose.

The rebel high tide was the immortal charge by General George Picket’s division from Virginia across an open field toward a stone wall held by Union forces. Picket came close but his men never made it to the wall.

The battlefield is a national monument today. You look across that field and wonder how men could be brave enough to march into the face of murderous cannon fire. And why.

World War I, with its four years of trench slaughter, had lots of major battles. Probably the bloodiest was the German attack on the French town of Verdun where artillery shells killed off a whole generation of young men on both sides.

There was a big naval battle off the Dutch coast city of Jutland with the British and German navies pounding away at each other, the last major battle involving those now obsolete battleships.

Aircraft carriers took over the navies in the major Pacific battles in World War II. The biggest was off the island of Midway, where the Japanese Navy tried to destroy ours but lost three big carriers to our one and never again threatened the naval superiority we rebuilt after the Pearl Harbor sneak attack almost wiped out the U.S. fleet.

We waged a long land, sea and air battle against the Japanese to hold the big airbase at Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands.

Major World War II battles in Europe included the Battle of El Alemain in the African desert where British General Bernard Montgomery’s tanks and troops defeated German General Irwin Rommel’s up-til-then invincible Afrika Korps, which threatened to take over Egypt and the Suez Canal.

Another major defeat for Adolf Hitler’s Nazi hordes was at the Russian city of Stalingrad where Soviet tanks and Army divisions wiped out a whole German Army. A lot of military experts think Hitler made a huge blunder by attacking Stalingrad directly and not by-passing it.

After that bloody encounter, his invasion of Russia ground to a halt.

Two of the longest and bloodiest World War II battles were the Battle of the Atlantic, where our Navy and the British fought the German U-boat wolf packs which were sinking hundreds of merchant ships, some close to our Eastern coast, carrying vital supplies to England, and the Battle of Britain in which Britain’s RAF Spitfires fought the fleets of German bombers attacking England, turning large parts of London into rubble and killing thousands.

Those were the days when Londoners used deep subway Underground stations for bomb shelters. It was supposed to be the prelude to Hitler’s planned invasion of England, which never happened.

And, of course, the biggest battle of World War II, the one that turned the tide, was our D-Day, June 6, 1944, the invasion of the Nazi-held French coast at Normandy. The so-called “Longest Day” was in doubt for many hours until our armies fought their way inland off the beaches.

So there they are, our big battles. We won them all, except for that Vietnamese fiasco, and we like to think we're invulnerable.

Then Sept. 11 came along and we're not so sure.

Posted 7:06 pm, October 10, 2011
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