Foreigners of the American Revolution: The Prussian Who Helped Make the U.S. Army

Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben (Wikimedia)

Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben (Wikimedia)

In a previous post, I outlined the role of Hessian mercenaries fighting for the British in the American Revolutionary War. But plenty of Germans fought for the Patriots, too, of whom the most famous is Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben.

Born in Prussia, he joined the military at age 17, and saw combat in the Seven Years’ War, then one of the biggest conflicts in European history. By the end of the war, he had risen to become captain, and even served as one of the right-hand men of Frederick the Great, one of history’s most brilliant military reformers.

Discharged from the Prussian Army once the war was concluded, Steuben found himself unemployed and deeply in debt. Through a chance meeting with the French minister of war, he was introduced to none other than Benjamin Franklin, the noted Francophile and diplomat who was trying to garner support for the Patriots in Europe. The French believed that the Americans could use an experienced soldier from one of the continent’s leading military powers, and doubtless Franklin agreed.

Steuben’s credentials and force of personality made such an impression on George Washington, that he was immediately appointed as Inspector General. Though a temporary post, it would grant the Prussian considerable influence in managing the training, logistics, and discipline of this ragtag, unprofessional, yet spirited Continental Army (which consisted of various local and provincial militias slapped together). Continue reading

Foreigners of the American Revolution: The Hessians

Hessians. (Landofthebrave.info)

During the American Revolutionary War, Great Britain tried to shore up its small troop numbers in North America by hiring German mercenaries, known collectively as Hessians, after the state that contributed the largest contingent, Hesse-Kassel. (King George III had German roots, including a royal title within the Holy Roman Empire, and was thus able to pull some strings with various German princes.)

Numbering around 30,000, the Hessians made up one-quarter of Britain’s forces in the war, and fought as distinct units led by their own commanders, albeit under overall British control. Participating in almost every major campaign, they were a visible presence in the conflict, and were proficient fighters with a fearful reputation (among both Loyalists and Patriots).

But despite their military advantage, and the fact that mercenaries were standard in European warfare at the time, the Hessians were a huge public relations disaster for the British. In fact, their use was one of the main factors that convinced many Americans to fight for the Patriot cause (at the start of the war, the majority of colonials, including many Founding Fathers, merely wanted greater rights and autonomy, rather than outright independence).

The reasons for this are twofold. Continue reading

Why Americans Do Not Appreciate World War One

While Europeans marked the centenary of the First World War with a series of often solemn and contemplative exhibits, ceremonies, and other formal commemorations, the United States was auspiciously absent in any such major remembrances. This is despite the fact that the war cost some the lives of around 115,000 American soldiers — more than in all other post-1945 conflicts combined — and that the U.S. ostensibly played a major, if belated, role in the conflict.

David Frum of The Atlantic goes over four main reasons why the U.S. has left the once widely revered “Great War” out of its noted pantheon of venerated conflicts. Continue reading

The Bureaucrats Who Singled Out Hiroshima for Destruction

To mark the anniversary of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Australian historian and author Paul Ham penned an article at The Atlantic that explores the debates and discussions among U.S. scientists, officials, and military officers regarding the fateful use of these new weapons of mass destruction.

It is both fascinating and chilling to see all the different ways in which the participants justified one position or another, and how this juxtaposes with their own private remarks or writings (for example, despite the cold calculus and pragmatism that characterized the decision-making process, at least some of those involved admitted privately to concerns about the moral and ethical consequences). Continue reading

A Sobering Visualization of WWII Fatalities

It is widely known that the Second World War is one of the deadliest and most destructive conflicts in history, claiming the lives of 50 million to 85 million people. Given such an unfathomably large number of deaths (not to mention the many tens of millions maimed and/or psychologically scarred) it is difficult to truly comprehend the staggering level of human suffering that can be expressed only in cold, dispassionate numbers.

In light of this, filmmaker Neil Halloran has created a short film that presents a stark and highly detailed breakdown of all civilian and military deaths in the war, including those attributed to the Holocaust. Deaths are categorized by country, theater of war, front, and cause. Each human figure shown in the tally represents 1,000 individuals — a 1,000 personalities with hopes, dreams, life experiences, and loved ones. It is incredible to behold.

