View Full Version : Why Do We Do It?

12-24-04, 09:08 AM
Joe Buff: Why Do We Do It?

This is supposed to be the time of year when people across America celebrate "peace on Earth and good will toward men," a concept that ought to transcend any particular religious beliefs -- even atheism. Yet looking around at the state of the world, I'm sure I'm not alone in finding it hard to keep in the spirit of the season. The holidays must be a particularly difficult time for all those who lost loved ones and friends on 9/11/01 or during military operations and raging insurgencies in Afghanistan and Iraq and elsewhere. Plus, don't forget the troops who were wounded or maimed, and the permanent price to both them and their families. December, 2004 could well set a new record for "the year-end blahs," regardless of which presidential candidate you were rooting for, and whatever your personal opinion on current U.S. involvement in overseas combat.

How do we make sense of the self-contradictory American habit of loving peace while waging war? Though it might yield small comfort for some, a perspective could perhaps be gained if we stop to recall how deeply ingrained in our national culture it is to fight for freedom.

First, a reality check on "fighting for freedom." No matter how noble the goal and how glorious-sounding the words, the process is always brutal and traumatic for all those busy killing and dying along the front lines. Modern-era media breakthroughs, including color photography and then portable videocameras, satellite TV, and the World Wide Web, have vividly brought home -- an intentional double meaning -- exactly how gory a battlefield can be. But it's important to remember that warfare has always been exceedingly gory. Bullet wounds, severed limbs, pulped skulls, and serious burns, were as awful to experience and as hideous to look at in 1778 or 1863 as they were in Korea or Vietnam and are still today -- and battlefield medicine gets increasingly crude-to-nonexistent the further back you go.

America fought every war we ever fought because we believed that we needed to. While alternate history "what ifs" can be entertaining and enlightening, this learning tool only goes so far: Speculation on the nicer things that might have been -- if only the politicians and the generals on both sides had tried a tad harder to talk instead of shoot -- can't change what actually happened. Nor, personally, do I buy into the theory that America's wars are fought because of our own out-of-touch or power-mad leaders, egged on by capitalist war profiteers, who callously knew that it would be the little guy -- John or Jane Doe from Anytown, USA -- who'd get sent off to stop a bullet or a razor-sharp, white hot piece of enemy shrapnel. Some of our most blood-stained "war presidents" of all time, such as Abraham Lincoln, Woodrow Wilson, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, are widely regarded as great statesmen with impeccably high ideals.

Sure, patriotism whipped up to the point of nationwide jingoism, and war hysteria bordering on mob rule, formed part of the backdrop in each big American war -- but so did rational pacifism and pragmatic isolationism, causes as noble as freedom to those who preached them.

We fought because we had to. Our democratic way of life, and the way of life or sheer survival of other peoples abroad, were genuinely threatened by the forces of ruthless tyranny.

Most relevant of all to establishing proper perspective, I think, is that this willingness to shed our own blood -- and spend decades more beyond that nursing those wounded in body or mind -- has manifested itself repeatedly for our country's entire two-century-plus lifespan. America was born in war, our War of Independence. Our Union was preserved by war, the War Between the States. Either we're incredibly stupid, and keep making the same mistake again and again in almost every generation, or we're truly committed to the belief that "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" are worth dying for. (Myself, I go with the second explanation for our history.)

And don't kid yourself that things suddenly went bad and stayed bad after the so-called Last Good War, World War II -- a war in which, please recall, many troops spent years at a time in hostile foreign places, thousands of miles from their loved ones, after joining up "for the duration." War at best is hell and often it's worse than hell. Every war we ever fought had its own stupefying intelligence failures, its dreadfully costly planning blunders, its choking logistical bottlenecks, and its faulty or inadequate "come as you are, use what you have" equipment and doctrine and weapons systems. Probably without exception, every war we ever fought also lasted much longer than we thought it would. The promise "Home before Christmas," speaking of the holidays, is infamous for not specifying Christmas of what year. Enemies do have these nasty habits of not giving up so easily, not showing much respect for our preferred schedules, and stepping all over our wishes for happy, safe family gatherings.

