military death tolls

Today’s selection — from The Cash Nexus by Niall Ferguson. With the dawn of the Industrial Age, casualties suffered by Western forces in wars increased dramatically and culminated in the 57 million deaths of World War II. Since that peak, however, casualties suffered by these same Western forces have slowed precipitously. Why?:

“The death toll of the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-13) was 1.2 million. A century later, the Napoleonic Wars killed 1.9 million men. And a century after that, the First World War cost more than 9 million servicemen their lives. Perhaps as many as 8 million people died in the maelstrom of the Russian Civil War of 1918-21 (though most of these were the victims of the famine and pestilence unleashed by the conflict). But even this figure pales into insignificance alongside the total mortality caused by the Second World War. For military personnel, the total body count was roughly twice the figure for the First World War. But this figure excludes civilian casualties. According to the best available estimates, total civilian deaths in the Second World War amounted to 37.8 million, bringing the total death toll to nearly 57 million people. In other words, the majority of deaths in the Second World War were due to deliberate targeting — by all sides — of civilians on land and sea and from the air. Including all the minor colonial wars like the Boer War and all the civil wars like the one that raged in India after independence, the total figure for war deaths between 1900 and 1950 approaches 80 million.

“The increase in the destructiveness of war becomes even more striking when the relative brevity of the world wars is taken into account. … The First World War caused five times as many deaths in four and a quarter years as the entire Napoleonic Wars in the space of twelve. Another way of expressing this is to calculate the approximate annual death rate during the various wars. This rose from above 69,000 in the Thirty Years War to …155,000 in the Napoleonic Wars and for the world wars, respectively, 2.2 and 3.2 million — or 9.5 million if civilian deaths in the Second World War are included. … From the time of Napoleon to the time of Hitler — born a mere 120 years apart — the increase was more than sixty-fold.

“Even allowing for the accelerating growth in the world’s population, then, the world wars were the most destructive in history. Somewhere in the region of 2.4 per cent of the world’s entire population was killed in the Second World War and 0.5 per cent in the First, compared with roughly 0.4 per cent in the Thirty Years War and 0.2 per cent in the Napoleonic Wars and the War of the Spanish Succession. … In the Second World War roughly 3 per cent of the entire pre-war population of all combatant countries died as a result of the war. For Germany, Austria and Hungary the figure was around 8 per cent, for Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union 11 per cent and for Poland — of all countries the worst affected by the war — nearly 19 per cent: almost a fifth of the entire pre-war population. The armies of some countries were almost wholly annihilated. …

“Why then have the casualties suffered by Western forces in wars since tended to fall? The number of US servicemen who died in the Vietnam was ‘only’ 57,939; the number killed in Korea 37,904. And the death toll has continued to decline. In the Gulf War there were 148 American deaths, excluding victims of accidents and ‘friendly fire’: a tiny proportion of a total force numbering 665,000. In the 1999 war against Serbia the figure was precisely zero. Compare those figures with the body counts in two world wars: 114,000 American servicemen in the First World War and 292,100 in the Second. The drop in military casualties is even more marked in the case of Britain: 720,000 Britons lost their lives in the First World War over 270,000 in the Second; yet in the Korean War just 537 British soldiers were killed. All told, 719 British soldiers have been killed in Northern land since ‘the Troubles’ began in 1969, along with 302 members of Royal Ulster Constabulary. Just 24 UK servicemen were killed in the Gulf War, not including 9 killed accidentally by their own side.

Scott Belleau Wood.jpg
American Marines in Belleau Wood (1918)

“The answer lies in the nature of the wars fought since 1945 — which have invariably been against far less well-equipped opposition. These death rates do not, however, signify a decline in the destructiveness of weaponry. As we have already seen, there was no shortage of wars in the of the world in the second half of the twentieth century. Indeed, according to one estimate, the total war-induced death toll for 1945-99 lies somewhere between 15 and 20 million. The world has not become that much peaceful. It is just that the overwhelming majority of the victims of war have been Asians and Africans.”

The Cash Nexus: Money and Power in the Modern World, 1700-2000

Author: Niall Ferguson
Published by Basic Books
Copyright 2001 by Niall Ferguson
Pages 33-36
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Delanceyplace.com is a brief daily email with an excerpt or quote we view as interesting or noteworthy, offered with commentary to provide context. There is no theme, except that most excerpts will come from a non-fiction work, mainly works of history, are occasionally controversial, and we hope will have a more universal relevance than simply the subject of the book from which they came.

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