Losses | HistoryNet


By Robert M. Citino
9/4/2010 • Fire for Effect

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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20 Responses to Losses

  1. Mike H. says:

    An old German farmer said it best to me back in 1978: “Even the best war is a bad war.” Amen…

  2. Luke Truxal says:

    A doctor from the 306BG once discussed with me the effects of casualties on combat crews. He told me that it was better to for crews to see a B-17 go down over Europe than that same plane make it back home full of dead and wounded. If a plane went down on a mission there was always the chance that the crew could have survived. However, if a member of your crew or another crew was killed that was a finality.

  3. Guy Nasuti says:

    Great article. I agree that when one gets down to it, there are no real winners in war. And those who lose the most are those who do the fighting, killing, and dying. Medical care is better today of course, but what hasn’t been mentioned are the soldier’s coming home with brain injuries from the force of the IED’s, not to mention PTSD. How many combat veterans are suffering from re-living some horrific experience over and over and over again as they have for generations? These men and women are still not often listed among our casualties.

  4. Rob Citino says:

    Mike, Luke, and Guy–

    Thanks for the comments. I’ve been thinking about this for a long time. These have been, in their fashion, very bloody wars, and we don’t usually think about them that way.


  5. doris says:

    people from or in the war, thank you for protecting our contry

  6. Rob Citino says:

    Right on, doris!

  7. Joe says:

    Great Discussion on this article.

  8. Peter Eedy says:

    Good article Rob … the numbers don’t always reveal the true stories

    We should give the poticians the guns and let them fight it out, rather than sacrificing our innocent youths

  9. Dale Wilson, Ph.D. says:

    As a Vietnam combat vet who saw action as a “grunt” in I Corps in 1970, I can tell you that even “light” action can seem like bloody hell!

    More recently, while participating in one of the Military Order of the Purple Heart’s “March on the Hill,” in which members of the MOPH from each state meet with members of their state’s congressional delegations to address the special needs of combat-wounded vets, I had the privilege of going to one of the Friday night buffets O’Brien’s Steakhouse puts on for recovering men and women from Walter Reed and Bethesda. It is a very sobering and inspiring experience.

    One young man in particular caught my attention. He had a flap of skin pulled down covering his right eye socket. Above that, it looked like someone had drawn a line across his forehead and a vertical line above his nose and removed that portion of his skull and brain above the horizontal line and on his right side of the vertical line and then placed metal plates to cover the exposed areas. Moreover, he had suffered many shell fragment wounds elsewhere on his body.

    This dispassionate description of his wounds does not fully convey how he appeared. His head wounds were the worst I have ever seen. It’s truly a miracle that he survived.

    Moreover, as I chatted with his mom, I learned that he’d lost 95 percent of his vision in his remaining eye, but that he was scheduled for surgery the following Monday and the doctor had said he had an excellent chance of regaining normal vision in that eye.

    Bottom line: your point’s well made, Rob!

  10. Rob Citino says:

    As someone who has never heard a shot fired in anger, I listen to your wisdom, Dale–I’ll bet it isn’t “light action” if you’re the one being shot at!

    Thanks to all.


  11. Rob Citino says:

    And right on, Peter!

  12. Michael Horn says:

    The advances in military medicine are simply staggering since Vietnam. With clotting agents and advanced lifesaving techniques down to squad level – more combat wounded survive today than ever.

    Personal protection from the Interceptor Vest with Small Arms Protective Inserts (SAPI) Plates of boron carbide stop rifle rounds from entering the trunk/torso of our soldiers. Advanced design of the helmet and its suspension is ongoing to further minimize head trauma.

    Combat vehicles have also been recently upgraded – the M1114 up-armored HMMWV – never intended to be a combat assault vehicle has been superceded by the MRAP – a V hulled mine resistant combat vehicle again offering more protection against all but the largest IEDs.

    My personal feeling is that the issue of psychotropic drugs by Army and VA Psychs has increased the tragic suicide rate among our soldiers. If there is a weak link in our treatment of combat wounded – we need more than statistical data to determine where we are failing our soldiers – those with mental scars – apparently the most vunerable among our wounded. Are we killing them with the treatment meant to allieviate their suffering?

  13. Greg says:

    As a Viet Nam vet 1966 -68′ 1-1-C Marines and Cap forces. I can tell you a big differences from little fire fights to a pitch battle! And considering I was over ran 3 different times in a CAP unit.. the differences is very clear! I just count how many of us is still standing at the end.

  14. Dick says:

    I’m 60 now, and I grew up listening to my US Army father’s Pacific WWII stories (e.g,, Marshalls, Eniwetok, Saipan, Peleliu). The sacrifice that he and his fellow soldiers made is staggering. Civilians at home also sacrificed a great deal — taxes, conscription, rationing. In today’s wars, the only ones making sacrifices are the soldiers/ marines and their families. This lack of shared suffering makes war all too easy on the rest of us. I think that any civilian who says he/she is in favor of going to war should be immediately required to serve in some capacity. Combat, rear echelon, janitor at a base, cleaning bedpans — anything at all. Especially all politicians.

