"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Monday, April 18, 2016

Borodino, Waterloo, Antietam, Stalingrad, And Khe San–The Inevitability Of War

In the Battle of Waterloo pitting Napoleon’s army against the Allied forces led by Wellington on June 18th, 1815, there were 50,000 casualties.
In the Battle of Borodino in which Napoleon fought the Russian army, nearly 70,000 men were lost in twenty-four hours.

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Victor Hugo described the horrors of war and the decisive Battle of Waterloo;.
There are moments in battles in which the soul hardens the man until the soldier is changed into a statue, and when all this flesh turns into granite. The English battalions, desperately assaulted, did not stir.
Then it was terrible.\
All the faces of the English squares were attacked at once. A frenzied whirl enveloped them. That cold infantry remained impassive. The first rank knelt and received the cuirassiers on their bayonets, the second ranks shot them down; behind the second rank the cannoneers charged their guns, the front of the square parted, permitted the passage of an eruption of grape-shot, and closed again. The cuirassiers replied by crushing them. Their great horses reared, strode across the ranks, leaped over the bayonets and fell, gigantic, in the midst of these four living wells.
The cannon-balls ploughed furrows in these cuirassiers; the cuirassiers made breaches in the squares. Files of men disappeared, ground to dust under the horses. The bayonets plunged into the bellies of these centaurs; hence a hideousness of wounds which has probably never been seen anywhere else. The squares, wasted by this mad cavalry, closed up their ranks without flinching. Inexhaustible in the matter of grape-shot, they created explosions in their assailants' midst.
The form of this combat was monstrous. These squares were no longer battalions, they were craters; those cuirassiers were no longer cavalry, they were a tempest. Each square was a volcano attacked by a cloud; lava contended with lightning (Les Miserables)
Tolstoy wrote of the Battle of Borodino in War and Peace:
“Several tens of thousands of the slain lay in diverse postures and various uniforms on the fields and meadows belonging to the Davydov family and to the crown serfs- those fields and meadows where for hundreds of years the peasants of Borodino, Gorki, Shevardino, and Semenovsk had reaped their harvests and pastured their cattle. At the dressing stations the grass and earth were soaked with blood for a space of some three acres around. Crowds of men of various arms, wounded and unwounded, with frightened faces, dragged themselves back to Mozhaysk from the one army and back to Valuevo from the other. Other crowds, exhausted and hungry, went forward led by their officers. Others held their ground and continued to fire.
Over the whole field, previously so gaily beautiful with the glitter of bayonets and cloudlets of smoke in the morning sun, there now spread a mist of damp and smoke and a strange acid smell of saltpeter and blood. Clouds gathered and drops of rain began to fall on the dead and wounded, on the frightened, exhausted, and hesitating men, as if to say: "Enough, men! Enough! Cease... bethink yourselves! What are you doing?"
 The Battle of the Somme resulted in an estimated 600,000 casualties.


At the Battle of Antietam there were 25,000 casualties.

The lieutenant of the youth's company had encountered a soldier who had fled screaming at the first volley of his comrades. Behind the lines these two were acting a little isolated scene. The man was blubbering and staring with sheep-like eyes at the lieutenant, who had seized him by the collar and was pommeling him. He drove him back into the ranks with many blows. The soldier went mechanically, dully, with his animal-like eyes upon the officer. Perhaps there was to him a divinity expressed in the voice of the other--stern, hard, with no reflection of fear in it. He tried to reload his gun, but his shaking hands prevented. The lieutenant was obliged to assist him.
The men dropped here and there like bundles. The captain of the youth's company had been killed in an early part of the action. His body lay stretched out in the position of a tired man resting, but upon his face there was an astonished and sorrowful look, as if he thought some friend had done him an ill turn. The babbling man was grazed by a shot that made the blood stream widely down his face. He clapped both hand to his head. "Oh!" he said, and ran. Another grunted suddenly as if he had been struck by a club in the stomach. He sat down and gazed ruefully.
In his eyes there was mute, indefinite reproach. Farther up the line a man, standing behind a tree, had had his knee joint splintered by a ball. Immediately he had dropped his rifle and gripped the tree with both arms. And there he remained, clinging desperately and crying for assistance that he might withdraw his hold upon the tree” – Stephen Crane, The Red Badge of Courage
At the battle of Stalingrad there were 2 million casualties.

There are many wars being fought today (2016) – in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Palestine, and Nigeria among others.  The fight against ISIS, although asymmetrical and without classical perimeters and lines of defense, kills thousands of combatants and civilians.  Al-Qaeda and its affiliates probe, test, and confront the West through attacks on European capitals.  Although neither the United States nor its allies have declared war on radical Islam, military action by land and especially by air continues.

War has been a fact of life since the first human settlements.  No civilization has been without armed conflict – not the Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, or Persians; nor the British, French, Spanish, Dutch, or Americans. 

