Memorial Day has come and gone. We brought out the barbecue and flipped a few burgers. Today, along with many other countries, we observe the anniversary of D-Day, a day to honor our military heroes, war veterans, and all soldiers living and dead.
War is more than battles, invasion, victories, and defeats. War is ultimately about destruction. The annihilation of nations. Laying waste to the lands where wars are fought. The slaughter of millions of civilians, young, old, and in between. All the war casualties who never wore a uniform and probably didn’t carry guns. There are no medals for them. No parades. No holidays. They’re just gone.
Most of these casualties — collateral damage — were people living uneventful lives until by ill fortune, they were caught in the backwash of war. Wrong place, wrong time. Wrong race, wrong religion. Believed the wrong stuff, belonged to the wrong political party. Espoused an unacceptable philosophy.
The demagogues who lead the wars usually escape its wrath. They are talkers, not fighters.
I honor our soldiers. It’s an ugly, dangerous, and often thankless job. But I think we need to remember the unlucky millions caught on a battlefield they called home.
The number of military and civilian casualties in World War I totaled more than 37 million including 16 million dead and 20 million wounded. It ranks among the deadliest conflicts in human history. The total number of deaths includes about 10 million military personnel and about 7 million civilians. The Entente Powers (the Allies) lost close to 6 million soldiers. The Central Powers lost about 4 million. At least 2 million civilians died from disease. Six million went missing and are presumed dead. American military deaths total 53,402.
World War II fatality statistics vary depending on who and how they are being counted. The estimates of total dead range from 50 million to more than 70 million, making it the deadliest war in world history in absolute terms — total dead — but not in terms of deaths relative to the world population. Our American Civil War holds that distinction.
Civilians killed totaled from 40 to 52 million, including 13 to 20 million from war-related disease and famine. Total military dead range in estimate from 22 to 25 million. These numbers include deaths in military prison camps — about 5 million prisoners of war.
In addition to soldiers and collaterally killed civilians, between 3 and 4 million Jews were murdered in Nazi death camps. In the USSR, the Einsatzgruppen mobile killing groups slaughtered another 1.4 million Jews. Jewish deaths in the ghettos of Nazi-occupied Europe total around 700,000. Yad Vashem has identified the names of four million Jewish Holocaust dead.
Not merely was European Jewry wiped out, but Jewish culture was utterly destroyed. The Nazis were very thorough and highly efficient. They set out to destroy the Jews and they succeeded.
Although the Holocaust specifically targeted Jews, it did not target only Jews.
Roma (Gypsies), handicapped person, political prisoners, intellectuals, ethnic Poles, and Slavs were slaughtered too, bringing the total number of Holocaust victims to between 11 and 17 million.
At least 1 million people died in wartime gulags or by deportation. Other wartime deaths resulted from malnutrition and disease. Both Stalin and Hitler were responsible for these deaths. The biggest mass murderers in human history may never have personally killed anyone. They had others to do the job for them.
Now that national demagoguery is back in vogue, are Americans going to be the next mass murderers? The kind of rhetoric I’m hearing cannot help remind me (and I’m sure lots of other people) of other murderous demagogues and the slaughters they perpetrated.
In tallying up the costs of war, soldiers are not the only casualties. “Collateral damage” sounds so benign, a kind of verbal cleansing. But no matter what you call it, the dead remain dead.