Vox.com, my source for the video, summarizes the emotional impact of this presentation perfectly:

It’s the starkness of Halloran’s video that really hits home. He simply represents the total death tally with a series of human figures, each standing in for 1000 deaths. So when the gigantic column of dead Soviet soldiers flies by, dwarfing every other combatant, you get a chilling sense of just how immense the conflict on the Eastern Front was. And when you see the column of Jews murdered by the Nazis, broken down by where and how they were killed, you understand the true enormity of the Final Solution’s apparatus of murder.

It’s an extraordinary film. And once you’ve watched it, you’ll appreciate just how lucky we are to be living through the most peaceful time in human history.

Though that last assertion remains disputed, there is no doubt that the Second World War stands out as one of the most calamitous and consequential conflict in human history, and one that is thankfully unlikely to occur again (or so one would hope).

The Last Military Casualties of War

At 9:44 p.m. on July 27, 1953, Harold Smith had just 16 more minutes of the Korean War to survive before a ceasefire came into effect at 10:00 p.m. You can imagine this 21-year old Marine from Illinois out on combat patrol that evening, looking at his watch, mentally ticking down the seconds. Suddenly, Smith tripped a land mine and was fatally wounded. As one soldier recalled, “I was preparing to fire a white star cluster to signal the armistice when his body was brought in”.

Twenty-two years later, on April 29, 1975, Darwin Judge and Charles McMahon were serving as Marine guards near Saigon in South Vietnam. Judge was an Iowa boy and a gifted woodworker. His buddy, McMahon, from Woburn, Massachusetts, was a natural leader. “He loved the Marines as much as anybody I ever saw in the Marines”, said one friend. They had only been in South Vietnam for a few days. At 4:00 a.m. on April 29, a communist rocket struck their position and the two men died instantly.

On the early evening of November 14, 2011, David Hickman was traveling in an armored truck through Baghdad. Hickman, an army specialist from North Carolina, had been in ninth grade when the Iraq War started in 2003. A massive explosion ripped into Hickman’s truck. It was a roadside bomb—the signature weapon of Iraqi insurgents. Hickman was grievously wounded. The next day, just before midnight, the Army visited Hickman’s parents in North Carolina to tell them their son was dead.

Smith, Judge, McMahon, and Hickman were the final American combat fatalities in Korea, Vietnam, and Iraq, respectively. An unknown soldier will have the same fate in Afghanistan.

These men are the nation’s last full measure of devotion. The final casualty in war is uniquely poignant. It highlights the individual human price of conflict. It signifies the aggravated cruelty of near-survival. It has all the random arbitrariness of a lottery. The Soviet-made 122 mm rocket that killed Judge and McMahon in 1975 was famously inaccurate. It could have landed anywhere in their vicinity. But it fell just a few feet from the Marines. The sergeant who found their bodies wondered, “Why them and not me?”

Most of all, the final casualty underscores the value of ending a conflict. If the United States could have resolved the wars in Korea, Vietnam, and Iraq earlier—even just a few minutes earlier—Smith, Judge, McMahon, and Hickman’s lives would have been the first to be spared.

Concluding the fighting has particular urgency in a war without victory. As former navy lieutenant John Kerry remarked during congressional testimony on Vietnam in 1971, “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?”

 — Dominic Tierney, “Did America WIn or Lose the Iraq War?“, The Atlantic

Where All of History’s Nukes Have Been Detonated

Since the first atomic bomb went off in 1945, close to 2,500 of these destructive weapons have been tested (and in just two cases, used militarily) in one form or another. Citing data from the Johnston’s Archive of Nuclear Weapons, Bill Rankin of Radical Cartography has put together a map showing the location and magnitude of every known nuclear explosion on Earth. Here it is below (click the image to view it larger).

Note the uncertainty regarding South Africa and Israel; the former was in possession of working nuclear weapons until the end of Apartheid, though whether it tested any remains unknown. The latter is widely known to have a stockpile of weapons of mass destruction, though it pursues an official policy of “strategic ambiguity” on the matter (neither confirming nor denying the existence of such weapons. The atmosphere test that occurred southeast of South Africa in 1979 is believed to have been conducted by one or both these countries (or possibly neither — see Vela Incident).

Here is more analysis from the Washington Post, from where I derived the map:

More than 500 of these nukes were detonated in the atmosphere, sending fallout around the globe, says Rankin.
The filled circles indicate atmospheric detonations, while the hollow circles are underground or underwater tests. The size of the circle shows the yield of the blast, with the biggest circle representing explosions of more than 20 megatons.

