The argument has been around for years. That America can now fight wars without suffering high casualty levels makes it too easy for us to engage in unnecessary wars. There's something to that philosophy. If we were absorbing casualties in Iraq at the rate we suffered them in World War II, million person marches on Washington would likely be a familiar occurrence.
However, the idea of increased own force casualties being a good thing contains a number of profoundly flawed assumptions, the main one of which is that suffering attrition is either an effective or efficient way to conduct warfare. Like George S. Patton said, "Nobody ever won a war by dying for his country."
Munitions and Attritions
It's almost unanimously accepted that World War II was a magnificent victory of free peoples over fascism, imperialism, and dictatorial regimes. But that victory came at a cost. By some counts, 62 million people perished in the war, and roughly 60 percent of the casualties were civilians. What's more, 80 percent of the war deaths occurred on the Allied side. That kind of friendly attrition may have been a necessary price to win "the good war", but few will seriously argue that suffering an unfavorable 8 to 2 attrition ratio is a "good" way to conduct armed conflict.
What's more, to discuss the contemporary security environment in the context of World War II is to compare apples and elephants. To start with, the global balance of military power has completely changed. Today, the United States spends as much on armed force as the rest of the world combined. Things were quite a bit different when Hitler unilaterally annexed the Sudetenland and conducted his blitzkrieg invasion of Czechoslovakia.
Then British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain has suffered much criticism over the decades for "appeasing" Hitler as Nazi Germany's aggressive tendencies emerged. But in truth, neither the British nor the French were in much of a position to deter or block Hitler militarily.
Britain and France were still recovering from the fiscal and human cost of World War I. Over the objections of Charles de Gaulle and others on the French general staff, the French had decided to forgo the expense of creating a mobile, air power supported force like the one Hitler was developing and opted instead to invest in the Maginot Line, a static, defensive system of steel and cement fortresses that spanned the trench warfare front of World War I. Britain, an island nation and a traditional sea power, did not have the kind of land forces necessary to deploy to the continent and fight a moving, offensive ground war on its own.
America, still mired in the great depression, was in no position to stop either Japanese or German aggression in the early stages. It's eventual decisive role in defeating the Axis Powers required a complete mobilization of industry and a comprehensive draft of able bodied citizens into military service. That took a considerable amount of time. Two and a half years of full time war production and elapsed between the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor (December 7, 1941) and the U.S. led D-Day invasion of Europe (June 6, 1944). Victor in Europe (VE Day) didn't occur until May of 1945, and Victory over Japan (VJ Day) came about in August of that year.
Much of the rationale behind today's standing, rapidly deployable, all volunteer force revolves around avoiding three key deficiencies in our World War II experience.
1) Maintain sufficient force to deter not only major conflict, but to economically deter other nations from developing the kinds of standing force required to defeat ours.
2) Maintain a high technology force that can defeat any other conventional force in "major combat" operations rapidly and decisively.
3) Maintain a force that can quickly redeploy from major combat operations, reconstitute, and be prepared to engage in other major conflicts overseas.
Thinking With the Wrong Head
World War II America may have brought itself out of an economic depression by putting itself on a wartime footing, but that's not a solution to today's fiscal conundrums. America has been on a wartime footing ever since, and the military industrial complex is no longer an economic engine. It's a gaping hole in our national purse. Pundits and scholars who argue otherwise do so under the motivation of six figure salaries and generous neoconservative think tank stipends.
So no, high casualty, high attrition wars won't make America stronger, or make us seem stronger in the eyes in the rest of the world.
A long-standing argument of many of our "war intellectuals" says that a willingness to sustain attrition illustrates our "resolve" to the rest of the world.
Pardon me if you've heard this before, but getting in a bar fight over a girl you just met shows "resolve." Waking up in jail the next morning with a black eye and two broken ribs shows how stupid you are.
One would like to think that the mightiest nation in human history would be wise enough to wield its power without needing barroom attrition to keep it from throwing its fists foolishly.
One would like to think that, anyway.
Commander Jeff Huber, U.S. Navy (Retired) writes from Virginia Beach, Virginia. Read his commentaries at ePluribus Media and Pen and Sword.