I thought that some statistical data might elucidate the extent to which the U.S. (and the Confederacy) in the past so willingly absorbed huge casualties while never calling it quits to the bitter end. In almost every case of "foreign" wars, because of our hybrid status as both a continental power and an island nation of sorts, we had the option to stay out of the conflict. We also had the option, nearly every day once we jumped in -- put the Revolution and Civil War on this list -- to ask for peace talks, not demand unconditional surrender.

Why did we care what Germany did to France and England or vice versa in World War I? Was the sinking of a British passenger liner (the Lusitania) by a German U-boat, with the loss of a few dozen American lives, reason enough to take on the subsequent casualties once we joined the European fray? Why didn't we follow the same line of reason that Japan expected we would, right after Pearl Harbor, and just swallow the loss of eight battleships that the attack itself showed were obsolescent anyway. Why didn't we stop with the first two thousand or so U.S. KIAs on December 7, 1941, and negotiate a quick armistice? And who cared if South Korea or South Vietnam got overrun by commies? Both countries were literally on the opposite side of the globe from Washington, DC! Something vital in our heritage, in our values, in our passion for fairness and compassion for the downtrodden everywhere, must have made us do what we did, time after time after time.

OK, the statistics. I hoped it would be revealing to compare the cost in lives that America paid in the different major wars we've fought. This might help put a perspective on the mounting casualty list in Iraq. I'm sure not everyone will agree with me on what the numbers mean, but the numbers in themselves don't lie. I tried to use the most reliable sources I could find. For American deaths in wars, I took info from the U.S. Army Military History Institute, Carlisle, PA. For the American population at the time of each war, I started with data from the U.S. Census Bureau for every tenth year, then approximated the years in between using methods I learned as an actuary. (For brevity, I'm going to skip the War of 1812 -- 2,260 U.S. KIAs -- and the Spanish-American War -- 2,446 U.S. KIAs -- but note in passing that the Mexican-American war of 1846-1848 had a substantial 13,283 official U.S. KIAs.)

Now then. In the Revolutionary War, 4,500 Americans -- troops and civilians -- died because of the war and its direct effects, including disease. (I've seen numbers as high as 12,500 or even 25,000 on various Internet blogs or discussion boards, but I'm going to go with the Army's figure.) This 4,500 might not sound like much, since between the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and the four airplanes involved, almost that many people were killed in one day on September 11, 2001. But during the Revolutionary War, the American population was around 2.5 million people, less than a hundredth of what it is now. That means that about 1 out of every 500 Americans, including old men and women and children, died in the birth of our country.

In the so-called Civil War, which was anything but civil, total deaths from North and South combined were 620,000. In that era, the combined population averaged some 33 million. Thus, in the Civil War about 1 in every 50 Americans, free or in slavery's bondage, was killed. This was truly our bloodiest war. The statistic 1 in 50 is shocking -- I know it really shocked me.

In the First World War, 117,000 Americans were killed. The population then was right around 100 million. Death rate: about 1 in 1000. Among the European powers involved, many millions died, but the Great War was a war that the U.S. -- some would say -- need not have fought in at all.

In the Second World War, which again -- in theory, but only naively -- we needn't have fought, 407,000 Americans died from the fighting. This is out of a population that had grown to about 138 million on average between 1941 and 1945. Death rate: roughly 1 in 350 -- not 350 soldiers, but 350 Americans of all ages and sexes. This figure also surprised me. Was it worth so high a price to save distant strangers from fascist forced labor and slaughter? Didn't we have ample resources, even after Pearl Harbor, to defend our shores and airspace from anything the Axis could throw our way? Of course, the correct answer is the same then as it is now -- dictators are never satisfied until they rule the world, either directly or by proxy or by terror. Leave them alone too long, and even back in the 1940s our enemies could've come up with weapons of mass destruction and means to deliver them into the U.S. homeland. To repeat for emphasis, World War II is considered by most as a good war -- oddly enough, even though we obliterated much of Italy, Belgium, Holland, and France in order to save them from the Nazis, with a horrific civilian death toll as the collateral price of this "liberation." Makes you stop and think, doesn't it?

