In war, even when you win, you lose.
Military historians spend a lot of time talking about casualties, but they don’t usually do a very good job of it, in all honesty. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen a reference to “10,000 casualties” in one book magically turn into “10,000 deaths” in another. They’re not the same thing–not at all. Ten thousand deaths usually equates, in the modern era, to somewhere around 40,000-50,000 casualties; there are usually 3-4 wounded and missing men for every battlefield death. Word to the wise: never take a single source as an authority for a casualty figure. Do some comparison shopping.
Even worse, military historians tend to be pretty cavalier when discussing the subject, often referring to losses in the tens or even hundreds of thousands as “light” or “negligible.” Case in point: the German victory over France in 1940 cost the Wehrmacht somewhere around 44,000 men killed and another 150,000 wounded, for a casualty total of just under 200,000 men. In the context of 20th century mechanized warfare between Great Powers, we can admit that those were fairly moderate numbers, especially when compared to the nearly 2,000,000 casualties the Wehrmacht inflicted on the French in that same campaign, about 1,500,000 of whom were prisoners of war. Nevertheless, no one should ever simply dismiss 200,000 shattered lives and the ripple effects among family, friends, and society at large. Warfare is a very messy and distasteful business, and in the modern era, even the victors are going to feel the pain.
I had a moment the other day that make me think about this. We were talking in class about U.S. casualties in the European Theater of Operations in World War II. The official number is around 550,000 from D-Day to the end of the war in May 1945, breaking down into 120,000 killed and 430,000 wounded. By anyone’s standards, these were high losses, especially for a mere eleven months of combat. Think about it: the ETO cost more than 10,000 American lives each month for nearly a year, plus another 40,000 men wounded. By comparison, Operation Iraqi Freedom has thus far cost the country “only” about 4,400 lives, with Operation Enduring Freedom (the war in Afghanistan) contributing another 1,200 or so.
Let’s say 5,600 deaths in both of these wars combined. “Acceptable” casualties, I guess. But then I started thinking.
How much more advanced is our medical care today?
How much more rapidly does a wounded man get back to a world-class medical facility today than he might have in 1944?
How much more sophisticated are our surgical techniques?
How many men who would have died in 1944 are still alive today, a miracle when you consider the truly horrific injuries that an IED (“improvised explosive device”) or a more sophisticated EFP (“explosively formed penetrator") can inflict upon the human body?
I don’t have a precise response to all these questions, but I do know the answer to the last one: a lot of men who would have died in 1944 are staying alive today. The statistics that I see match up those 5,000 dead with some 35,000 or 40,000 wounded, and I hear anecdotal evidence everyday that tells me the number of wounded may be even higher. Today, in other words, there are six or seven wounded men for every battle death.
Thank God that the death toll is down. But let us also pause and realize the heavy price that American soldiers are paying today, even in these supposedly “little wars.”
In war, even when you win, you lose.
A quick note: this is, by my count, the 52nd entry I have posted in this online column, a solid year of subjecting you all to my thoughts on the war. Thanks to the publishers of World War II magazine for giving me this opportunity, to every one of you who reads it, and especially to those who comment. I’ll try not to let you down in the upcoming year!
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