The map shows that the U.S. was particularly active in underground detonations; the U.S. detonated 912 nuclear bombs underground, 206 in the atmosphere and five underwater. Most American tests took place at the Nevada test site or in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

Statistics for the USSR are close, with 223, 756, and three bombs detonated in the atmosphere, underground and underwater, respectively. The United Kingdom, France and China are distant followers with just a few hundred or dozen detonations. In the last several decades, India has detonated six nukes underground, while Pakistan has detonated seven and North Korea has detonated one.

Present, efforts to ban or restrict nuclear testing notwithstanding, I wonder how many more tests remain to be conducted — and if any new countries will be responsible.

Veterans Around The Globe Tell Their WWII Stories

Sasha Maslov, a Ukrainian photographer based in New York City, has spent five years flying to more than 20 countries to track down veterans of the Second World War, photograph them and listen to their life stories. From kamikaze pilots to teenage resistance fighters, he captures the harrowing, terrifying, and at times even touching experiences of those who took part in history’s greatest conflict.

Here is a small sample of Maslov’s powerful work, courtesy of The Guardian. In addition to the wide variety of stories and perspectives represented, from all sides, the project captures the truly global nature of the war.

Ichiro Sudai, Takayama, Japan. I was in a kamikaze squadron, but the war finished before I was deployed. Kamikaze pilots would have farewell parties to drink sake. By the end of the war, we didn’t even have sake, only water. They didn’t return the bones of the kamikaze pilots to their families. So we cut our hair and nails and put them in an envelope with a message for our families. I wasn’t afraid to die. If I did, it would be my destiny as a pilot. Everyone was brainwashed then. After the war, I lived for my hobbies. I wrote poetry, grew flowers and ran a lot. I still have a very strong body.

Imants Zeltins, born in Bauska, Latvia, 1922. When Germany attacked Russia in 1941, we thought they would liberate us from Soviet occupation. By 1944, the Red Army was closing in on us, so I joined up. That September I was injured in a fight that was 28 Soviet tanks against 200 Latvian conscripts. I woke in a German hospital. They had to cut off my right arm. By April 1945, the Americans had come; we were freed. But I ended up in concentration camps in Germany, Poland and Russia. Most of the people around me ended up in Siberia – for decades. I was the only one that didn’t.

Ursula Hoffmann, born in Poznan, Poland, 1922. When the war started, I was part of the Związek Harcerstwa Polskiego (Polish Scouts). We soon integrated into the Gray Ranks – the resistance. We moved our HQ into the same building as Arthur Karl Greiser, who was overseeing the German occupation of Poland. We were so brave back then. In 1940, we began reporting to Armia Krajowa, the primary resistance force. We did mail deliveries and sabotage. We were reckless and some of us were caught and killed. But some, like myself, were lucky to make it. A few even came to my 90th birthday party.

It will not be much longer until those who tell these powerful stories are gone forever. Thank goodness for those like Maslov who are recording as much of them and experiences as possible.

Wait for Me Daddy

Canada In The Second World War

Pictured: Wait for Me, Daddy by Claude P. Dettloff. Taken on October 1, 1940, it depicts Warren Bernard running away from his mother to his father, Private Jack Bernard, who is marching with the British Columbia Regiment of Canada. The picture received extensive exposure and was used in war-bond drives (Private Bernard survived the war).

Many Americans are unaware of Canada’s extensive contribution to World War II. It was one of the first nations to declare war on the Axis, and by some accounts it fielded the largest volunteer army of any nation in the war: over 1 million Canadians — out of a population of only 11 to 12 million — joined the war effort, constituting 10 percent of the population and nearly 20 percent of all men.

Canada’s bountiful prairies and rich mineral resources were invaluable to the war effort (as well as to reconstruction efforts in Europe). For example, half of Allied aluminium and 90 percent of Allied nickel was supplied by Canada.

The Canadian Navy played a decisive role in the Battle of the Atlantic, and was given responsibility of covering two strategically key points in the ocean. Throughout the war it accomplished 25,343 successful escort voyages and delivered nearly 165 million tons of cargo, and also sank 52 German submarines. Meanwhile, Canadian airmen were some of the best performing in the Battle of Britain, comprising a disproportionate number of flying aces.

