PROPAGANDA IS AN inescapable ingredient of modern conflict. In the Second World War, it was considered essential for the struggle to defeat the German army that the peoples of the Grand Alliance should be convinced of the qualitative superiority of their fighting men to those of the enemy. One dogface or one tommy was worth three wooden-headed krauts. Hitler's robots could never match the imagination and initiative of Allied soldiers on the battlefield.

The image of the European war conveyed to the American and British public at home was of dogged, determined Allied soldiers struggling against odds towards final victory: "Forget about the glorified picture of fighting you have seen in the movies," declared a characteristic war correspondent's dispatch to The New York Times, "The picture you want to get into your mind is that of plugging, filthy, hungry, utterly weary young men straggling half- dazed and punch-drunk, and still somehow getting up and beating the Germans." An American pilot was reported telling Bob Hope: "It would be nice . . . to get home . . . and stretch my legs under a table full of Mother's cooking . . . but all I want to do is beat these Nazi sons-of- bitches so we can get at those little Jap bastards."

Most men of the Allied armies were openly contemptuous of the fantasies about themselves peddled by correspondents, with such notable exceptions as Bill Mauldin and Ernie Pyle. This reaction makes it more remarkable that for a generation after the moment of victory in 1945, so many myths were perpetuated not only by popular historians, but within the military institutions of the West.

In 1950, the great British military writer Capt. Basil Liddell Hart wrote a paper in which he reflected upon the vast Allied superiority of forces in northwest Europe in 1944, and the reluctance of postwar military critics in Britain and America to draw appropriate conclusions about Allied performance: There has been too much self-congratulation and too little objective investigation, he said.

Liddell Hart is not alone in challenging the conventional wisdom about the war. Critics have questioned some of the theories of the controversial American military analysts Col. Trevor Dupuy and Martin Van Creveld, who have subjected the respective performance of the American and German armies on the battlefield to detailed statistical study. But none has yet faulted Dupuy's conclusion that on almost every battlefield of the war the German showed best:

"On a man for man basis, German ground soldiers consistently inflicted casualties at about a 50 percent higher rate than they incurred from the opposing British and American troops under all circumstances (emphasis in original). This was true when they were attacking and when they were defending, when they had a local numerical superiority and when, as was usually the case, they were outnumbered, when they had air superiority and when they did not, when they won and when they lost."

The inescapable truth is that Hitler's Wehrmacht was the outstanding fighting force of World War II, one of the greatest in history. For many years after 1945, this seemed painful to concede publicly, partly for nationalistic reasons, partly also because the Nazi legions were fighting for one of the most obnoxious regimes of all time.

A spirit of military narcissism, nourished by such films as "The Longest Day," "A Bridge Too Far" and "The Battle of the Bulge," has perpetuated mythical images of the Allied and German armies. Moreover, the overwhelming majority of battlefield memoirs published in Britain and America concern, not surprisingly, Allied battlefield experience. They dwell upon fears, difficulties and triumphs of Allied soldiers as seen from Allied foxholes.

We learned a great deal less -- indeed, nothing at all -- about how the German soldier maintained an effective defense in Europe for 11 months under constant and unchallenged air attack, bombarded daily by devastating artillery concentrations, facing heavy odds, sustained by a fraction of the supplies and firepower available to the Allied soldier.

Now, our vision of World War II is changing. The historical and global perspective that was absent for so many years is at last being attained. Russell Weigley's magnificent and monumental study of the American army in northwest Europe confronts quite frankly the failure of Eisenhower's forces to generate the combat power to smash through numerically much inferior German forces until these had been worn down by 11 months of attrition on the western front, compounding the huge drain on the Germans of four years of warfare on the eastern front fighting the Soviets.

Germany's titanic struggle with the Soviet Union from 1941 to 1944, which killed more than 2 million German soldiers -- arguably, the best 2 million -- provided the western Allies with an extraordinary luxury for nations at war: time to train, to prepare, to plan to meet the enemy on the battlefield under conditions of their choosing, at a moment carefully selected by the warlords of America and Britain.

From the battle of Normandy to the very end in Germany, the British army's performance was profoundly influenced by inability to withstand heavy casualties. Montgomery was repeatedly warned by his superiors in London about the scarcity of manpower. Within days of the landings in France, British battalions were being cannibalized to provide replacements. In 1945, whole divisions were broken up for the same reason.

Since the war, far too much critical attention has been focused upon Allied generalship in northwest Europe, and far too little upon unit fighting performance. Allied senior leadership was, on the whole, not inferior to that of the Germans, hampered by the dead hand of Hitler. Montgomery may have been cautious -- not least for the reason mentioned above -- but he was certainly not incompetent. The sluggish performance of his British formations in Normandy and after was principally attributable to war-weariness and reluctance to accept further heavy loss when final victory was within sight.

