A couple weeks ago, I watched a documentary series called Apocalypse: WWI. In the same way that Peter Jackson’s They Shall Not Grow Old did, this recent viewing reiterated the war’s true human cost to me.
For instance, today is the 106 anniversary of the beginning of the Battle of the Somme.
106 years ago, the British Army suffered 57,470 casualties in one day, including 19,240 killed. The battle continued for three and a half months. It would ultimately cost 1,123,907 casualties, including 318,700 killed.
318,700 young boys gone, cut down in the prime of their lives. That’s 2,260 killed every day for 141 days—in one of the war’s several simultaneous battles.
The mind boggles. Given the world’s histrionic reaction to COVID-19, similar casualties would likely cause a complete societal breakdown.
The Somme also included one Adolf Hitler, who, on October 7, 1916, was hit in the left thigh by shrapnel.
In a piece published today at Responsible Statecraft, George Beebe warns that today’s world leaders are ignoring the mistakes made in the lead-up to the First World War. Instead, they are focusing on the mythos that their fathers told them about the Second World War.
Indeed, instead of fixating on how to confront the “Hitlerian” Vladimir Putin, Western leaders should remember that “great powers can be dragged unexpectedly into war by the ill-considered actions of smaller allies” and “that alliances meant to protect and deter can also entangle their member states and outsiders.” Further, in seeking an end to this crisis, Western leaders should remember a third lesson:
The animating principle of the Versailles treaty was retributive: depriving Germany of territory, inflicting pain on its economy, and crippling its defense industry so as to minimize chances that it might once again pose a threat to its neighbors. That this approach boomeranged on the war’s victors so spectacularly, yet so closely mirrors the war objectives that many insist the West should now have for Russia, should give us all pause.
Despite history’s tendency towards fateful repetition, a hopeful, but important, question was posed in 1966 by Charlotte Keys, whose son had been imprisoned during the Vietnam War for refusing to fight after being drafted. Her essay’s titular question was, “What if they gave a war and nobody came?”
This romantic notion may be based on more than just optimism. As Antiwar.com Opinion Editor Kyle Anzalone reported June 27, 2022:
[a] record low number of America’s youth are eligible for military service and fewer are considering the military as a career…every branch of the Department of Defense is struggling to meet its 2022 recruitment quotas…The Army is well short of its recruitment goal. With just three months left in the 2022 fiscal year, the branch has met only 40% of its objective. The Army is waiving the requirement that soldiers graduate high school. The Army is also involuntarily extending the assignments of “high-performing” recruiters.
For many young Americans the cost-benefit analysis of joining the military simply does not weigh positive.
NBC News obtained an internal Defense Department survey that found only 9% of qualified citizens want to join the military, the lowest result since 2007. One cause is young Americans do not believe enlisting is in their long-term welfare. Over half of the people polled thought they would have emotional or psychological problems after leaving the military.
A senior U.S. military official familiar with the recruiting issues told NBC “[t]hey think they’re going to be physically or emotionally broken after serving.”
Another reason for low recruitment appears to be a decline in the quality of potential recruits:
The Pentagon assesses that less than a quarter of young Americans meet the Pentagon’s standards for recruits. Only 23% of citizens aged 17-24 are qualified to serve without a waiver, Army Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville said before Congress, noting that the number is declining. In recent years, 29% of 17-24-year-olds were eligible to serve.
NBC noted that “more young men and women than ever [are] disqualified for obesity, drug use or criminal records.”
The article concludes that “The survey sheds light on how both Americans’ view of the military and…public attitudes could cause recruiting struggles for years to come.”
For the United States, and indeed all empires, young blood is the heaviest cost of imperium. Paradoxically, it is a cost that is most eagerly paid.
The public would do well to remember the horrific price paid by the millions of young men who fought in the battle of the Somme. Surely, all who took part suffered in one way or another. By many accounts, these men marched eagerly into battle, motivated by service, loyalty, and a thirst for glory.
Ironically, for today’s American youth, the path to peace may be paved by obesity, drug use, criminality, and an unwillingness to put oneself in harm’s way. Perhaps these traits are simply a late-stage cost of empire.
Ideally, an American antiwar movement would be principled—led by an appreciation for the hubris of history and reverence for the sacrifices made by young boys at the Somme.
At the end of the day, however, empires fall not through conscientious opposition, but from internal rot.
What will America’s fall look like—peaceful dissolution vis-à-vis the Soviets, or mass murder-suicide?
Most importantly, how many more Sommes must our children be made to fight?
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