When Napoleon crossed the Niemen, at the outset of the 1812 French invasion of Russia, he had under his command some 422,000 men. When he approached those same waters the next 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 ArmĂ©e.
[This famous graph, by Charles Joseph Minard, shows the decreasing size of the Grande ArmĂ©e. The brown line (followed from left to right) shows Napoleonâs march to Russia. The black line (followed from right to left) depicts his retreat. The size of the army is show equal to the width of the lines.]
Of course, military strategists are slow to learn and quick to forget. Napoleon wasnât the only fool to covet the vast plains of the east. One hundred and thirty years later, Adolf Hitler embarked on Operation Barbarossa, the largest military operation in human history, both in terms of manpower…and casualties. His monstrous panzer divisions rolled east, pounding Napoleonâs 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 Russians, buried the Germans too, just as they had the Little Corporalâs men. All in, 4.3 million Germans fell during the campaign â a fatality list ten times the size of Napoleonâs entire army. During the whole of WWII, the German army lost a total of 5.5 million soldiers.
Of course, it would be obscene to talk about the âsacrificeâ made by Napoleonâs army. Most people recognize them for what they were: an organized band of thugs invading other peopleâs 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 killers. And so they should be. But were they not highly trained and committed to their cause? Did they not âsacrificeâ their lives by the millions for their country?
In both cases, the defeated armiesâ 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 theyâd never met, whose names and stories theyâd never know. They were, in other words, just like their opposition…though without the good fortune of having âwonâ 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 doesnât remember all soldiers equally. Nor does it tend to separate soldiers â whose job it is to kill â too well from civilians â whose desire it is not to be killed.
It is estimated that between one and three million German civilians were killed during WWII. Who murdered these people? Itâs almost considered impolite to ask, lest blame fall on heroesâ 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 Rooseveltâs Executive Order 9066, ordering the internment of 110,000 Japanese Americans in âWar Relocation Campsâ 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…
Hereâs what US President Harry Truman told the public in a radio address after dropping Fat Man:
Â âWe 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 Japanâs power to make war.â
Â Who were these thousands and thousands of âyoung Americansâ 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 âonlyâ 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 âsocietyâ for âshared sacrifice.â In all of WWII, not a single Kiwi civilian life was lost due to war.
Alas, the Stateâs message, articulated by Truman and emulated by âenemy leadersâ around the world, was then as it is now: âWe will make war in order to shorten it. We will make war until the other side cannot.â
Contrary to these bellicose hollerings of the State, the message of peace is not to âshare the sacrificeâ…but to avoid it altogether.
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