Yet for the Americans, manpower was not a problem. From beginning to end of the campaign, their willingness to accept casualties to gain an objective was acknowledged, respected and envied by their British allies. "On the whole, the Americans were willing to go at it more toughly than we were," declares Field-Marshal Lord Carver, in 1944-45 an armored brigade commander under Montgomery. How was it, then, that the U.S. Army found it enormously difficult, indeed often impossible, to defeat Germans encountered on anything like even terms?

First, there was the extraordinary failure of the western Allies in 1944- 45 to provide their ground forces with adequate weapons. By that phase of the war, American and British technology had created a host of miracles: superb combat aircraft, antisubmarine warfare equipment, radar, the amphibious DUKW, the proximity fuse and the Jeep. Through Ultra, the greatest cipher- breaking operation of all time, the Allies possessed extraordinary knowledge of the German order of battle, deployments and often -- though not in the Battle of the Bulge -- German intentions.

Yet amid all this, in northwest Europe the Allied leaders invited their ground troops to fight the Wehrmacht with equipment inferior in every category save artillery and transport. German machine-guns, mortars, machine-pistols, antitank weapons and armored personnel carriers were all superior to those of Britain and America. Above all, Germany possessed better tanks. The Sherman, which dominated the Allied campaign, was a superbly reliable piece of machinery. But it was fatally flawed by lack of an adequate gun to penetrate the Tiger and Panther; and by poor battlefield survivability in the face of German tank guns.

These shortcomings were well understood in Washington and London before the 1944 campaign began. But the Chiefs of Staff expressed their confidence that Allied numerical superiority was so great that some qualitative inferiority was acceptable. This confidence was a fatal delusion. Again and again in northwest Europe, much inferior German forces equipped with a handful of Tigers, Panthers or 88mm guns were able to halt a major setpiece Allied attack in its tracks.

For the American Army in northwest Europe, from beginning to end, the critical difficulties centered upon the performance of the combat infantry, the men at the very tip of the spear. It was upon these troops that the overwhelming burden of battle, and of casualties, fell. A report on the tactical lessons of the Normandy campaign by the U.S. First Army declared:

"It is essential that infantry in training be imbued with a bold, aggressive attitude. Many units do not acquire this attitude until long after their entry into combat, and some never acquire it. On the other hand, units containing specially selected personnel such as Airborne and Rangers exhibited an aggressive spirit from the start. The average infantry soldier places too much reliance upon the supporting artillery to drive the enemy from positions opposing his advance . . . ."

Gen. Mark Clark wrote from Italy in the summer of 1944: "Without question our training has not yet produced disciplined officers and disciplined men." By the winter of 1944 and the Battle of the Bulge, Gen. Omar Bradley's forces were performing far more effectively than during June and July in Normandy. Yet to the very end -- considering the mass of the army rather than only such justly celebrated divisions as the 1st, 4th, 9th and Airborne -- American infantry fieldcraft, tactical skill and above all leadership left much to be desired.

One of the greatest American achievements of the war was the expansion of a tiny prewar peacetime force of 190,000 into an army of more than 8 million men. Yet an inevitable consequence of this transformation was a chronic shortage of high-quality, trained career leaders. In all America's wars, her allies have agreed that the able West Pointer has no superior. The problem, in World War II, was that there were nowhere near enough of these to lead an army of 8 million men.

Likewise, the achievements of the 82d and 101st Airborne Divisions showed what the American soldier at his best can do. Much of the attention on the Market Garden battle (the Allied invasion of the Netherlands in September 1944) has focused upon the heroic sacrifice of the British 6th Airborne Division. Yet objective historians, and some British eyewitnesses, believe that the American divisions put up a more professional combat performance than the British; and that if Gen. Matthew B. Ridgway had been granted the field command rather than the British Gen. Frederick A.M. Browning, the outcome of the battle might have been far happier for the Allies. Thus it would be absurd to suggest that America is not capable of producing elite foot soldiers.

America's Navy and Air Forces have seldom -- and certainly not in World War II -- found difficulty in attracting officers of high quality. Yet to be a soldier in America has never been the honorable calling, outside a few thousand Army families. It has traditionally been the route by which young men of modest origins -- Eisenhower and Bradley not least among them -- may aspire to build a career.

Gen. George S. Patton wrote: "It is an unfortunate and, to me, tragic fact that in our attempts to prevent war, we have taught our people to belittle the heroic qualities of the soldier." Where in Europe, young men of each nation's elite have, in war, traditionally gravitated towards the "teeth arms" -- rifle and armored regiments -- America's elite in the 20th century have shown other enthusiasms.

