The Casualties of Veterans Day

Unfortunately, I was too busy yesterday to make a proper post about this commemoration. And while I’m tempted to make an idealistic and reflective post about the courage and tribulations of those in uniform, or to share the origins and history of the event, I wanted to take a different route from what is the norm.

I read an article in Foreign Policy that reminded me not only of the true origins of Veterans Day, but on how the loss of its original source of commemoration has been detrimental to our understanding of war.

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.

Indeed, World War I is often overshadowed in its barbarity by what followed it only around two decades later. But in many ways, as the article notes, it was just as tragic and horrific (all the more so because its very occurrence, along with the failure and arrogance of its victors, gave way to a second world war). It was also an ultimately unnecessary conflict that dragged on for far longer than any participant expected – a war that perpetuated itself beyond the need to rectify its original casus belli, and which did so at the literally unimaginable cost of millions of lives. Millions of individual persons (I feel the need to emphasize this as sheer numbers make it hard to remember the humanity of those they represent).

WWI was also but a large-scale example of what average troops, mustered mostly from the lower and middle-classes, have had to endure throughout history: being at the mercy of military and political leaders who were often too detached, elitist, and arrogant to take into account the well-being of their grunts. So long as there remained an ample supply of politically and economically powerless young men, there was little reason – in WWI or elsewhere – to be concerned about attrition – there were plenty of other men where those came from (though cruelly, this brutal calculation on the part of the Soviets in World War II is arguably what helped us win the day: they took on the overwhelming majority of Axis forces by sheer numbers, tenacity, and ruthlessness).

So after having read this piece, I came away with the idea that not only should veterans be rightly recognized for their courage and service, but that we mustn’t forget the horrors and brutality they (among others) had to endure in the wars they fought. All too often, I get the impression that we honor the valor and glory of those who served while forgetting that in most instance, even the “good” and victorious wars they partook in are tragedies in themselves. We should honor veterans not just be recognizing what their service but also by ensuring, as much as possible, that generations of young men won’t be grinded up or maimed in the cold machinery of war.

War, even when just and victorious, is always a terrible thing. It will always cost lives and create acrimony between men who may otherwise have no good reason to hate each other, let alone kill one another. I know that there will always be a need for war. I know some wars may be necessary. But just because something is needed doesn’t mean it isn’t detrimental or regrettable. Whether or not men and women had to answer the respective calls of duty that they did, doesn’t change the horror that they faced. They did something few of us would ever want to do – for good reason.

2 comments on “The Casualties of Veterans Day

  1. Pingback: The Plight of America’s Veterans | Sarvodaya

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