Random Thought About the War
Posted on November 30, 2005 Posted by John Scalzi 42 Comments
Sometimes I wonder what it means that more US soldiers died in the first few hours of D-Day, storming Omaha Beach, than have died in Iraq since the beginning of this present conflict.
Mind you, it doesn’t have to mean anything at all; Iraq and WWII are manifestly different conflicts. I could equally point out that the Allies suffered equivalent numbers of dead in the three-month execution of Operation Overlord as the US did in its entire 13-year involvement in Vietnam or its 3-year stint in Korea. It’s entirely possible that this is a statistic that has as much meaning as a baseball stat tracking how American League teams starting left-handed pitchers in domed stadiums perform historically during the third week of August. Which is to say useful for bar arguments and not much else.
Be that as it may, let me throw it out there: What does it mean that more US soldiers died in the first few hours of D-Day, storming Omaha Beach, than have died in Iraq since the beginning of this conflict? I genuinely don’t know; I was wondering if any of you might have thoughts on the matter.
Well, it means that we have better weapons and medicine, and faced a much easier task. It also means that Iraq was really weak when we invaded.
I think it’s better to compare Iraq to Kosovo.
A conflict during which — for those not up on that particular adventure — the US suffered no combat-related deaths (if I recall correctly).
Several things probably,
1) Iraq did not involve storming beaches full of well-armed, dug in, organized, Germans.
2) We’ve got much better operational planning and control than we did on D-Day.
3) Medicine has come a LONG way. A fair chunk of the wounded probably would have died on D-Day.
Right, John, because we were reluctant to commit ground troops, for one.
If we’d had correct intelligence on the sad state of Iraq’s military, and the full force of NATO behind us, things would be very different.
To a parent, spouse, son, or daughter who’s lost a loved one in Iraq, it means less than nothing.
I think it’s really an indicator of how far we’ve come technologically. I mean, hell, our troops are using silly-string to detect trip-wires on IEDs, and even THAT has been invented since WWII.
It may also mean that it’s an easier conflict to forget. One of the reasons why WWII is so indelibly etched in our cultural memory is because of its sheer scale. Dozens of nations involved, millions of dead. Iraq is a few orders of magnitude smaller an operation, and that may mean that it’s more prone to settling in the dusty corners of history. I hope that this is not the case, if for no other reason that there are a lot of lessons to be learned from this conflict, both about the nature of modern warfare but also about politics, religion, and the role of the first world in international affairs.
Means jack. We are not fighting for the same thing.
Well, for one thing the advances in protective technology as well as battlefield medicine are incredible. Early flack jackets were available in Vietnam and have reached the point today where the vast majority of wounds are recieved in the extremities. This, coupled with medevac and forward emplaced medical facilities increases the chances of a soldier surviving being shot exponentially. Soldiers on the beach on D-Day would have had to wait hours before reaching even the most primitive of medical care. The first MASH facilities were not established until 1945.
One thing that skews all comparisons to other wars is that there are nearly no air force casualties. In WWII Air Crew casualties numbered over a third of the total losses in the entire war. In Vietnam it was a lower but still significant percentage.
According to this, war in general gets less fatal as time goes on. For the combabtants, anyway. It sort of looks like it says less fatal for everybody else too, though less so than for combatants.
I agree with the “medicine has improved” meme here, but allow me to point out the flip side is a much higher proportion of permanently disabled veterans returning from the conflict.
Of course, the logical-moral-republican thing to do is to slash budgets for veterans hospitals and veteran benefits.
see for example:
The medicine comments are correct, but miss the point. We also had far fewer wounded in Iraq than in the first few hours of D-Day, indicating that it’s an issue of inputs, not outputs. You don’t minimize your side’s casualties in war by patching up soldiers. You minimize your casualties by hitting the other guy hard before he has a chance to hit you. We’ve gotten real good at that.
Also, the enemy this time is a lot fewer, weaker, more poorly trained, more poorly led, more poorly supplied, and generally stupider than the German Army was. It’s not all about us.
I think that you’re looking at too different actions. It’s like asking why there are less shots fired when arresting some guy for statutory rape than taking down some mafioso. Different wars.
I think it also means that we learned not to solve problems by throwing mens lives at them.
Not to go too far afield, but if you’re going to compare it, the right war might be Vietnam. And an interesting fact I learned a while back was that while the mortality rate is much lower in Iraq, the casualty rates are about the same. This means that the level of fighting is about the same, but far fewer people are dying because of things like body armor and an increase in the number of troops with medical training on the front line.
