FEATURE: Lives lost

What have we learned, if anything?

It is war, not racism or ethnic antagonism or religious fervor, that leads to atrocity. War—total war—has been the crucial antecedent condition for mass criminality in the modern era. The first primitive concentration camps were set up by the British during the Boer War of 1899–1902. Without World War I there would have been no Armenian genocide and it is highly unlikely that either communism or fascism would have seized hold of modern states. Without World War II there would have been no Holocaust. Absent the forcible involvement of Cambodia in the Vietnam War, we would never have heard of Pol Pot. As for the brutalizing effect of war on ordinary soldiers themselves, this of course has been copiously documented.

The United States avoided almost all of that. Americans, perhaps alone in the world, experienced the twentieth century in a far more positive light. The US was not invaded. It did not lose vast numbers of citizens, or huge swathes of territory, as a result of occupation or dismemberment. Although humiliated in distant neocolonial wars (in Vietnam and now in Iraq), the US has never suffered the full consequences of defeat. Despite their ambivalence toward its recent undertakings, most Americans still feel that the wars their country has fought were mostly “good wars.” The US was greatly enriched by its role in the two world wars and by their outcome, in which respect it has nothing in common with Britain, the only other major country to emerge unambiguously victorious from those struggles but at the cost of near bankruptcy and the loss of empire. And compared with other major twentieth-century combatants, the US lost relatively few soldiers in battle and suffered hardly any civilian casualties.

This contrast merits statistical emphasis. In World War I the US suffered slightly fewer than 120,000 combat deaths. For the UK, France, and Germany the figures are respectively 885,000, 1.4 million, and over 2 million. In World War II, when the US lost about 420,000 armed forces in combat, Japan lost 2.1 million, China 3.8 million, Germany 5.5 million, and the Soviet Union an estimated 10.7 million. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., records the deaths of 58,195 Americans over the course of a war lasting fifteen years: but the French army lost double that number in six weeks of fighting in May–June 1940. In the US Army’s costliest engagement of the century—the Ardennes offensive of December 1944–January 1945 (the “Battle of the Bulge”)—19,300 American soldiers were killed. In the first twenty-four hours of the Battle of the Somme (July 1, 1916), the British army lost more than 20,000 dead. At the Battle of Stalingrad, the Red Army lost 750,000 men and the Wehrmacht almost as many.

With the exception of the generation of men who fought in World War II, the United States thus has no modern memory of combat or loss remotely comparable to that of the armed forces of other countries. But it is civilian casualties that leave the most enduring mark on national memory and here the contrast is piquant indeed. In World War II alone the British suffered 67,000 civilian dead. In continental Europe, France lost 270,000 civilians. Yugoslavia recorded over half a million civilian deaths, Germany 1.8 million, Poland 5.5 million, and the Soviet Union an estimated 11.4 million. These aggregate figures include some 5.8 million Jewish dead. Further afield, in China, the death count exceeded 16 million. American civilian losses (excluding the merchant navy) in both world wars amounted to less than 2,000 dead.

As a consequence, the United States today is the only advanced democracy where public figures glorify and exalt the military, a sentiment familiar in Europe before 1945 but quite unknown today. Politicians in the US surround themselves with the symbols and trappings of armed prowess; even in 2008 American commentators excoriate allies that hesitate to engage in armed conflict. I believe it is this contrasting recollection of war and its impact, rather than any structural difference between the US and otherwise comparable countries, which accounts for their dissimilar responses to international challenges today. Indeed, the complacent neoconservative claim that war and conflict are things Americans understand—in contrast to naive Europeans with their pacifistic fantasies —seems to me exactly wrong: it is Europeans (along with Asians and Africans) who understand war all too well. Most Americans have been fortunate enough to live in blissful ignorance of its true significance. [complete article]

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1 thought on “FEATURE: Lives lost

  1. Antoine

    “Without World War II there would have been no Holocaust.”

    I’m not so sure about that statement. While the war certainly influenced how that event ultimately occurred, Hitler and the Nazi party were in power well before the war. Neither were thrilled with Jewish occupation and surely would have done something of a similar tune if the war had not happened. Of course, without Hitler’s influence the war probably wouldn’t have occurred either as well as the Holocaust.

    Perhaps this is to big of a “what if?” situation to be classified? Maybe it is the greed for power that truly leads to atrocity. It is this need that does lead to war after all.

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