Pictured: The retreat of Napoleon from Russia, by Victor Adam
In peace sons bury their fathers, but in war fathers bury their sons.
When Napoleon crossed the Niemen, at the outset of the 1812 French invasion of Russia, he had under his command 422,000 men, give or take a few proudly beating hearts. When he approached those same waters the following year, this time from the east, in sluggish, worn down retreat after defeats in Moscow, Borodino, Smolensk…his ranks had been cut to barely 10,000.
A few enfeebled diehards were all that remained of the Grande Armée.
[Pictured: Charles Joseph Minard’s famous graph shows the decreasing size of the Grande Armée. The brown line (followed from left to right) shows Napoleon’s march to Russia. The black line (followed from right to left) depicts his retreat. The size of the army is shown equal to the width of the lines.]
Like politicians and their voting public, military strategists too are slow to learn and quick to forget. Napoleon wasn’t the only fool to covet the vast plains of the east. One hundred and thirty years later, with “Lebensraum” (living space) firmly in his sights, Adolf Hitler embarked on Operation Barbarossa. It would be the largest military operation in human history, both in terms of manpower… and casualties.
Hitler’s monstrous panzer divisions rolled east, pounding Napoleon’s tracks past Minsk, Orsha and Smolensk. They thundered north, over the River Dvina to Leningrad, and South, through the Ukraine and onto Stalingrad. Once again it was a remarkable show, equal parts brute strength and determined stupidity. The weather, and the indefatigable Russians, buried the Germans too, just as they had The Little Corporal’s men. All in, 4.3 million Germans gave up their ghosts during the campaign — a fatality list ten times the size of Napoleon’s entire army. During the whole of WWII, the German army lost a total of 5.5 million soldiers.
Of course, polite company might consider it somewhat obscene to talk about the “sacrifice” made by Napoleon’s army. Most people recognize them for what they were: an organized band of thugs invading other people’s land. And yet, the Frenchmen laid down their lives by the hundreds of thousands. They were patriotic to the last. Equally, it would be considered a breach of decency to hail the bravery and dedication of the Nazi soldiers. They are recognized as aggressors, as brutal occupiers and ruthless, machinelike killers. And so they should be. But were they not also highly trained and committed to their cause? Did they not “sacrifice” their lives by the millions for their country?
In both cases, the defeated armies’ men were nothing short of model soldiers. They marched. They obeyed orders. They killed on command. And when the blood dried and the dust settled, they were awarded medals for murdering people they’d never met, whose names and stories they’d never know, whose children they would never have to look in the eye. They were, in other words, just like their opposition…though without the good fortune of having “won” the war.
The ground under a dead German may well be as cold and hard as that under a dead Russian or a dead Frenchman, but history doesn’t remember all soldiers equally. Nor does it tend to separate soldiers — whose job it is to kill — too well from civilians — whose desire it is not to be killed.
It is estimated that between one and three million German civilians were slain during WWII. Who murdered these people? It’s almost considered indecent to ask, lest blame fall on heroes’ shoulders. Over in the Pacific, Japan lost between a half- and one-million civilians. Who killed these people, these men and women and children? Did they receive medals for doing so? Were they honored by their own state, welcomed home with parades and confetti?
Imagine for a second that The Axis Alliance was victorious in WWII. How might history remember President Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066, ordering the internment of 110,000 Japanese Americans in “War Relocation Camps” across the United States?
Moreover, what might history have to say about the only two nuclear weapons ever to have been deployed during wartime? Little Boy, the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, killed between 90,000-166,000 people. Fat Man, dropped on Nagasaki three days later, killed between 60,000-80,000 people. In both cases, the vast majority of the victims were civilians. They died of flash or flame burns…falling debris…radiation sickness…
Here’s what US President Harry Truman told the public in a radio address after dropping Fat Man:
“We have used it [the Atomic Bomb] in order to shorten the agony of war, in order to save the lives of thousands and thousands of young Americans. We will continue to use it until we completely destroy Japan’s power to make war.”
Who were these “thousands and thousands of young Americans” Truman was protecting? Surely not the same boys he was sending off to war. The US lost more than 400,000 soldiers on various battlefields in Europe and the Pacific…but “only” 1,700 civilians. Statistically, the best way to protect oneself against war was, as it is now, simply not to go.
Switzerland, which stayed famously neutral (despite their inconvenient geography), lost 100 civilians…and zero soldiers. New Zealand, meanwhile, lost nearly 12,000 troops, many of whom fell in places like Maleme and Galatas, during the Battle of Crete, and in far flung outposts in Italy and in Northern Africa. Again, these poor sods would have done better to stay at home, tending to their personal affairs, taking care of their families and ignoring heartfelt pleas from “society” for “shared sacrifice.” In all of WWII, not a single Kiwi civilian life was lost due to war.
Alas, The State’s message, articulated by Truman and emulated by “enemy leaders” around the world, was then as it is now: “We will make war in order to shorten it. We will make war until the other side cannot.”
Contrary to the State’s bellicose hollering, the message of peace is not to “share the sacrifice”…but to avoid it altogether.
We remember war not to glorify it, but so as to spare our own children from their ancestors’ tragic fate.
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