Saturday, September 17, 2016

100 Years Since the Battle of the Somme: Are we Wiser?

The Somme river flows gently across 152 miles of northern France, discharging into the English Channel south of Calais. But during the summer and fall of 1916, months before the U.S. entry into the war, the Western Front of World War I ran across its headwaters, and the Somme valley was not peaceful.

For 141 days more than two million men were thrown at each other with machine guns, bayonets, rifles, artillery, horses, wagons, poisonous gases, and--for the first time in history--tanks. For 141 days these men fought the bloodiest battle of World War I.

A million men were sacrificed and at the end the Western Front had moved a few miles. It seems barbarous.

How many men were responsible for these monstrous decisions? How did such evil come about? From this vantage point the slaughter seems incomprehensible and unnecessary.  Who would say it was right, and if we'd have to do it over again, we would?

I think not.
Western Front 1916
The heavy artillery barrage that opened the battle of the Somme on July 1, 1916 was less effective than expected. The British generals ordered their soldiers to march across open fields in broad daylight with rifles and bayonets, and they marched right into German machine gun fire. Fity-seven thousand young men lost their lives or were gravely wounded that day.

Since the Battle of the Somme our armaments have become ever more deadly and sophisticated. More sophisticated and deadly armaments, however, have not increased the death rates of war.

British Mark-1 tank at
the Battle of the Somme
The tank, an armed behemoth to protect men against rifle and machine gun fire, was a natural development flowing from the experiences of the American Civil war, trench warfare, and the internal combustion engine. Who wouldn't want to have some protection when marching into enemy fire? Winston Churchill was an early proponent of tanks and ordered several to be built during his tenure as First Lord of the Admiralty. Thirty-two of these tanks were used at the Battle of the Somme, but they proved unreliable and of marginal utility in battle.

By World War II the German Blitzkrieg utilized tanks to great effect. The Germans recognized the potential of highly mobile tanks connected through radio communication, accompanied by infantry, and protected by a superior air force that could dominate the skies.

By 1942 the German Blitzkrieg reached Stalingrad, their forces were overextended, their supply lines  vulnerable, and they were short on fuel. The Russians had learned from the early German successes in the war and, by 1940, they had started to manufacture their T-34 tank model, which proved to have superior firepower, good reliability, and superior armor.

By the end of World War II the United states dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Yes, the death toll of World War II, nearly 80 million, was horrendous. But these deaths did not result from the increased firepower of our weaponry. Thirty million died as a result of starvation and disease. Six million died in the Holocaust. But the Holocaust did not come from the air, or from tanks: it came up close and personal, by pistol, rifle, mass-shootings with machine guns in the woods, and mass extermination in camps.

Powerful artillery, and tanks, and bombs from planes caused relatively more property damage than they killed people. During the London Blitz 32,000 died; during the Dresden firebombing at the end of the war, historians now think, fewer than 25,000 died; at Hiroshima and Nagasaki the combined death toll was 225,000. These war casualties of advanced weaponry are horrendous figures by September 11, 2001 standards, but they are not the million dead at the Battle of the Somme.

Even as the potential for mayhem from our weaponry has increased exponentially, our danger may not have increased. We have gotten used to this new fire power. It was not always so. Think of the alarm we felt during the Cuban Missile Crisis, or during the height of the Beyond War movement. We used to teach school kids to "duck and cover" under their desks to get away from atomic bombs. But we have gotten used to living with atomic bombs. Today, we don't tremble at the thought of North Korea possessing them. Recently Netanyahu and his American supporters made a big deal about Iran possessing nuclear weapons. But I did not perceive Netanyahu as trembling at the thought; it was all tactical and about political advantage.

Today we have unmanned drones, cruise missiles that can be deployed with great accuracy, and supersonic fighter bombers with stealth technology that makes them invisible to radar. But the net result of this increased fire power and ever more sophisticated weaponry has been fewer war dead.

After six years of brutal war in Syria casualties are said to be 500,000. It is half the number the generals served up in 141 days on the Somme. We have nuclear arsenals sufficient to wipe out much of humanity, but so far it has made the generals and politicians more sober. Are we wiser than we were at the Battle of the Somme?

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