  15. Roger Soiset says:

    I have done extensive research on the casualties of my war, Vietnam. A peculiarity I came across which I assume is also true of other wars is that not included in casualty figures are the AWOLs and deserters. I also found numerous examples of U.S. civilians who worked for the CIA or other non-military branches of government who were killed, captured or missing who aren’t included in our “total casualties”. I even found one U.S. Air Force plane that crashed in the South China Sea (we think; it just never arrived, and no trace was found) and the crew was not counted as losses of the war, nor were the men on board who had been assigned to units in south Vietnam. No doubt the rationale was, “they never got here.”

  16. Rob Citino says:

    Thanks for this addition, Roger. Further proof that we may never have “the” casualty future for any of our wars.

  17. J. DeWitt says:

    The term “light” in regard to casualties does seem detached from reality. 10,000 is the number of people in a small city. I suppose the liberal use of that term comes from not having to smell that many bodies scattered over a battlefield.

  18. T.S. Eschholz, Jr. says:

    With regard to Michael Horn’s comments about the use of psychotropic drugs, I could not agree more. As someone whose business involves training and nutrition applications across a variety of health, life, and combative applications, our armed services are failing our Marines, soldiers, sailors, airmen, and coasties through both ommission as well as commission with regard to the use of psychotropic drugs. The application of high density nutrients would do far more good and have no negative repercussions. For instance, high stress wipes out all the B Complex (a water soluable family of vitamins) stores within roughly 15 minutes. The B Complex family is commonly know as the “happy vitamin” family. They are critical in maintaining the nerves and nerve function throughout the body. Additionally, they are critical in minimizing and/or eliminating depression and anxiety. The USRDA/USDV is woefully inadequate in general and most particularly for those in combat. The B family needs to be replenished on a continuing basis throughout the day — morning, noon, and night and particularly immediately post contact.

    Combat places immense stress on the adrenal glands. Proper functioning of the adrenals allows for a more effective combatant throughout a frontline tour and lessens both short and long term health issues post combat tour. The nutrients that support adrenal function are: quality protein, B Complex, Vitamin C Complex(at least 5000mg daily), and Zinc(100mg daily). Stabilized adrenals will also facilitate better sleep.

    Additional support for mitigating the effects of stress can be obtained with a formulation balanced in the following manner: L-Theanine(100mg); Ashwagandha root extract(100mg); Beta sitosterol(60mg);
    L-Tyrosine(100mg). This blunts cortisol response and in double blind studies has been shown to promote a calm, relaxed state without causing drowsiness within 30 minutes of consumption. Additionally it has been shown to keep subjects more alert, less tense, and better able to concentrate.

    With regard to sleep, the utilization of 2500-5000mg of Calcium, 1250-2500mg of Magnesium (ratio of 2:1 is critical), and 2500-5000IU of Vitamin D3, in conjunction with the herbs Valerian, Passion Flower, German Chamomile will do a far better job in facilitating sleep without the adverse effects of the sleeping pills/agents currently provided.

    EPA, DHA, and GLA are all essential fatty acids critical to proper brain functioning and the mitgation &/or elimination of depression. Additionally, these nutrients have a number of other hugely positive physiological actions. I would suggest not less than 1600mg of EPA, 1100mg of DHA, and 300mg of GLA(ideally from boarage seed oil). Double these amounts would be a significantly better option. These nutrients have to come from high quality natural sources and be cold processed.

    I provide this information from the perspective of a Marine formerly on active duty from 1979-1985 whose goal had always been to lead Marines in combat and never was afforded that opportunity. I am the son of a Marine who had lead Marines in combat in North China during the Japanese repatriation, Korea, and Vietnam who told me he prayed daily that I would never have the requirement to see combat but expected me to train myself and those for whom I was responsible relentless and thoroughly because you always fought as you trained and the harder and more effectively you trained the better chance you had of bringing your people home.

    T.S. Eschholz, Jr., C.C.S.
    President, Fitness Crafters

  19. Mike H. says:

    Csualties are NEVER “light” or (even worse!) “acceptable” to anyone who has treated a friend that he’s eaten with, slept next to, worked, and trained with, for serious injuries…or covered a friend with his poncho, so they can fly him home…or to the young man or woman who will have to go theough the rest of their life as a cripple. You’re absolutely right, Rob, there are no winners in War…except maybe a few multinational oil companies, or the Military/Industrial Complex…And it seems they don’t even bother to send “seconds” anymore.

  20. lyndon says:

    Why are the wounded in Afghanistan transported to Germany for treatment.?

    What is the matter with hospitals in the U.S.A.?

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