Leaping from the Continent: Hecuba, Howard Stein and the Last Wehrmacht Push

Yesterday, December 16, 1944, was the last date in history when the United States had its military backbone broken on the battlefield — and then miraculously repaired — all in the span of six, torturous, days.  The last great push of the Wehrmacht to turn the tide of the war one, final, time forever — became infamously known as “The Battle of the Bulge” named for the way the Nazi Army pressed against the Allied lines to “bulge” the defense to the point of bursting — and it is no secret the Allies almost lost WWII right there in those muddy, frozen, trenches.

Here is how the U.S. Army remembers that day:

Early on the misty winter morning of 16 December 1944, over 200,000 German troops and nearly 1,000 tanks launched Adolf Hitler’s last bid to reverse the ebb in his fortunes that had begun when Allied troops landed in France on D-day. Seeking to drive to the English Channel coast and split the Allied armies as they had done in May 1940, the Germans struck in the Ardennes Forest, a seventy-five-mile stretch of the front characterized by dense woods and few roads, held by four inexperienced and battle-worn American divisions stationed there for rest and seasoning.

After a day of hard fighting, the Germans broke through the American front, surrounding most of an infantry division, seizing key crossroads, and advancing their spearheads toward the Meuse River, creating the projection that gave the battle its name.

My friend and mentor, Dr. Howard Stein, was there, on that bloody battlefield, 66 years ago yesterday. He was 22-years-old.  His entire life was ahead of him and his brief life flashed before his eyes then, and still now.

The Battle of the Bulge started at 5:30am on December 16, 1944.  Howard’s regiment was slaughtered.  Out of 100,000 troops only 12,000 survived.  Trench Foot defined life on the battlefield.  When the battle was over, many kids lost their feet to gangrene and Howard spent three months in a hospital tent recovering from Trench Foot.  Now, at 88-years-old, Howard still suffers from the aftereffects of Trench Foot, but he doesn’t complain.  Trench Foot is a fact of his life.  He got to keep his feet.

I remember December 16, 1944 with you, because Howard Stein remembers it with me as part of the friendship of Oral History that is passed along from one man’s mind to another’s.  I cannot fathom the experience, or the horror, but I am required by the covenant of a conscious morality to process the experience so it is never forgotten.

Here’s an article Howard Stein wrote in 2005 titled — “What’s Hecuba to Me?” — and he begins his analysis of Euripides’ fine war play with a still-fresh remembrance of The Battle of the Bulge.

Howard’s experience in The Battle of the Bulge reveals an important, open, festering, wound that defines his generation and degrades mine: “How does a worldwide war against a real, identifiable, evil change the men who risked their lives to preserve human liberty for the rest of us?”

I will never be able to answer that question.  Does that make me lucky, or an incomplete man?  Howard Stein’s children cannot answer that question.  We hope Howard’s grandchildren will never have to answer that question — a terrible question that only Howard, and other soldiers like him — can answer with any veracity.

Our modern “warfare” engagements since WWII have been about power and commerce and never about stopping evil from taking over the free world.  Sure, we have had heroes and casualties from those engagements, but Vietnam and Korea and Iraq and Afghanistan and all the rest were merely manufactured police actions that were politically sculpted by the United States government for the financial benefit of the military industrial complex, and not the salvation of the earth.

In less than 50 years, the entire history of “The Battle of the Bulge” has been colloquially replaced in our itinerant minds by an advertising meme used to promote weight loss.  The greatest peril America has faced in her young history is now associated with fat. When a mighty, WWII battle so quickly becomes a slangy catch-phrase about big bellies — and not the eternal definition of a bulging, desperate, vicious, and vengeful Nazi Army counterattack — we all become weaker in spirit and more inept in the heart and stupider as a people.  What’s next?  The Auschwitz Cupcake?  The Dachau Lap-Band?  The Himmler Zone Diet?

When Howard writes about Hecuba, he recalls his days of warfare, and as a national warrior, he can relate to, and explain, and amplify Euripides.  When I write of Hecuba, I can invoke Howard Stein, and stand on his shoulders, and try to awkwardly lift some new meaning into the mix of human suffering, but I don’t know what Howard knows about seeing death in your eye like a perpetual sty and wondering every instant of every day if you will live or die with real, irrevocable consequences; and while I do not measure up to Howard as a man or as a warrior, I can still take his lessons and try to blindly apply their learning to an unwilling future context as his reality becomes my myth and, in turn, I hope, a necessary, universal, warning against the wary human condition and the eternal battle between evil and those who know they must defeat that evil at every, and any, cost.

Now I know, because of Howard Stein, that sometimes you are required to leap from the continent to save the nation — and there’s always never the choice to do otherwise.

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