It’s a good thing that fewer people are losing their lives – but those casualties that aren’t deaths usually involve the loss of a limb. Or two. Or three. And anybody who’s been to Walter Reed lately knows what I’m talking about.
D-day was worth it. Iraq was not.
Let me just expand on that last comment a bit. In both cases, we were going after brutal dictators, but in the case of WWII, we had the support of the surrounding nations, so when the war was over, there were local people who were interested in containing the German threat. In Iraq, that’s not the case, making containment after the war much more difficult, if not impossible. In some ways, Iraq right now is a bit like Poland was in WWII. Even if we succeed in Iraq, it’d be a bit like liberating Poland (and only Poland) in 1943.
The source of radical Islamic power is not Iraq. That’s why we’re losing by fighting the war there. The real source of power doesn’t appear to be as evil as Hitler, so there’s no way to form an alliance to go after that.
It means that people die in wars. The technology separating World War II versus Iraq is a huge gulf, as different as World War II was from, say, the Boer War.
It means that we sleep soundly in our beds because those Rough Men stood ready. (and yes, I know Orwell didn’t actually say that).
The two conflicts aren’t even remotely comparable, I don’t think, and the numbers of losses are merely indicative of the scale of the conflict. The Soviets, for example, suffered an estimated (because nobody really knows) 10-12 million soldiers dead. That’s soldiers, not total dead.
WWII was a titanic global struggle against what was clearly an aggressive group of dictators* who posed a genuine, demonstrable threat. D-Day was widely considered, among people who know history and war, to be a Good Move.
Iraq was the ill-advised invasion of a third-world nation that had long ago ceased to be a threat against anybody but themselves. Iraq II is generally considered by people who know history and war to be a Bad Move.
The truly remarkable thing about D-Day is how well the thing went, and how few casualties there were given the scale and nature of the operation.
The truly remarkable thing about Iraq is how few US casualties there have been, given the wide scale of the unrest there. Going in was a bad idea, but I think that all credit must be given to the US military: hHanded a very difficult or impossible task, they have performed admirably.
* I think that ‘evil’, in the context of 1944, is too strong. There were strong rumours, but the average man didn’t know the monstrous horror that Nazi Germany was in the midst of perpetrating.
Mostly what it means is that, militarily, there is little more nakedly suicidal than an amphibious landing against a fortified enemy using the “drop the bow ramp and get machinegunned” Higgins boats. The Marine Corps (for example), was experimenting with what they called “amphibious tractors,” troop carriers that could swim, then crawl ashore and deposit troops behind their armored bulks. The D-Day invasion, if conducted today, would have far fewer casualties (not just fatalities) than the original operation did.
There’s a reason the US has only done it on a large scale once since, and feinted at it, but did not go forward with it in the liberation of Kuwait in 1991.
The point I think some people are missing, though, in the larger scale is this: the difference is, we haven’t had to fight a huge war like WWII, in part because threats are taken on (diplomatically, economically, militarily) before armed conflict devours entire continents. That kind of D-Day sacrifice simply has not been necessary and, I would argue, because of sacrifices on smaller scales.
Not that the sacrifice on the smaller scale makes it any easier to take, for parents and siblings and spouses. But then, we could make casualty comparisons to all other sorts of things, like car accidents, and the bottom line to the families would be essentially the same.
I think the nature of war is different in Iraq than it was in WWII. It’s no longer army vs. army, lined up and firing. It’s an army vs. armed insurgents, with both sides fighting a guerilla war with hit-and-run tactics, and few traditional battles. Normandy was fought on the Division level. Iraq is fought on the squad level.
I think there’s probably a difference in the nature of how we are looking at the casualties, too.
Those who died storming the beaches of Normandy accomplished an amazing feat – wresting control over a fortified beachhead away from a well-armed, -trained, and -staffed army.
But there’s a sense in America that, though the soldiers are doing an amazing job (as evidenced by the very lack of serious casualties we’re discussing), there’s no real goal that they’re fighting (and dying) for.
It’s interesting that no one has brought up a closely related comparison. How many civilians died in the first hours of D-Day? So far, a conservative estimate of “civilians reported killed by military intervention in Iraq” is between about 27,000 and 31,000. A study by The Lancet as of Fall 2004 estimated the number of civilian deaths “related to the conflict” at over 100,000.
Since my grandfather was on Omaha beach on D-Day and lived to tell about it (and still lives, though sadly can no longer tell about it), it’s certainly a more personal thing for me than Iraq. D Day also has the benefit or having happened 60 years ago, of being romanticized in some ways, and of being a clear fight against a real tangible evil in a war fought in winnable terms.
