The generals battle it out - in court

Did George Washington play up enemy casualties and exaggerate his troop strength in order to make the Revolutionary War appear winnable? This reporter has stumbled upon evidence of - shall we say? - a cover-up. The revolutionary army was ''computed to be above 60,000'' by the military intelligence of 1777, and credited with having ''taken and killed'' 2,500 British soldiers. The historian Sydney George Fisher, noting that the revolutionary army never, in fact, numbered more than 16,000 men, fearlessly declared: ''There seems to have been a systematic exaggeration of numbers. . . . The officers were quite willing to have it so.'' That means Washington.

Fisher failed to put this little expose into a headline and proclaim a conspiracy. But what if he had? Are historians, unlike journalists, beyond the wrath of generals? Or could the descendants of Sydney George Fisher be sued by the descendants of George Washington for defamation of character?

The hypothesis does not sound quite as absurd as it would have before 1984, The Year of the Litigious Generals. Enter Gen. William C. Westmoreland, suing CBS because he was charged, like the Colonial generals, with knowingly miscounting bodies in Vietnam. Enter Gen. Ariel Sharon, former Israeli defense minister, suing Time magazine because he was charged with knowingly looking the other way the night of the massacres in the Palestinian camps at Beirut.

What an extraordinary spectacle this is! - two military men having recourse to civil law to fight out their old wars. Thus, painful days in court, as one commentator has said, are taking the historic place of a postage stamp and the price of stationery required for an indignant letter to an editor.

Military honor seems to have lent a high musk to the chambers of justice. In the same way the rest of us are presumed to be innocent until proved guilty, a general is presumed to be a hero. And if somebody says otherwise, somebody will have to pay $50 million or $120 million - penalties scaled to match the importance of the alleged victims, it might seem, rather than the importance of the alleged crimes.

It makes one wonder about the exalted status we are inclined to extend to our military leaders, contrasted to our civilian leaders. Our politicians we insult as a daily habit. On the other hand, most of the human beings a general meets in the course of a day - including politicians - salute him or stand like a statue until he says, ''At ease.''

When the extremely brilliant Gen. Douglas MacArthur was put in charge of the occupation of Japan after World War II, the more naive Japanese took him to be divine, like their emperor. Did MacArthur notice the difference? Possibly not. After all, this was pretty much the way he had been treated throughout his four-star life.

Certainly nothing in a general's ordinary rounds prepares him for people saying or doing nasty things to him. ''Yes, sir!'' is about as rude as it usually gets. Should it be a surprise then if criticism - any criticism - is likely to be taken as an act of military insubordination?

Daily life may not give generals or rock stars a lot of practice in humility, but some of them develop it on their own anyway. Gen. George C. Marshall, among others, was a great one. And if somebody had said he wasn't - if somebody had said unfair and even untrue things about him - would this military man, who later became secretary of state, have sued? It is to be doubted.

There are, after all, other lines of recourse for public figures in a society guaranteeing freedom of speech. From Thucydides and Caesar on, generals have taken it as their prerogative to write memoirs about their winning ways. With a few exceptions, the accounts have been as one-sided as they have been soporific. But they have also been best sellers. They have made their authors' case to a large constituency.

Well, what would George Washington have said? Actually, he said it. Addressing a number of those 16,000 (or 60,000) troops, he observed: ''If men are to be precluded from offering their sentiments on a matter which may involve the most serious and alarming consequences that can invite the consideration of mankind, reason is of no use to us; the freedom of speech may be taken away, and dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.''

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