Rational Security

Casualties of History

The thing we shouldn't forget about the origins of Veterans Day.


All of our nation’s veterans are honored on November 11, but it is important to recall that the origin of this observance was revulsion at the horrific casualties suffered by so many countries during World War I. Yes, a second and even more destructive conflict followed all too soon after the "war to end all wars," impelling a name change from Armistice Day to Veterans Day. And the rest of the 20th century was littered with insurgencies, terrorism, and a host of other violent ills — most of which persist today, guaranteeing the steady production of new veterans, of which there are 22 million in the United States.

But despite the seemingly endless parade of wars waged and fresh conflicts looming just beyond the bloody horizon, World War I still stands out for its sheer horror. Over ten million soldiers died, and more than twice that number were wounded. This is a terrible enough toll. But what makes these casualties stand out even more is their proportion of the total numbers of troops mobilized. For example, France put about 7.5 million soldiers in the field; one in five died, and three out of four who lived were wounded.

The other major combatants on both sides suffered horribly as well: the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s 6.5 million soldiers had a combined rate of killed and wounded of 74 percent. For Britain and Russia, the comparable figures totaled a bit over 50 percent, with German and Turkish losses slightly below one-half of all who served. The United States entered the conflict late, and so the overall casualty rate for the 4.3 million mobilized was but 8 percent. Even so, it is more than double the percentage of killed and wounded from the Iraq War, where total American casualties amounted to less than 4 percent of the one million who served.

Few conflicts in all of military history have seen victors and vanquished alike suffer such shocking losses as were incurred in World War I, so it is worth taking time to remember how this hecatomb came to pass. A great body of evidence suggests that this disaster was a product of poor generalship. Historian Alan Clark’s magisterial The Donkeys conveys a sense of the incredible stubbornness of high commanders who continued, for years, to hurl massed waves of infantry against machine guns and rapid-firing artillery. All this went on while senior generals stayed far from the front. A British field commander, who went riding daily, even had soldiers spread sand along the country lane he followed, to make sure his horse didn’t slip. 

But intransigence in the face of failure was not the only source of the tragedy of the Great War; incomprehension was the true cause of disaster. Neither the generals nor those who built the weapons of the time, and especially not the political leaders who sent the troops into battle, understood the likely effects of the destructive capabilities they were unleashing. Many "battle studies" before the war suggested that machine guns would favor attacking forces trying to cover open ground over defenders firing from trenches. And most military experts thought that artillery’s extended range and greater accuracy would flatten defenses and greatly ease the task of advancing forces. Wrong on both counts.

The only fellow who called things correctly was a Polish banker — and sometime logistician to Tsar Nicholas II — Ivan Bloch. Over a decade before the disaster hit, he predicted the grievous losses that would be suffered. He based his conclusions in large part on simple calculations of the range and rate of fire of weapons versus the pace of advance of infantry. The tsar took Bloch’s warnings to heart and lobbied for an international peace movement. Indeed, the first great conference at The Hague was his doing. But nobody else listened, as Bloch’s work was considered unduly alarmist and "unprofessional."

By recalling the roots of Veterans Day in this way, as a cautionary tale as well as a remembrance, we may end up honoring our service members in the best way possible — by making sure that we send them out to fight backed by senior leaders and strategies that fully appreciate the implications of the technologies of war in our time.

In Vietnam we seem not to have done this, relying all too heavily on fixed artillery firebases and heli-borne "vertical envelopment" to engage elusive insurgent forces. But the terrain blunted the American technological advantage, and helicopters proved highly vulnerable to ground fire — over 4,000 were brought down during the war. The result: a leap in casualties to 14 percent of the 2.6 million who served in Vietnam, more than double the rate from World War II and over triple the loss rate incurred in Iraq.

For all the debate and divisiveness surrounding the Iraq War, what comes through clearly is that it was the persistence and professionalism of American forces — from the lowest ranks to the highest — that finally won the battle on the ground there, and with relatively low losses. The record in Afghanistan is even better. 

In Iraq, the key to improvement was to de-emphasize costly, larger-scale operations and focus instead on working from platoon-sized outposts located right in the towns in Anbar Province that were at the heart of the unrest. In Afghanistan, even as we draw down our forces to very low levels, we are increasing the numbers of small outposts in rural areas in which our remaining troops will are deployed.      

In both campaigns our soldiers — and their senior commanders — have demonstrated admirable ability to learn and adapt. However the political endgames of these wars may eventually play out, all Americans can take pride of the performance of their armed forces in the field. Our military is truly mastering the tactical and technical challenges of conflict in this odd new era of seemingly perpetual warfare. Our service members are doing so in a way that can only make the soldier-ghosts of World War I gaze on in frank admiration. 

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