Thursday, December 07, 2006


07 December 2006


Many people continue to speak of the cost of the Iraq War in terms of the waste of lives in both killed or wounded in action. Lou Dobbs yesterday in a CNN Op-ed piece went on at length about the human cost of the war in Iraq and how we were wasting lives. This whole concept of counting deaths to determine whether or not a war is successful seems to be relatively new.

In Vietnam we used enemy body counts to claim success which naturally led to the counter view of counting friendly deaths to determine failure. As always I look to history to provide us with some much needed perspective on the issue of counting casualties.

First let’s look at the First World War. This War was by far and away the most horrific in the 20th Century when it comes to idea of trading lives for terrain. Hundred’s of thousands of soldiers were killed or wounded in the Battle of the Somme for less than 400 yards ground gained over months.

During the war the Canadian Army was composed of 4 Divisions which were attached to several British Corps. The Canadians had deployed to the Western Front in 1914 and were well seasoned troops known for their tenacity in the attack and stubbornness during defensive operations. In 1915 the French Army tried to take a piece of ground in Northern France known as Vimy Ridge. 150,000 French soldiers died trying to take the ridge and were completely unsuccessful. The British tried in 1916 and failed with thousands dead so they called on the Canadians but the Canadian government intervened and said we’ll only take on this tremendous task if we can command the Canadian Army develop the attack plan and then carry it out. The allies desperate to take this important ridge agreed and for the first time all 4 Canadian divisions were formed in to 1 Corps under Canadian command. The commander devised a new plan of attack that included a new tactic known as the rolling (some call it creeping) barrage. Up to this point in the war all attacks began after long artillery barrages on their objectives which would cease prior to going over the troop leaving the Infantry exposed to machine gun, mortar and rifle fire from the enemy as they advanced though pot holed terrain at a walking pace. This rolling barrage would ensure a steel wall was maintain between the advancing Infantry and the enemy trenches and was timed to shift fire based on the average walking speed due to a lack of communications.

Another new tactic was rehearsals, yes for the first time the entire operation was rehearsed using sand models for commanders and the troops actually were moved to the rear where they could rehearse their actions on similar ground created for the occassion.

The opening barrage began on 02 April and lasted for a week. At dawn on Easter Monday the 9th of April the Canadians began their advance and within 2 hours all but one of the divisions had reached their objectives. The one division that was not able to reach its objective had the hardest task which included Hill 145 the highest peak on the ridge. Within 2 days the other divisions completed the taking of Vimy Ridge at a cost of 3,598 men killed and 7,104 wounded. This was considered the birth of modern Canada and the greatest military victory in its short history. It is also considered by historians as one of the greatest if not the greatest feat of WW I.

Next lets look at the invasion of Poland by the German Army in the opening days of WW II which was the worlds first look at Blitzkrieg the newest war fighting tactic which saw armor, infantry, artillery and air support coordinated while enemy strongholds were bypassed, encircled and left for follow on troops to deal with which for the first time ensured rapid movement and gains could be made.

The German Army began shelling Polish border units at 0445 on 01 September 1939 which is considered day one of the Second World War. By the 8th of Sep German armor was on the outskirts of Warsaw and by 17 Sep when the Russians also invaded Poland the country was all but lost. The final surrender of Polish forces occurred on 06 Oct and Poland was officially occupied. In the West military planners and politicians were stunned, never before in modern history had a country fallen so quickly and so easily. In the process of conquering Poland the German army recorded 16,000 killed in action and some 40,000 wounded. A soon to be famous German Field Marshal name Rommel is quoted by his aid as saying “even victorious armies suffer casualties; it is the price of victory”.

Final let’s look at the battle of Iwo Jima which took place in February - March 1945 on that tiny Pacific Island then occupied by the Empire of Japan. The reason I choose this battle was due to its popularity among Americans which is held up as a great triumph over a fanatical enemy. Several movies and a monument dedicated to the flag raising on Mount Suribachi ensure that Americans know a great deal about the battle and its human costs but for the sake of making my point let’s review the battle and ensure we have all the facts.

First why was the island important, well US military planners wanted it for two main reasons, one to deny the Japanese the use of the island as an early warning location thus helping their B-29s strike the Japanese mainland without forewarning and secondly this would allow the American’s a closer jumping off point for B-29’s and P-51 fighter escorts to escort them to the mainland and back. This was truly required for the coming invasion of the Japanese mainland which was at this point considered the only way to win the war. Intelligence reported that the island was lightly defended with green troops and would fall in 3-5 days and that after a huge bombing and naval bombardment the Marines would simply round up the surrendering Japanese personnel. Unfortunately the bombardment did almost nothing to the defenders who’d spent a year preparing for the invasion and the Marines had to fight hand to hand against fanatical and suicidal Japanese troops. The 5 day battle took from 19 Feb until the island was declared secure on 26 March some 36 days. The US military suffered 7000 killed and 19,000 wounded during this 5 week battle. This has become one of the greatest victories in US Marine Corps history.

Now that we’ve looked back at three battles let’s pull it together with the Iraq war and ask why we are judging either success or defeat by the human cost. If, as so many politicians and pundits argue, we are losing in Iraq because almost 3000 troops have been killed in the past 3 and ½ years then we have to declare pretty much all previously considered great military victories as failures. In 3 days the Canadian Army suffered more deaths in battle than in 3 years of combat in Iraq, while the Germans suffered more deaths in 5 weeks in Poland and the US Marines again in 5 weeks suffered more than twice as many deaths.

Now before people talk about better medicine and equipment lets not forget that better equipment and medical support increases the number of wounded as combat is still combat so if we look at the wounded and I’ll use Lou Dobbs figures for fairness. Lou says that 10,000 military personnel have been wounded in such a way as to not be able to return to duty for at least 3 days. (I won’t use the figure of 4000 which is the number of wounded unable to return to duty ever) If they use the wounded to make their case again they fail.

Winning means casualties while every army (as you’ve seen) always uses the best tactics and equipment of their era to minimize these casualties they still occur and I’ll go back to the Rommel’s quote to prove the point. It’s time politicians stopped using emotion to try and push their agenda’s. Nobody wants to hear about a single death but they happen and have in every single war in history and in almost every case the winning side has less casualties than the losing side so if you want to use casualties as a benchmark man are we winning.

On a separate note I’m really sick of hearing that the Iraq war has lasted longer than WW II as if the first two years of the war didn’t happen or didn’t count because the US was not in the war. The Second World War officially began on 01 September 1939 with the invasion of Poland and ended on 14 August 1945 with the surrender of the Empire of Japan which means WW II lasted 72 months and change while the Iraq war began on 20 March 2003 and today is December 2006 which means as of today the second Iraq War has lasted 45 months so please politicians be accurate and say the Iraq War has lasted longer than America’s involvement with WW II when you start chirping again in January.