2007/01/01

Re: "How many war deaths are too many?" Jan 1

Letter to Philadelphia Inquirer in response to article at
http://www.philly. com/mld/inquirer /16359666. htm

The answer to that question is very much "it depends." Back in 1859, Napoleon III assisted Italian nationalists against Austria in the Battle of Solferino. In 16 hours of fighting, both sides lost about 40,000 soldiers. Napoleon III was sickened by the slaughter, examined his motives for engaging in the fight in the first place and decided that he simply wasn't the warrior his famous namesake and uncle was. France was a monarchy at the time, so there were no opinion polls then or provincial elections to lose, but there's no indication that his withdrawal caused him any political difficulties back home.

In 1916, a mere 57 years later, France was under a more democratic government (And thus, presumably, a more peace-loving government) and engaged Germany in the Battle of Verdun as part of World War I. The German General Erich von Falkenhayn justified his launching of the battle in terms that sound surprisingly similar to "We're fighting them over so we don't have to fight them over here." He allegedly wanted to "bleed " the French Army so as to soften them up to suffer further setbacks and losses.

The slaughter was immense. Nearly 800,000 soldiers were lost on both sides. Again, there's no indication the French government suffered any political damage, this time from stubbornly holding onto Verdun at immense cost. In 1859, France did not object to withdrawing from a war after 40,000 soldiers were lost on both sides. In 1916, France held firm in the face of 800,000 casualties on both sides.
What changed in those 57 years? Did the French national character change? Did France become more warlike? Did French mothers and wives become more callous towards losing sons and husbands? No to all of those questions.

France's military objectives changed. Sometimes, an objective is worth an immense cost in lives. Sometimes the loss of a single soldier is a single life too many. The Iraq War is a very different war from the Civil War, where 3000 soldiers could be lost in a single hour of fighting. Our current president has failed to explain what the Iraq War is about in terms that make sense to the American people. I read President Bush's casus belli speech against the government of Iraq (Which was personified as Saddam Hussein) in September 2002. I concluded then that the Iraq War wasn't worth a single life, military or civilian, Iraqi or American. As Americans now agree, in the words of New York Times reporter Judy Miller "I was proved $%&# right!"

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