Yet, reading the accounts of Hugo, Tolstoy, Crane and many others, it is hard to understand why we persist in resolving conflicts through armed aggression.  Why should every generation send its youth, its best and brightest, and its future to  certain slaughter?

“War is simply the continuation of policy by other means”, said Clausewitz; and few regimes, empires, or nations have been able to resolve conflict without resorting to armed aggression. “How many divisions does the Pope have?”, Stalin famously remarked.  International disputes may be settled at the negotiation table, but with the specter of arms behind it.

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If the United States were to re-introduce the draft, many peace advocates say, then politicians would be less likely to go to war.  As reasonable as this may seem, it is disingenuous if not ignorant.  Those with wealth, power, and influence have always been able to send soldier to war while keeping their own safe and sound at home.  Ever since the introduction of conscription in the Civil War, men have found ways to buy their way out of service.

There is and has always been a disconnect between those who make war and those who fight it.  Presidents, premiers, and kings have always sent young men into battle.  Generals and colonels have always mapped out the theatres of battle, deploying these young men not as human beings but as strategic chess pieces.  Reading Les Miserables and War and Peace, one is both impressed by the military genius of Napoleon, Wellington, and Kutuzov and the horrific deaths of thousands of men moved into place for tactical and strategic reasons.

Behind the generals and colonels are the civilian politicians who set the goals, objectives, and principles of conflict.  Some say that the United States lost the war in Vietnam because of these civilian advisors who misunderstood the nature, ferocity, and commitment of the Communists; and whose policy of winning hearts and minds was ignorant, exceptionalist, and historically myopic.
In any case in Khe San and Hue American casualties were significant and did little to stem the North Vietnamese onslaught.

Battle of Chan La

Nothing has changed since the days of Genghis Khan, The 100 Years War, the hundreds of civil and nationalist European wars of the Renaissance, the dynastic battles of Egypt, Persia, and China; the Twentieth Century’s wars of hegemony, ethnic cleansing, and sovereignty; or the Twenty-first Century’s wars of neo-imperialism, religious expansionism, or ethnic separatism. 

Despite the horrors of war – perhaps less barbaric than in times past but no less consequential – we keep on fighting.

It is never leaders  alone who are responsible for war.  We the people are at the very least complicit in their ambitions.  Jonah Goldhagen has made a compelling case for popular support, both overt and complicit, of the German people in the Holocaust.  Patriotism and eager ambition made Westward Expansion and annihilation of indigenous native American populations possible.  Wars are joint affairs.  They may be sanctioned and prosecuted by ruling elites; but without the tacit or enthusiastic support of citizens, they would never be fought.  In any event, it is the soldiers who fight and die.
And it is of this period of the campaign — when the army lacked boots and sheepskin coats, was short of provisions and without vodka, and was camping out at night for months in the snow with fifteen degrees of frost, when there were only seven or eight hours of daylight and the rest was night in which the influence of discipline cannot be maintained, when men were taken into that region of death where discipline fails, not for a few hours only as in a battle, but for months, where they were every moment fighting death from hunger and cold, when half the army perished in a single month — it is of this period of the campaign that the historians tell us how Miloradovich should have made a flank march to such and such a place, Tormasov to another place, and Chichagov should have crossed (more than knee-deep in snow) to somewhere else, and how so-and-so “routed” and “cut off” the French and so on and so on.
The Russians, half of whom died, did all that could and should have been done to attain an end worthy of the nation, and they are not to blame because other Russians, sitting in warm rooms, proposed that they should do what was impossible (War and Peace)
 In Shakespeare’s Henry V, the king before the battle of Agincourt decides to canvass the opinions of his soldiers, expecting to find a patriotic support for England and for its king.  On the contrary, the soldier resent the dubious ambitions of Henry and his territorial claims; and aver that they will most certainly die in an ignoble cause.


Perhaps the most interesting aspect of war is the complaisance if not support of the troops for whatever war has been sanctioned by their leaders.  Both French and Russian soldiers at Borodino  fought with courage and bravery without first justifying their actions.  Few Rebel or Union soldiers ever stopped to analyze the reasons for the Civil War.  They simply fought and died for their flag.  Even the grunts in the Vietnamese jungles who had serious doubts about the war, fought hard and well – if not for country then for comrades.

Shakespeare had it right when he called out war’s band of brothers – men who are disassociated from cause and effect and only fight for each other and from a vague notion of duty.

The world will always be at war; and history has amply demonstrated that there are no good causes or bad ones, only the causes themselves.  Boys will always be cannon fodder.  Majors and colonels will always move up the ranks because of their performance in war.  Civilian leaders will always find reason to use war as an extension of diplomacy.

Yet, reading Tolstoy, Hugo and Crane, one has to be saddened at this irrevocable, persistent human aggression.  Not because of the arrogance of the aggression but because of the willing, innocent live lost.

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