The world is more complex, wars are fought differently, and the evil being fought isn’t as easily identifiable as a big group of guys in the same uniform is.
So for me it means the world has changed, not always for the better. And even if I don’t agree with the Iraq war, I’m still damn proud that one thing hasn’t changed: we have people in our country willing to risk their lives for the ideals of democracy, freedom, and that good can win out over evil.
There were no laser-guided missiles, radar-deflecting fighter jets, and UAV’s on D-Day. If they had, the coastline would have been obliterated by missiles launched from so far away that the ship or aircraft that fired them would never have come into view before any soldiers ever set foot on it.
On a semi-related note, an old family friend was a WW2 Marine who fought on Iwo Jima. Several years ago, he went to a reunion of troops who fought there, and they flew everyone over the island. Our friend gazed out the window during the flyover, and all he had to say was: “All that work for that little piece of shit?”
*if they had THEM* gah. stupid eyes.
I think it indirectly says something about media and war, especially in regards to justification. WWII was hyped as a noble struggle against the savage Germans and Japanese (my grandfather fought with the Marines in the Pacific) because instantaneous access to the latest reports wasn’t available. I doubt with a communications infrastructure today that anything short of the Chinese launching a full scale invasion of another country could get us involved in that scale in a war with any popularity whatsoever. Vietnam showed that a more mobile and embedded media quickly made the war unpopular. Iraq was “popular” with the media just so long as we were conducting major operations and achieving recognizeable objectives. As soon as that stopped (which is about the time when all of the objectives the Bush administration had for pre- and post-war operations was completed as well), all of a sudden the war wasn’t so popular anymore.
Maybe what it says is that we don’t like to be stuck in a situation that doesn’t appear to have any goal or cause. It also points to the conclusion that major wars are more supportable, while wars where we go into some pissant third-world country and try to show off our military strength are met with severe resistance from the public. It seems that most of the presidents in the latter half of the 20th century have felt the need to exercise some military might in order to demonstrate the pecking order, but it never seems to go as well in practice as it does on paper.
Sometimes I wonder what it means that more US soldiers died in the first few hours of D-Day, storming Omaha Beach, than have died in Iraq since the beginning of this present conflict.
Technically, no — there were around 2400 casualties on Omaha Beach, but this includes wounded as well. Estimates of US fatalities for D-Day run around 2500 among Omaha, Utah, and the airborne forces (who suffered even more casualties than the Omaha invaders.)
The difference in casualties means that we have the technology today to keep the troops far away from where the killing happens.
The interesting question is whether or not that’s a good thing…
I’ve got more of a question than a comment: what does it mean that, in WW II, the USSR suffered an average of around five 9/11s *a day* for four years (in terms of the number of dead)? (And that’s not even taking into account that their population back then was quite a bit smaller than the US population now.)
If 9/11 excuses some of what we’ve done in the last few years (as the Bushies would presumably argue), what does WW II excuse in terms of what the Soviets did during the Cold War?
(Now I’m not *really* apologizing for the gulags or anything, but it seems like a question that should be asked. I’m old enough that when I was in high school, the USSR was portrayed as the ultimate enemy of all that was good and right in the world — I assume that’s changed a bit for high schoolers these days?)
The primary difference between 9/11 and WWII for the Soviets is that the Soviet government chose who was going to die (everybody they conscripted) in WWII, whereas the American government didn’t choose to kill the people in the WTC (well, at least I still don’t believe the “it was orchestrated by Bush theory).
There’s a difference between “You selected and killed blah-thousand people” and “We selected and killed 5-blah-thousand people” as far as excuses for bad behavior go.
Different scales; I think it’s irrelevant.
“If 9/11 excuses some of what we’ve done in the last few years (as the Bushies would presumably argue), what does WW II excuse in terms of what the Soviets did during the Cold War?”
Well, realistically, most of the worst of the Soviet era was Stalin’s doing. The gulag program was largely his doing, and IIRC was rolled back or shut down to a large extent after Stalin’s death.
So I’m not really sure if you can draw that link. Stalin was a messed up nasty mofo well before WW2.
Looking at this from another perspective – during WWII the death toll was massive. But everyone knew somebody who had been killed in the war so it drew people together.
On the other hand, because of the limited number of troops and the relatively small number killed there are many people for whom this war is a distant event – they don’t know anyone who is serving in Iraq and they certainly don’t know anyone who has died there. The surviving family members end up isolated in their grief because so many people are just oblivious to their suffering.