In the Korean War -- now not so very forgotten as it once was -- 37,000 Americans died. In the Vietnam War, America's longest war, 58,000 Americans died. Since these two wars both took place in Southeast Asia, and can both be viewed as huge battles within the larger context of the Cold War against the USSR and Red China, I'll combine them -- with no slight meant to the Veterans of either conflict. This makes for about 100,000 U.S. Cold War KIAs, compared to a U.S. population that between 1950 and 1975 averaged about 185 million. The resulting aggregate death rate was in round numbers 1 in 2000. Taken this way, the Cold War wasn't so cold.

U.S. KIAs in the Persian Gulf War of 1991, to evict Saddam Hussein's army from Kuwait, were only 269. The effect on the American population, in terms of death rate, was negligible.


12-24-04, 09:09 AM
Now let's take a hard look at Operation Iraqi Freedom. Let's use as a round number 2,000 U.S. deaths from the operation so far. The American population during OIF is close to 300 million, for a death rate of 1 in 150,000 -- so far. This figure is totally eclipsed by the death rates of previous major wars. For a sense of scale, note that in the U.S. during 2003 the odds of you or me dying in a car crash were 1 in 6500.

And we really are trying to install some sort of functional democracy in Iraq. Saddam Hussein actually is a very bad person. He waged an aggressive war with Iran in which deaths on both sides may have run into millions. He used nerve gas against his own citizens as far back as 1988, killing thousands, and there's no statute of limitations for homicide or crimes against humanity. He invaded Kuwait, he says, to keep his army busy after the war against Iran stopped. Since Kuwait is the size of New Jersey, you has to wonder what he would have done next to "keep his army busy" -- once they were done looting rich Kuwait to refill Saddam's bankrupt treasury. The number of mass graves discovered on Iraqi soil, filled with decomposed corpses of Iraqis who died under Saddam's rule, is 30,000 to 300,000, depending on which source you use. Compared to a population averaging maybe 25 million over the past 15 years, the death rate of Iraqis due to Saddam falls between 1 in a 100 and 1 in a 1000.

Is it worth the cost in American lives and limbs to have brought this modern monster to justice, at long last? Have We the People -- at least some of us -- suddenly gotten stingy, gone way out of our historical character, as to how much we'll sacrifice to make the world safer for democracy? The annual Holiday Season is supposed to be about generousness, about knowing that it's better to give than receive. Maybe we should stop being so selfish, so separated from our own honorable past and traditions -- and mourn the dead but live for the living. Maybe we'd best keep learning from our tactical and strategic mistakes in that most-imperfect process of war, and get on with the job of helping Iraqis have a free country, whatever exact form the structure of the government might take. The latter is for them to decide. It's their country. They're certainly suffering dearly for it. But is the price Iraqis are paying now, in terms of their own KIAs in the anti-OIF insurgency, any worse than the "going rate for freedom" based on prior U.S. (and European liberation) statistics? Iraqi deaths under Saddam led nowhere. At least the deaths at the hands of heartless terrorists and brazen assassins, and the tragic losses through collateral damage from American ordnance aimed at this horrible new enemy, could lead to something very worthwhile. The calculus of war might be dehumanizing, and what I've said may anger you -- but freedom is something enjoyed by flesh-and-blood people, and history proves repeatedly that freedom doesn't come for free.

Reading the daily headlines with all this in mind could maybe help just a little to dispel those holiday war blahs.