As in the First World War, Canadian troops served with considerable distinction in several campaigns. Most notable was D-Day, in which the Canadians faced the second-hardest landing point on Normandy, Juno Beach, yet were the first to break through enemy lines and the ones to reach the deepest into enemy territory. Canadians almost single-handedly liberated the Netherlands and Belgium, saving hundreds of the thousands of civilians from famine. Canada also fought in North Africa, Italy, and the South Pacific.

Canada was among the first nations to develop what are now known as special forces (through its cooperation with the United States), and was instrumental in the Manhattan Project, to which it supplied personnel, research, and resources.

By the end of the war, Canada possessed the fourth largest air force, third largest navy, and fourth or fifth largest army in the world. Much like the U.S., it had become shaped by the conflict and forever oriented towards global affairs, albeit with far less gusto (though it would become a major part of NATO, it reigned in on the size and funding of its military, and directed much of its diplomatic energy towards developing multilateral institutions and initiatives like U.N. Peacekeeping).

Raising a flag over the Reichstag (Yevgeny Khaldei / Wikimedia)

How Russia Saved The World

England provided the time, America provided the money, and Russia provided the blood.

Today is Victory Day (also known as the Ninth of May), which commemorates the Soviet Union’s defeat of Nazi Germany and the subsequent end of the Second World War in Europe. The holiday is still celebrated in most former Soviet republics, especially Belarus, Ukraine, and Russia, which bore the brunt of the conflict. Among Russians in particular, the Eastern Front of the conflict remains known as the Great Patriotic War.

Given the currently frigid relations between Russia and the West, it is sadly likely that this immense contribution to ending history’s biggest war will remain largely downplayed, if at all acknowledged. Granted, it would not be the first time that geopolitical factors and mutual suspicion interfered with the historical narrative: the Cold War that followed almost immediately after made crediting our then-rival untenable, while the vast global influence of U.S. media, from comics to film, allowed it to have the prevailing word on of how the war transpired (e.g. with Americans taking center-stage).

Setting aside the intrinsic value of knowing the historical facts, this lack of acknowledgement is all the more jarring given the horrifically high cost of victory. As The Washington Post highlights:

The Red Army was “the main engine of Nazism’s destruction,” writes British historian and journalist Max Hastings in “Inferno: The World at War, 1939-1945.” The Soviet Union paid the harshest price: though the numbers are not exact, an estimated 26 million Soviet citizens died during World War II, including as many as 11 million soldiers. At the same time, the Germans suffered three-quarters of their wartime losses fighting the Red Army.

“It was the Western Allies’ extreme good fortune that the Russians, and not themselves, paid almost the entire ‘butcher’s bill’ for [defeating Nazi Germany], accepting 95 per cent of the military casualties of the three major powers of the Grand Alliance,” writes Hastings. [By one calculation, for every single American soldier killed fighting the Germans, 80 Soviet soldiers died doing the same.]

The epic battles that eventually rolled back the Nazi advance — the brutal winter siege of Stalingrad, the clash of thousands of armored vehicles at Kursk (the biggest tank battle in history) — had no parallel on the western front, where the Nazis committed fewer military assets. The savagery on display was also of a different degree than that experienced further west.

Indeed, the Eastern Front was by far the largest and bloodiest theatre of WWII, and in fact was the deadliest conflict in human history, claiming the lives of over 30 million people — at least half of whom were civilians. The USSR lost at least 9 million soldiers — a third of them in Axis captivity — and just as many civilians, if not more. Some sources suggest that as many as 17 to 27 million Soviet citizens were killed, while others have calculated that perhaps as many as 20 million Soviet civilians lost their lives.

By comparison, the United States lost over a quarter of a million men for the entire war, and fewer than a 3,000 civilians, while the Germans lost 5 million troops on the Eastern Front (and perhaps another one to two million civilians when the Russians invaded). So many young men were killed that the USSR’s population was nearly 50 million less than it should have been, given the families that these men would’ve had. To this day, many former Soviet states have an imbalance between men and women, having not fully recovered from the scale of dead men.

This is a scale of carnage and death that is difficult to grasp. Think of all the pain and suffering caused by loss of several thousand troops in Iraq and Afghanistan (to say nothing of the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and Afghans). Now amplify that anguish by several million, with nearly 20% of some countries wiped out (namely Belarus, Ukraine, Russia and Poland). The human mind simply can’t process that level of death. How the Soviets managed to move on and rebuild is beyond me.

