When Napoleon crossed the Niemen, at the outset of the 1812 French invasion of Russia, he had under his command some 422,000 men. When he approached those same waters the next year, this time from the east, in sluggish, worn down retreat after defeats in Moscow, Borodino, Smolensk…his ranks had been cut to barely 10,000. A few enfeebled diehards were all that remained of the Grande Armée.
[This famous graph, by Charles Joseph Minard, shows the decreasing size of the Grande Armée. The brown line (followed from left to right) shows Napoleon’s march to Russia. The black line (followed from right to left) depicts his retreat. The size of the army is show equal to the width of the lines.]
Of course, military strategists are slow to learn and quick to forget. Napoleon wasn’t the only fool to covet the vast plains of the east. One hundred and thirty years later, Adolf Hitler embarked on Operation Barbarossa, the largest military operation in human history, both in terms of manpower…and casualties.
His monstrous panzer divisions rolled east, pounding Napoleon’s tracks past Minsk, Orsha and Smolensk. They thundered north, over the River Dvina to Leningrad, and South, through the Ukraine and onto Stalingrad. Once again it was a remarkable show, equal parts brute strength and determined stupidity. The weather, and the Russians, buried the Germans too, just as they had The Little Corporal’s men. All in, 4.3 million Germans fell during the campaign — a fatality list ten times the size of Napoleon’s entire army. During the whole of WWII, the German army lost a total of 5.5 million soldiers.
Of course, it would be obscene to talk about the “sacrifice” made by Napoleon’s army. Most people recognize them for what they were: an organized band of thugs invading other people’s land. And yet, the Frenchmen laid down their lives by the hundreds of thousands. They were patriotic to the last. Equally, it would be considered a breach of decency to hail the bravery and dedication of the Nazi soldiers. They are recognized as aggressors, as brutal occupiers and ruthless killers. And so they should be. But were they not highly trained and committed to their cause? Did they not “sacrifice” their lives by the millions for their country?
In both cases, the defeated armies’ men were nothing short of model soldiers. They marched. They obeyed orders. They killed on command. And when the blood dried and the dust settled, they were awarded medals for murdering people they’d never met, whose names and stories they’d never know. They were, in other words, just like their opposition…though without the good fortune of having “won” the war.
The ground under a dead German may well be as cold and hard as that under a dead Russian or a dead Frenchman. But history doesn’t remember all soldiers equally. Nor does it tend to separate soldiers — whose job it is to kill — too well from civilians — whose desire it is not to be killed.
It is estimated that between one and three million German civilians were killed during WWII. Who murdered these people? It’s almost considered impolite to ask, lest blame fall on heroes’ shoulders. Over in the Pacific, Japan lost between a half- and one-million civilians. Who killed these people, these men and women and children? Did they receive medals for doing so? Were they honored by their own state, welcomed home with parades and confetti?
Imagine for a second that The Axis Alliance was victorious in WWII. How might history remember President Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066, ordering the internment of 110,000 Japanese Americans in “War Relocation Camps” across the United States?
Moreover, what might history have to say about the only two nuclear weapons ever to have been deployed during wartime? Little Boy, the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, killed between 90,000-166,000 people. Fat Man, dropped on Nagasaki three days later, killed between 60,000-80,000 people. In both cases, the vast majority of the victims were civilians. They died of flash or flame burns…falling debris…radiation sickness…
Here’s what US President Harry Truman told the public in a radio address after dropping Fat Man:
“We have used it [the Atomic Bomb] in order to shorten the agony of war, in order to save the lives of thousands and thousands of young Americans. We will continue to use it until we completely destroy Japan’s power to make war.”
Who were these thousands and thousands of “young Americans” Truman was protecting? Surely not the same boys he was sending off to war. The US lost more than 400,000 soldiers on various battlefields in Europe and the Pacific…but “only” 1,700 civilians. Statistically, the best way to protect oneself against war was, as it is now, simply not to go.
Switzerland, which stayed famously neutral (despite their inconvenient geography), lost 100 civilians…and zero soldiers. New Zealand, meanwhile, lost nearly 12,000 troops, many of whom fell in places like Maleme and Galatas, during the Battle of Crete, and in far flung outposts in Italy and in Northern Africa. Again, these poor sods would have done better to stay at home, tending to their personal affairs, taking care of their families and ignoring heartfelt pleas from “society” for “shared sacrifice.” In all of WWII, not a single Kiwi civilian life was lost due to war.
Alas, The State’s message, articulated by Truman and emulated by “enemy leaders” around the world, was then as it is now: “We will make war in order to shorten it. We will make war until the other side cannot.”
Contrary to these bellicose hollerings of The State, the message of peace is not to “share the sacrifice”…but to avoid it altogether.
Joel Bowmanfor The Daily Reckoning
Joel Bowman is managing editor of The Daily Reckoning. After completing his degree in media communications and journalism in his home country of Australia, Joel moved to Baltimore to join the Agora Financial team. His keen interest in travel and macroeconomics first took him to New York where he regularly reported from Wall Street, and he now writes from and lives all over the world.
“Statistically, the best way to protect oneself against war was, as it is now, simply not to go.”
would you say that to russian civilians on the eastern front?
permanent tourists really have no business commenting on the actions of nations. they’re not competent to do so.
I thought you were leading up to a judgement on drones and the criminals who use them.
Can you imagine the civilian v soldier casualty rate in drone warfare?
Gman said “permanent tourists really have no business commenting on the actions of nations. they’re not competent to do so”.
That’s just bs gman. Joel has written a thought provoking column. Play the ball not the man.
“Play the ball not the man.”
ok. but I don’t think the man will play.
would you say that to russian civilians on the eastern front? the point being – if war comes to you?
Leading to the holocaust. The leadership postures high, suffers acute lead deficiency syndrome in real terms.
Nice peace[sic], Joel.
Yea, and at the end of the day whose interests, wealth and capital are people laying their lives on the line for? Mere pawns to be sacrificed!
I must say, it’s disingenuous to say Switzerland “stayed famously neutral” and even reprehensible to praise them for it. The fact of the matter is that they simply were not invaded for the obvious reason that so many high-ranking Nazis had hidden bank accounts there. No moral person could dismiss this fact, and since you’re probably not immoral, I can only conclude you’re speaking out of ignorance.
I side with gman here. Was Truman supposed to invade Japan, which would be condeming tens of thousands of our troops to death or disability? As then, so today…I’d rather destroy the enemy than be destroyed by them.
We can argue back and forth about who started the current conflicts and about who started Pearl Harbor, but the real issue is that an enemy attacked and we responded…decisively in WWII, working on it now.
War should be avoided altogether when it is fought for name,fame or material gain.When truth and justice are at stake and the enemy stubborn then go to war ;and there are rules in war.In such wars the numerical strength or firepower of the enemy is of absolute no consequence.Real faith is all that matters.
When there is true faith, soldiers would never become suicidal,leave alone commit suicide.These are model soldiers.
war is historically not a good choice for the soldier or civilian but what choice has he had in the matter? or the economy for that manner?
War is big business. Not until the leaders themselves and their families are put in the front lines will countries choose not to go. Not until politicians are forbidden to hold defense stocks and be barred from holding any position in a defense company for 10 years after leaving office will countries choos not to go.
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