It means we’re much more dominant militarily compared to the Iraqis than the Allies were to the Germans.
We’re also proportionally politically dumber, if you ask me.
I would also argue that a more significant statistic is the number of Iraqi civilians who have died in this war vs. the number of Americans who died on 9/11. George Bush decided that Iraq needed to pay for 9/11. And so, to avenge the 3000 who died that day we have now killed anywhere from 25 to 100,000 Iraqi civilians. The fact that Iraq had nothing to do with the terrorist attack on us is apparently beside the point.
It means we’re fighting well above our weight class. The Iraqis, no matter how motivated, can’t keep up a sustained offensive or counterattack.
The Nazi army was a force of veterans with better equipment in several categories, the advantage of terrain, and with good morale.
The Iraqi forces may have high morale, but they are fighting a guerilla war without access to heavy weapons, much less weapons in any way superior to the US army. Guerilla armies nibble at the edges, they don’t overrun or overwhelm.
Our army is bigger, faster, smarter, and better equipped. Of course we aren’t suffering heavy casualties.
Depends on what you are measuring.
How many soldiers hit the beach at Omaha?
How many were they facing?
In real terms, the numbers (I crunched them for another post) are about the same as for Antietam.
Same number of US Soldiers (both sides) about the same casualty rates (wounded and dead).
But that only covers part of the picture. The soldiers at Antietam had all the horror and fear of the day, in one day.
They might have another battle to fight later, but once that one was over, it was over. And the next one wasn’t going to happen all of a sudden.
David Drake discussed this in an intro to one of his collections… He had (as I did) a fairly quiet war. It didn’t change the fact of his learning to live with fear, every day of that year.
The fear gets normal, some reduction gets comfortable, but it never leaves. Sitting by your rack, 100 meters inside the wire, you’re nervous. Sounds you never noticed back in the States, they are present in your mind… lurking like the tick the alarm clock makes before it goes off.
That chunk… a back-hoe getting ready to dig a latrine, over by the Engineers. That one… that was a mortar leaving the tube.
And you never really sleep.
When you go outside the wire, leave the FOB, grab a chopper somewhere, it might happen. Everyone could be the one who tries to kill you. In France it was easier. There was a front. The other guy wore a uniform.
There was a zone where one had to be afraid, and a zone where one could relax, and put fear away.
That is the real difference between WW2 and the present war. None of the troops, are able to put fear away.
Aaron Brown: “It may also mean that it’s an easier conflict to forget. One of the reasons why WWII is so indelibly etched in our cultural memory is because of its sheer scale. Dozens of nations involved, millions of dead.”
True, but more importantly: The relatively small number of casualties, and relatively small number of troops in Iraq, mean that huge numbers Americans have no personal stake in the war. Nobody they love is laying their life on the line, or at risk of doing so.
Chris: “I think it indirectly says something about media and war, especially in regards to justification. WWII was hyped as a noble struggle against the savage Germans and Japanese (my grandfather fought with the Marines in the Pacific) because instantaneous access to the latest reports wasn’t available. I doubt with a communications infrastructure today that anything short of the Chinese launching a full scale invasion of another country could get us involved in that scale in a war with any popularity whatsoever.”
Actually, I don’t think the situations are all that much different. FDR was trying to drum up support for American involvement in WWII for years, and didn’t get it, until America was attacked on on its own soil, by surprise, and thousands of Americans were killed.
Similarly, many of the American citizens who supported the war in Iraq did so because they believed Saddam was behind 9/11. They saw Iraq as the next logical step in Afghanistan, going after the conspirators who masterminded 9/11.
“Maybe what it says is that we don’t like to be stuck in a situation that doesn’t appear to have any goal or cause. It also points to the conclusion that major wars are more supportable, while wars where we go into some pissant third-world country and try to show off our military strength are met with severe resistance from the public.”
Again, not true. The war in Iraq was supported by the vast majority of American people for a long time. It’s only this year that support has begun to seriously wane.
“Guerilla armies nibble at the edges, they don’t overrun or overwhelm.”
They don’t have to – we’re undermanned, so our troops have to leave to put out another fire, and they walk back in at their leisure.
And we aren’t fighting above our weight class; that would mean we were matching or besting a more powerful opponent. Nobody who isn’t tripping would claim that the Iraqi insurgents are more powerful.
If anything, the insurgents are fighting way above their weight class. They use guerilla tactics, but then one would hardly expect them to fight us in ways that give us an advantage. They aren’t *stupid*, whatever else they are.