And while the Soviet Union came out of the war victorious, was economically and structurally devastated. Much of the combat took place in or around densely populated areas, and the brutal actions of both sides contributed to massive loss destruction. The property damage inflicted on the USSR by the Axis invasion was estimated at a cost 679 billion rubles, probably a trillion or more dollars by today’s standards. The siege of a single city, Leningrad, claimed 1.2 million lives, while the fight over another city, Stalingrad, cost a similar number of lives, and was by some accounts the single largest battle in history — not to mention a turning point in the entire war.

In all, the combined damage consisted of complete or partial destruction of 1,710 cities and towns, 70,000 villages/hamlets, 2,508 church buildings, 31,850 industrial establishments, 40,000 miles of railroad, 4100 railroad stations, 40,000 hospitals, 84,000 schools, and 43,000 public libraries. Over 20 million sheep, goats, horses, and other cattle were also slaughtered or driven off. Western Russia, as well Ukraine and Belarus, still bear signs of this devastation (in some cases, fragments of bone and metal have been dug up, though that also happens in Western Europe occasionally).

There is no denying that this sacrifice was instrumental in winning the war. The Russians were dealing with around 85 percent of Axis forces, and German armed forces suffered anywhere from 80 to 93 percent of its military deaths in the Eastern Front. If the USSR had capitulated, Allied forces would have had to contend with a lot more resistance. The war would have been far bloodier and more drawn out. The Russians nearly bled themselves dry in our place.

But this wasn’t merely the result of bravery and stereotypical Russian resoluteness (though those were certainly factors). The markedly brutal nature of warfare on the Eastern Front was the result of the often willful disregard for human life by both sides: Hitler and Stalin each used terror and mass murder to further their aims, and had no qualms about leading millions to their deaths in the name of victory. This included victimizing their own troops and civilians, through mass deportation, threats of execution for cowardice, and human wave attacks.

And keep in mind that all this is in addition to atrocities carried out by the Nazis, including routine massacres of civilians and the brick-by-brick destruction of entire communities (and their inhabitants). There was simply no parallel to this on the Western Front. According to Time:

By measure of manpower, duration, territorial reach and casualties, the Eastern Front was as much as four times the scale of the conflict on the Western Front that opened with the Normandy invasion.

The fact is, as monstrous as Stalin was, and as brutal as the Soviets tended to be (before, during, and after the war), we arguably needed that kind of viciousness on our side in order to win. To put it crudely, Soviet Russia was the bad cop in the war. It took playing Hitler at his own cruel game to put a stop to him, and only the USSR was willing and able to do so. Such is the nature of war. The horror and destruction of the Eastern Front proves exemplifies, in the most extreme example, the fact that most conflicts are hardly black-and-white, nor are they matters of honor and glory. It’s simply about winning in whatever way you can, period. There’s no romanticizing that, although we can certainly do so for the average Soviet soldier who was mixed up in all this, and fought valiantly to the end.

All this stands in contrast to the Allied experience. We Americans would remember the conflict very different, simply because our conduct and memory of the war was much cleaner – we were a democracy fighting a conventional conflict against a fraction of the enemy’s forces. We weren’t occupied and invaded (for the most part). We didn’t need to even consider, much less implement, wanton and self-destructive tactics (nor could we, given the vast differences in the ethics of our political and military leadership).

I am in no way denigrating the U.S. contribution to the war effort (nor that of other Allied members), especially considering that America helped prop up the USSR during the earlier stages of the way until it could recover its own industrial output.  Moreover, the U.S. did much of the heavy lifting in the Asian theatre — although the Russians, not to mention the Chinese, played a much underrated role in that effort as well (indeed, the latter’s costly resistance to the Japanese, as outlined here, was instrumental to the Pacific Theater).

I am simply noting the obvious fact that World War II could not have been won without the Soviet Union, at least not without investing far more of our own blood, money, and time. It’s very unfortunate that few people outside of Russia seem to realize that – as if the sacrifice itself was not horrific enough, it’s barely even acknowledged.

So while the Russians, as well as other Europeans, celebrate their hard-fought victory over Nazi oppression, there is a level of somberness that underlies all that glory that we can barely relate with. They will keep on romanticizing of course, as humans are wont to do. And indeed, the typical soldier deserves it. But we mustn’t forget just how messy and gray most of these conflicts tend to be. With all that said, my heart goes out to the tens of millions of men, women, and even children who fought and died in the single most horrific conflict in human history.