Making the Other Guy Die

Here’s an interesting little fact for you. If you add up every single combat death the United States has experienced in every single war it’s ever fought, from the Revolutionary War to this one, you’d find that in about 230 years, it tallies up to just over 650,000 deaths (fewer if you throw out the 74,500 combat deaths suffered by the Confederacy on the grounds it was a separate political entity, but for now, let’s just assume they were merely rebellious states and toss them back in).

650,000 deaths are nothing to sneeze at, to be sure, but the remarkable thing here is how few combat deaths that number represents over the course of time, especially when you add totals from other countries in the same period of time. And thus we learn the United States’ real secret weapon in war: Not our technological edge or our productive capability, but the fact that relative to other combatants, we die a hell of a lot less — as a nation we adhere to the maxim, put forward in the film Patton, that the object is not to die for one’s country, it’s to make the other poor son of a bitch die for his.

As an object lesson of this, let’s take World War II. The US lost more men in that conflict than any other before or since: about 295,000 dead in combat. But to put this in perspective, that’s fewer than were lost by Yugoslavia (300,000), Austria (380,000) or Romania (580,000) — these are combat deaths, and don’t include civilian casualties — and far fewer than were lost by China (1.3 million), Japan (1.5 million), or Germany (3.25 million). And, of course, you could add up the combat deaths of every major and minor participant in WWII and still not even come close to the number of combat deaths from the Soviet Union — a staggering 13.6 million. Now, the US number is mitigated somewhat by the fact that we came into the war over two years after everyone else started mixing it up, but on the other hand it’s not as if we didn’t make up for lost time by fighting extensively on two fronts.

The first 80 years of America’s history saw fewer combat deaths than a single battle of the Civil War; in fact, twice as many US soldiers died at Antietam (21,000) than in the Revolutionary War, War of 1812, Indian Wars and the Mexican-American War combined (9,500). Basically, in order to really rack up American deaths, we had to fight ourselves. Even in defeat, we made the other guy bleed more: We had 47,000 combat deaths in Vietnam, but North Vietnam had over 600,000.

The lopsided combat death totals in Gulf War I (about 150 combat deaths for the US versus and an estimated 100,000 for Iraq) and the current war are extreme — the day the US entered Baghdad we estimate we killed somewhere between 2,000 and 3,000 Baghdad defenders and lost one Marine, which has got to be a record of some sort — but as a part of a continuum of the US’ relative ability to not to lose a lot of combatants, you can’t really say they’re entirely surprising.

Simply put, and especially in the last 100 years, we’ve made a science of making the other guy die for his country, while not dying for ours. We’re merely getting better at it as we go along. That’s good news for us, of course. It’s not so great for the poor sons of bitches who get to be the other guy.