Wednesday, October 24, 2007
Wednesday Math, Vol. 2: The numbers of war
Good morning, Latvia! This means I have my Baltic nations merit badge!
Who reads Lotsa 'Splainin'? Estonians, Lithuanians and Letts do it. So let's do it. Let's start this post.
The phrase "World War III" is being tossed around a lot these days. Some even say the Cold War was World War III and whatever we are involved in now is World War IV, like neocon godfather/pinhead Norman Podhoretz. It is my humble opinion that these people, almost all of them Americans, should put a sock in it because they don't know what they are talking about. Neither the Cold War or the current unpleasantness deserve comparison to the great wars of the 20th Century.
Before we knew enough to start numbering world wars, WW I was called The Great War. It might be fairly called The Great European War, because the vast majority of the battles took place there and the vast majority of casualties were European. At that time, the British Empire covered an astonishing percentage of the land mass of the world, so the British colonies were also involved as soldiers. Australians will never forget a town in Turkey named Gallipoli, for example, where their brave soldiers were slaughtered because of the incompetence of the British officers who commanded them. Of course, the Americans got involved near the end. That's the way Europeans think about our involvement in both world wars.
There had been nothing like The Great War in Europe ever before. Even the Napoleonic Wars, which hit a remarkably large area of Europe, were dwarfed by the magnitude of The Great War, when 100 years of technological advances were put forward to turn to battlefields into unimaginable slaughterhouses. Civilized nations decided to pull away from some of the technology, most notably poison gas, but better guns and bigger bombs were going to be part of every war afterward.
World War II technology surpassed the technology of World War I in even deadlier ways. We might think the atomic bomb and long range rockets are the most notable examples, but the difference in aircraft is the biggest factor in how widespread the death and destruction became in the Second War. The massive aerial bombardment of cities is the signature change from the way the two wars were fought, and how the numbers of dead are dispersed.
Here are the countries that Americans might list as the "major combatants" of World War II and the percentages of their entire populations lost.
Soviet Union: 13.44%
Great Britain: 0.94%
United States: 0.32%
When I was a kid, born ten years after the war was over, it was common to honor the Brave Brits and laugh at the cowardly French and Italians. As these numbers make clear, the war hit France and Italy slightly harder than it hit England, and of course, from these numbers, it looked like it barely hit the United States at all. The only mention of the Eastern Front was as a running gag on Hogan's Heroes, the place that German soldiers did not want to be sent.
From this list, we see that the war was very different for the Americans than it was for other "major combatants". Other countries that lost so little a percentage of their people are places we think of as barely in the war at all, like Sweden and Norway. Here is a list of countries that lost more civilians than the United States lost people in World War II.
When I think of World War II, I don't even think of it taking place in India, but there it is. More civilians lost their lives in India than American fighting men. A lot of these losses were due to a Bengal famine in 1943. Maybe a Great Britain not ravaged by war could have made an effort to save members of the Empire; maybe not.
This list shows that this truly was a world war, not just a European war.
Here is a list of countries that lost more than 10% of their population during the war.
Soviet Union 13.44%
Portuguese Timor 11.0%
For me, the surprise on this list is Portuguese Timor. I would have thought that others who suffered under Japanese attack and occupation rule would have made this list, but that's not what the numbers say. The 10% club is almost all on the dreaded Eastern Front, countries that lived under the brutal attack and rule of both the Germans and the Soviets. The war in Eastern Europe was a horror beyond imagination.
When we learn history, the losers of the war are the ones forced to surrender and the winners are the ones who get to set the terms. This is a child's view of war as a game. In war, countries are beaten beyond endurance. The Germans beat the Soviets and the Soviets beat them in turn. It is fair to say the German war machine drowned in a ocean of Russian blood. The Poles, the Yugoslavians, the French, the Dutch, the list in Europe goes on and on. In Asia, Japan administered beating after beating. Japan beat the Chinese, the Burmese, the Filipinos, the Indonesians, and the Americans in turn beat the Japanese. As we watch San Diego and Malibu in flames today, we might spare a thought for all the Japanese cities burned out and bombed during the war. We did what we had to, but it was a horrible thing nonetheless. The United States won World War II by sustaining very light casualties as a nation and being able to return to prosperity when other countries were taking decades rebuilding.
Some might read this and think that I demean the price paid by American fighting men in World War II. Let me conclude with some numbers that tell their story.
We were attacked in December 1941 and the war ended in the summer of 1945. While that is 3 1/2 years, we didn't really mobilize for war until well into 1942. We had 1.5 million men in uniform. About 450,000 died. This means on average, we lost about 10% of our army every year for three years. Compare this to what happened to our troops in Vietnam, where in 1968, we lost about 3% of our soldiers. In Iraq, we haven't lost even 1% in a year yet, and our armed forces are a fraction of the number we sent to WW II or Vietnam.
The averaging isn't a fair picture of what happened. Losses started at a low level, and grew to terrible rates as we fought the Japanese from island to island. In Europe, we started in the North African campaign, then the even bloodier invasion of Italy, and then the huge assault on mainland Europe that began on D-Day, June 6, 1944. The seemingly endless graveyard pictured above is just Americans buried in France that died in the invasion.
What is happening now is not World War III or IV or anything like it. Dealing with terrorists is a nasty job, as the British and Spanish and French can tell us. But if World War III comes, it will likely be us against the Chinese, and there is only one thing I know for sure.
We aren't ready.