America's brightest and best gravitated instinctively towards the specialist arms, managerial military functions or staff jobs. This is not to deny that some Ivy Leaguers fought with distinction at the sharp end in northwest Europe. But it is reasonable to suggest that in World War II, American infantry units suffered from a severe shortage of educated officer leadership.

Interviewing war veterans, in marked contrast to Europeans who generally acknowledge respect for their officers, American private soldiers lavish regard upon good NCOs, but seldom reveal much for their unit commanders. Many American privates in northwest Europe cannot today recall the name of their battalion commander. I have seldom met any European veteran of whom this would be true.

The notorious American infantry replacement system, by which men were arbitrarily posted to a numbered, non-territorial unit, and had no chance to build the loyalty possible in a British regiment, created deep unhappiness among many men, and contributed to the U.S. Army's alarming total of almost a million battle-fatigue cases in World War II.

By the spring of 1944, the War Department perceived that a great mistake had been made in according such low manpower priority to infantry. Specialist branches and lines-of- communication units had been permitted to skim off an absurdly high proportion of the fittest and best- educated men. Of 1942 army volunteers, only 5 percent had chosen infantry or armor. It was found that 1944 infantrymen were an inch shorter than the army's average, a fair measure of general physique.

Although infantry made up only 6 percent of the entire service -- an alarmingly low proportion -- they were suffering more than 80 percent of American casualties in Europe. Although 54.3 percent of the German army was composed of fighting soldiers, this figure fell to 38 percent in the U.S. Army. About 45 percent of the Wehrmacht was committed to combat divisions, against 21 percent for the U.S. Army. The Americans possessed a far higher proportion of officers to men: yet many more of those officers were employed in rear areas rather than with fighting formations.

In the last year of the war, great efforts were made within the U.S. Army to improve the ratio of teeth to tail; to divert high-quality manpower towards the infantry; to improve the level of infantry training and leadership. In all these things, there was some measure of success. Yet the Americans, like the British, never matched the extraordinary professionalism of the German soldier, an historic legacy that long predated Nazism.

It was probably fortunate for the future of Western civilization, but greatly increased Eisenhower's difficulties, that few Allied soldier saw themselves for a moment as other than civilians temporarily in uniform, while their German counterparts possessed an uncanny ability to transform themselves from butchers and bank clerks into natural tacticians. One of the more absurd propaganda cliches of the war was the image of the Nazi soldier as an inflexible squarehead. In reality, the German soldier almost invariably showed far greater flexibility on the battlefield than his Allied counterpart.

"The Germans were willing to act -- always," said the British Major- General Brian Wyldbore-Smith. They seldom failed to seize an opportunity offered by Allied error. They were masters of rapid counterattack after losing ground. They would hold a position to the last, then disengage masterfully.

Not every German soldier was a superman, not every formation of equal high quality. After the Battle of the Bulge, for all intents and purposes the Wehrmacht's last gasp in the west, the western Allies never again faced German units of the highest caliber. But throughout 1944, amid the monumental errors of Germany's high command, at regimental level the German soldier achieved miracles.

There was a contrast between the attitude and behavior of most young Britons and Americans on the battlefield against those of their German counterparts, and this was not exclusively the product of the enemy's political fanaticism. John Hersey wrote vividly from a Marine unit on Guadalcanal: "When you looked into the eyes of those boys, you did not feel sorry for the Japs: you felt sorry for the boys. The uniforms, the bravado . . . were just camouflage . . . . They were just American boys. They did not want that valley or any part of its jungle. They were ex-grocery boys, ex-highway laborers, ex-bank clerks, ex-schoolboys, boys with a clean record, not killers."

Yet in war, the army that proves most successful in making its raw recruits into killers possesses an immeasurable advantage. Montgomery wrote ruefully from the desert to Sir Alan Brooke in London, in identical vein with Hersey: "The trouble with our British boys is that they are not killers by nature."

In May 1945, the Allies attained victory first through the huge efforts of the Russians who had inflicted three-quarters of the German army's casualties; and second through the deployment of overwhelming resources. It may be argued that, after 1945, in seeking to learn the lessons of the World War II, the American Army made the mistake of reversing the order of these factors. American commanders came home from Europe believing they had proved that overwhelming air and firepower could not merely be a critical supplement to, but an effective substitute for, dedicated infantry fighting.

If so, this was an error of judgment that continues to cost America dear today. The shortcomings of American infantry in World War II were repeated in Korea, and in Vietnam. It is a great delusion to suppose that the Indochina war revealed unique, unprecedented problems in the U.S. Army. The American army created in World War II had suffered weaknesses and difficulties. These weaknesses, highlighted by media attention and by defeat, had existed since World War II but had never been discussed before.

Many Western professional soldiers believed in 1944-45, and still believe today, that until the United States can come to terms with the problem of producing massed forces of effective combat infantry, the continued commitment of technology and cash will not suffice to make her defense effective.