Mitch writes: “Similarly, many of the American citizens who supported the war in Iraq did so because they believed Saddam was behind 9/11. They saw Iraq as the next logical step in Afghanistan, going after the conspirators who masterminded 9/11.”
Perhaps, but those things are not true, therefore it’s not a very sturdy foundation for an extended war.
Support for World War 2 would probably have gone rather badly if, rather than fighting Japan and Germany, we’d said Spain was responsible for Pearl Harbor and invaded them instead.
Honestly, it doesn’t mean anything. In the end, it really boils down to if the goal of the conflict was resolved and in the end, with the fatalities, costs and all in the end, was it worth it?
Okay, I was being pedantic up there, but basically, the reason so many Americans became casualties in Normandy compared to Iraq, is that we faced a fortified enemy determined to hold territory, even at high cost. That’s pretty much the long-and-short of it — none of the other factors (rough technological parity, superior German troop quality) mattered much at Utah beach, where the Germans left defense mainly to flooded fields and other obstacles and as a result we suffered around 200 casualties.
The number of people who died on 9/11 does not, on its own, measure the enormity of that day. Had 10,000 died rather than 3,000 (as was initially thought, btw), what happened would have had just as much significance (not three times more).
The same can be said of Katrina. As it turns out, the reports of thousands and thousands dead were hugely exaggerated (Thank God), but that doesn’t mean the destruction of New Orleans was any less of a tragedy.
Oh, come on…why does every discussion of the war come back to this? Reasonable people can disagree, but oversimplifications like the above just serve to reinforce the “everything is black & white” mentality that you read in the media every day.
Attacking Spain for Pearl Harbor would have been ridiculous because not only did Spain have nothing to do with Pearl Harbor, but Spain’s fate would not have affected Japan’s in the slightest.
I’m not suggesting that Iraq had a connection to 9/11, but it can certainly be meaningfully argued (certainly with the benefit of hindsight) that removing Saddam Hussein has affected the attitudes and actions of many Middle Eastern countries (Pakistan, Libya, Syria, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Iran, just to name a few…)
One can argue whether the entire thing has made us safer or less safe (now and/or in the long run), but to suggest that Iraq was both not involved in 9/11 and that our efforts in Iraq have had no effect on those who were involved is at best, oversimplifying and at worst, misleading.
That’s very true.
Brian Greenberg responds:
And you’re right, too.
Me ‘n John Kerry have flip-flopped on the issue of this war since the months before it started. I opposed it, then supported it, then opposed it again.
I’ve since come to the conclusion that it was a good war, undertaken under false pretenses and badly bungled.
The American people were led to believe, by the White House and other supporters of the war, that Saddam was behind 9/11, that he had in his possession–or was near to obtaining–weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear weapons, and that victory would be easy and quick.
None of those things proved to be true, and so the American people lost support for the war.
Now, the funny thing is if you go through the public record at the time, you will find voices–including President Bush himself–making the more nuanced case for the war that was needed. But those voices were drowned out by voices making the three points I described: 9/11, WMD, easy victory.
And, of course, as we all know, the White House sent the troops in shortstaffed and undersupplied, and with no plan for what to do after the government fell.
Still, if handled properly, the Iraqi invasion would have been a victory for the U.S.–and the good guys in general–in the overall war on terror. Saddam’s government did support terrorism, even if it wasn’t actually involved in 9/11. They were working on chemicals such as fertilizers and insecticides which could be deployed as WMDs, even though they apparently weren’t working on the sort of missiles and nuclear weaposn that we think of when we think of WMDs. And a free Iraqi government that was friendly to the U.S. would have given the U.S. a great military and economic boost, as well as encouraging the kind of benign domino effect that the neo-cons hoped for.
Those things are still possible.
Well, if you’re asking, “What is the significance of the coincidental equality between the quantity of casualties at event X and event Y?” The answer is: none at all.
Lincoln and Kennedy both have the same number of letters in their last names and were both assassinated. Aside from coincidence, there is no significance.
But if you are actually asking, “How is it that a vast, global conflict produced more casualties in one specific and strategically dynamic hour of fighting that the smaller, international-level conflict has generated in several months?”
The answer would probably be along the lines of, “Because this conflict is less symmetrical.”
Symmetrical war is bloody and epic in scale because it involves two huge state-equipped armies of similar capabilities slamming against one another.
Asymmetrical war is as spiritually or psychologically impactful, because casualties are not faceless, but (numerically) casualties take longer to add up.