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Degrees of War

War is horrible; but to misappropriate Orwell, some wars are more horrible than others. Not everyone agrees with this--certainly not those fighting, authorizing, or covering our current war.

I recently reread Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms and I couldn’t help but compare World War I--the "War to End All Wars", "the Great War"--to America’s expeditionary wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Both pale in comparison to the bloodiest conflict the world has ever seen.

Take the last paragraph of the first chapter of A Farewell to Arms. “At the start of the winter came the permanent rain and with the rain came the cholera. But it was checked and in the end only seven thousand died of it in the army.” Simple disease takes more lives in one winter in one small area than America has lost in two wars over eight years. Talk about a difference between then and now.

Quantitatively, The Great War was more horrible than the Global War on Terror. Including military and civilian losses for both sides, over 16 million people lost their lives, and an additional 21 million were wounded. Even with the most forgiving statistics, and including every possible incident of terror and every incidental civilian death, the last 8 years have maybe claimed a million lives in a world three times as large.

And the fear in World War I crippled men. Lt. Henry, A Farewell to Arm’s main character, talks with his drivers about how the Italians have, because of desertion, killed every tenth man in a platoon. The Italians even punish the families of deserters, locking them up and taking their property. The war is so horrible, the Italian Army must kill their own men, and ostracize families. Today, the US Army doesn’t actively look for soldiers who go AWOL.

The novel's fourth book finely illustrates the chaos of this war. The Italians, in retreat, turn on each other. Lt. Henry and his soldiers kill fellow Italians, confused Italians kill Anyo, one of Lt. Henry’s men, and finally, Italian Carbanari kill Italian officers for disloyalty. The retreat is chaos; a chaos mired in blood. Since 9/11, the American Army has controlled every battlefield it has fought on, and never retreated.

Why does this matter? Perspective. We want to think we live in a special age. We don’t. Thinking we live in a special age can lead to harmless excess, like HBO’s hyperbolically titled miniseries Generation Kill. (If we’re in “Generation Kill” what the hell was the World War I Generation? Generation Massacre?) Or, more dangerously, it can be the justification for getting rid of civil liberties and human rights, if you claim we live in "extraordinary times." We don't.

One final caveat. Qualitatively, all of this doesn’t matter. War is still war. Death is still death. Anyone who has lost someone in Iraq and Afghanistan, as Michael and I have, feels the same pain as those did in past wars. One death or a thousand, war is still war.

four comments

I’m glad you used the comparison of casualties between the two respective wars to show just how absurd the title “Generation Kill” actually is.

You’re right. By the numbers there is no comparison. But that brings Joe Stalin to mind…one death is a tragedy, a million a statistic (or something like that). I would say the connectivity of our world brings war much closer…not ‘the glory’ but the failings of soldiers, leaders, equipment, values…etc.

Michael, I already told you to read this book- Eric you should look into it to. I dug it out – Achilles in Vietnam: Combat trauma and the undoing of character- by Jonathan Shay. I believe it will add alot to your discussions here. Plus, who doesn’t like Homer?

Jon- Will do. It sounds interesting and as soon as I get to Arizona I will pick it up. I told you to read The Accidental Guerilla but you haven’t said if you have.

@Jon – Interesting Stalin reference, but I guess where I would disagree with the quote is that a million deaths may be a statistic, but each person in that statistic knows other people, each death affects other people. Maybe the media enhances connectivity, but not by that much. That’s why the post-WWI generation suffered a collective societal depression—they had lost so much. We won’t go through the same thing.

Definitely will check out the book, gotta love the Homer reference.