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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About Us 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.


stalin’s forced famine killed seven million — 5/4/15

Today’s selection —  from Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar by Simon Sebag Montefiore. In the early 1930s, Soviet leader Josef Stalin extracted as much grain as possible from the farmers of the Soviet Union, especially those in the Ukraine, resulting in a forced famine with an estimated 7,000,000 deaths. The main purpose was to fund his country’s rapid industrialization projects, but he also wanted to force the “kulaks” (formerly wealthy farmers that had owned 24 or more acres) into submission and bring about the “collectivization” of privately held lands. In the Ukraine, he also wanted to stave off the stirrings of an independence movement:

“[Stalin and his] small group of idealistic, ruthless magnates, mainly in their thirties, was the engine of a vast and awesome Revolution: they would build socialism immediately and abolish capitalism. Their industrial programme, the Five-Year Plan, would make Russia a great power never again to be humiliated by the West. Their war on the countryside would forever exterminate the internal enemy, the kulaks, and return the Party to the values of 1917. It was Lenin who said, ‘Merciless mass terror against the kulaks … Death to them!’ Thousands of young people shared their idealism. The Plan demanded a 110 percent rise in productivity which Stalin, Kuibyshev and Sergo insisted was possible because everything was possible. ‘To lower the tempo means to lag behind,’ explained Stalin in 1931. ‘And laggards are beaten! But we don’t want to be beaten … The history of old Russia consisted … in her being beaten … for her backwardness.’ …

A dispossessed kulak and his family in front of their home

“In November 1929, … Stalin returned refreshed from his holidays and immediately intensified the war on the peasantry, demanding ‘an offensive against the kulaks … to get ready for action and to deal the kulak class such a blow that it will no longer rise to its feet.’ But the peasants refused to sow their crops, declaring war on the regime. …

“[Stalin and the Politburo] realized they had to escalate their war on the countryside and literally ‘liquidate the kulaks as a class.’ They unleashed a secret police war in which organized brutality, vicious pillage and fanatical ideology vied with one another to destroy the lives of millions. …

“In January 1930, [Premier Vyacheslav] Molotov planned the destruction of the kulaks, who were divided into three categories: ‘First category: … to be immediately eliminated’; the second, to be imprisoned in camps; the third, 150,000 households, to be deported. Molotov oversaw the death squads, the railway carriages, the concentration camps like a military commander. Between five and seven million people ultimately fitted into the three categories. There was no way to select a kulak: Stalin himself agonized: scribbling in his notes: ‘What does kulak mean?’

“Away with private peasants!”

“During 1930-31, about 1.68 million people were deported to the east and north. Within months, Stalin and Molotov’s plan had led to 2,200 rebellions involving more than 800,000 people. Kaganovich and Mikoyan led expeditions into the countryside with brigades of OGPU troopers and armoured trains like warlords. The magnates’ handwritten letters to Stalin ring with the fraternal thrill of their war for human betterment against unarmed peasants: ‘Taking all measures about food and grain,’ Mikoyan reported to Stalin, citing the need to dismiss ‘wreckers’: ‘We face big resistance … We need to destroy the resistance.’ In Kaganovich’s photograph album, we find him heading out into Siberia with his armed posse of leather-jacketed ruffians, interrogating peasants, poking around in their haystacks, finding the grain, deporting the culprits and moving on again, exhausted, falling asleep between stops. ‘Molotov works really hard and is very tired,’ Mikoyan told Stalin. ‘The mass of work is so vast it needs horsepower … ‘ …

“The peasants believed they could force the government to stop by destroying their own livestock: the despair that could lead a peasant to kill his own animals, the equivalent in our world of burning down our own house, gives a hint of the scale of desperation: 26.6 million head of cattle were slaughtered, 15.3 million horses. On 16 January 1930, the government decreed that kulak property could be confiscated if they destroyed livestock. If the peasants thought the Bolsheviks would be obliged to feed them, they were mistaken. As the crisis worsened, even Stalin’s staunchest lieutenants struggled to squeeze the grain out of the peasantry, especially in the Ukraine and North Caucasus. …
“By the summer of 1931, a serious shortage in the countryside was beginning to develop into a famine. While the Politburo softened its campaign against industrial specialists in mid-July, the rural struggle continued. The GPU and the 180,000 Party workers sent from cities used the gun, the lynch mob and the Gulag camp system to break the villages. Over two million were deported to Siberia or Kazakhstan; in 1930, there were 179,000 slaving in the Gulags; almost a million by 1935. Terror and forced labour became the essence of Politburo business.”

Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar

Author: Simon Sebag Montefiore
Publisher: Vintage Books a division of Random House
Copyright 2003 by Simon Sebag Montefiore
Pages: 44-47, 64-65

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churchill and the taliban — 8/18/14 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. 

Today’s selection — from Chuchill’s First War by Con Coughlin. The irresistible juxtaposition of young Winston Churchill and the Taliban:

“When the young Winston Churchill arrived at the North-West Frontier of the Indian Empire in the early autumn of 1897 he very quickly formed a low opinion of the Taliban. In Churchill’s day, the great-great-grandfathers of those who created the modern Taliban movement were known as the Talib-ul-ilms, a motley collection of indigent holy men who lived off the goodwill and hospitality of the local Afghan tribes and preached insurrection against the British Empire. To Churchill’s mind, these Talibs were, together with other local priestly figures such as the mullahs and fakirs, primarily responsible for the wretched condition of the local Afghan tribesfolk and their violent indisposition to foreign rule. In Churchill’s view they were ‘as degraded a race as any on the fringe of humanity: fierce as a tiger, but less cleanly; as dangerous, not so graceful’. He blamed the Talibs for the Afghans’ lamentable absence of civilized development, keeping them in the ‘grip of miserable superstition’. Churchill was particularly repelled by the Talibs’ loose moral conduct. They lived free at the expense of the people and, ‘more than this, they enjoy a sort of “droit de seigneur“, and no man’s wife or daughter is safe from them. Of some of their manners and morals it is impossible to write.’ 

Winston Churchill, aged 19, as a second lieutenant in the Fourth Queen’s Own Hussars

“Churchill saw the conflict in even more apocalyptic terms when he published his first newspaper article on his experiences as a young British soldier locked in mortal combat with these fearsome Afghan tribesmen. ‘Civilisation is face to face with militant Mohammedism,’ he wrote. He entertained no doubts as to the conflict’s ultimate outcome for, given the ‘moral and material forces arrayed against each other, there need be no fear of the ultimate issue’. Even so, he lamented the warlike nature of the tribes who inhabited the mountainous no-man’s land between Afghanistan to the north and British India to the south. Many tribes, the majority of them Pashtuns, lived in the wild but wealthy valleys that led from Afghanistan to India, but they were all of similar character and condition. Except when they were sowing or harvesting their crops, Churchill observed that a continual state of feud and strife prevailed throughout the land. ‘Tribe wars with tribe. The people of one valley fight with those of the next. To the quarrels of communities are added the combats of individuals. Khan assails khan, each supported by his retainers. Every tribesman has a blood feud against his neighbour. Every man’s hand is against the other, and all are against the stranger.’ More than a hundred years later, when a new generation of Western soldiers deployed to Central Asia, they found that little had changed in the way the tribes of the Afghan frontier conducted themselves.

“In criticizing some of the Talibs’ more depraved practices, Churchill conveniently overlooked the conduct of his own social milieu back in London, which could hardly be described as a cradle of virtuous rectitude. The loose moral values observed in certain upper-class circles of late-Victorian England were most famously embodied by the louche conduct of the Prince of Wales, the future King Edward VII. A close family friend of the Churchills, ‘Bertie’ entertained a string of mistresses; one of his conquests was said to be Winston’s mother Jennie, the wife of the Tory peer Lord Randolph Churchill and a notable society beauty. The American-born Jennie is credited with having had more than two hundred lovers of her own and was susceptible to the charms of young Guards officers who were barely older than Winston.”

Churchill’s First War: Young Winston at War with the Afghans

Author: Con Coughlin 
Publisher: Thomas Dunne Books, St. Martin’s Press
Copyright 2013 by Con Coughlin
Pages: 1-2