20 Juni 2006

Death figures

Those who oppose the current debacle in Iraq frequently bewail the general public's inability to appreciate the waste in lives and treasure, the carnage and suffering that always accompany any kind of military operation (all right, war). Unfortunately for the war's opponents, the costs of the war--as staggering as they appear in print, e.g., $10 billion per month--simply don't have much of an impact on our economy, the size of which has passed the $11.75 trillion mark. (I can remember when a measly $5 trillion seemed vast.) This assessment of the war's impact may sound brutal but must be recognized. While it is true that, pace Eisenhower, each piece of equipment could fund so many schools and so on, the fact remains that, viewed historically, military spending as a percentage both of the overall federal budget and of the gross national product is not all that high. The effect of military spending has to be gauged in proportion to the overall economy, not on the gross amount expended. Similarly, although every life lost in Iraq is, arguably, a crime, the war simply has not "come home" in any meaningful sense--we have lost 2500 service members in three years, and that's out of a population of nearly 300,000,000 people.

To put all of this in better perspective, German and Austrian history proves quite instructive, and also goes a long way towards explaining why the Germans, contrary to the absurdly outdated stereotypes still current, haven't been in any hurry to fight. Let's have some fun with statistics from World War I:

1. Austria-Hungary had 8,000,000 men and 100,000 women in uniform. This amounted to 1/3 of the total male population. In the U.S. today that would be analogous to having approximately 40,000,000 men in uniform. Our present-day Army has well under a million, even with the National Guard--and, bear in mind, our economy is much, much larger. Germany, out of a population of fewer than 60,000,000, had 11,000,000 in uniforms--actually a smaller proportion than Austria-Hungary.

2. Deaths: Austria-Hungary lost 1 million men; 1.69 million were captured or MIA (missing in action). Moreover, since a good percentage of those in uniform, even then, were in admin or support, one's chances of surviving actual combat were pretty abysmal. So imagine that the United States, in today's Iraq war, over the last three years had lost 4,000,000 and that the Iraqis had captured (farcical notion, eh?) another 6,000,000.

3. By contrast, the total number of all combat deaths suffered by the U.S. in all twentieth-century wars--World War I, World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, Gulf War I and Operation Iraqi Freedom (just for nomenclature's sake) is somewhere around 700,000.

So even though many of us are outraged at the goings-on in Gitmo (I can't say that I'm losing a lot of sleep over that one, though), Abu Gharaib and Iraq generally, the sober truth is that Bush has had a pretty free hand because he has managed to do it without adversely affecting or intruding upon the lives of the average American except with respect to rising fuel costs, which in all truth are not entirely his doing anyway. [The effects on our civil liberties are a separate issue; here I'm speaking to the military impact only.] To those of you who consider our country so militarized--and, I might add, das schliesst meine deutschen Freunde ein--bear in mind that our military simply doesn't consume all that much of the overall national treasure, relatively speaking. Certainly in a Utopia it would be nice if we could redirect every penny spent on bombs, etc., to health care and schools, but if you dwell in the real world that is tantamount to saying it would be nice if nobody every laid a hand on another ever again, if nobody suffered and death always came peacefully in one's bed at 98 surrounded by four generations of loved ones, and so on. Think of North Korea. With an economy smaller than that of many U.S. counties, they field an army of well over a million men, and their leader wallows in a level of decadent luxury that makes the day-to-day existence of Bush and most well-to-do Americans look positively middle class.

Quite decidely, by underscoring these discrepancies, I do not necessarily favor the current war or the thinking behind it, but a sense of proportion is necessary to understand why so many otherwise plausible arguments fall on deaf ears.