2014/06/27

The belief that "war works"

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Not long before his untimely death the historian Tony Judt observed that “For many American commentators and policymakers the message of the twentieth century is that war works.” Judt might have gone even further. Well beyond the circle of experts and insiders, many ordinary Americans at least tacitly share that view.

This reading of the twentieth century has had profound implications for U. S. policy in the twenty-first century. With the possible exception of Israel, the United States today is the only developed nation in which belief in war’s efficacy continues to enjoy widespread acceptance.

Others – the citizens of Great Britain and France, of Germany and Japan – took from the twentieth century a different lesson: War devastates. It impoverishes. It coarsens. Even when seemingly necessary or justified, it entails brutality, barbarism, and the killing of innocents. To choose war is to leap into the dark, entrusting the nation’s fate to forces beyond human control.

Americans persist in believing otherwise. That belief manifests itself in a number of ways, not least in a pronounced willingness to invest in, maintain, and employ military power.

I'm not sure I would group the British with the continentals on this, at least not their national level politicians.

Other than that I think this quote is fine. It offers an explanation for very much - military spending, foreign policy, tolerance of warmongers' commentary in the mass media and the general tone in public discourse about military and foreign affairs.

The lessons were already fading away in Europe, with the German governments applying a salami tactic towards a more militarised foreign policy (the Greens criticised this a lot, but once they were in power, they supported the Kosovo Air War participation, assuming fitness to govern would require being pro-war!).



S O
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34 comments:

  1. Of course the americans would subscribe to the naive belief that war works. They have never had their homeland blown to hell and back. They have never experienced their men being tortured or their women raped by invading armys. If they keep up the way their going, however, all thats going to change.

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    1. Kesler,

      Perhaps you might review your history and find that your statements are ill-informed and naive as the USA has suffered plenty of war devastation:
      - French and Indian war (granted this was as colonies)
      - War of independence (longstanding occupation by British troops of major cities like NY and Boston)
      - War of 1812 (the British burned Washington DC to the ground, including the White House)
      - Civil War, particular Sherman's march through the Shenandoah Valley, and the Balkanization of the Kansas territories.

      Nope, we Americans no nothing of war in our homeland...

      And before your start in on other European mythology about the USA, you might want to do some real research about the real nature of some of our more agreeable indigenous peoples who were cannibals (particularly found of babies freshly removed from the womb by knife) and loving of burning victims (other Indians, Mexicans, or US citizens) alive.

      I am not apologizing for the decimation of native peoples (the Spaniards brought the diseases that wrought the most damage), but North America has been a tough part of the world to live in for a long time.

      GAB

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    2. Nothing of this affects living memory, though.

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    3. The generation that fought/survived WWII is mostly gone too.

      Most Europeans are more divorced from war than peoples in the USA.

      The US civil War arguably only ended following the civil rights movement in the 60/70s. Few people believe that that the institution of slavery, which was intractably wrapped into the U.S. southern economy (which the U.S. inherited from Europeans) could have been stopped without war. Many Southerners (most of whom accept that slavery was wrong) are still are embittered by the way the war was prosecuted and the reconstruction efforts that followed afterwards.

      It is pretty highhanded for 21st century Europeans to stop back and proclaim that war is unjust, while they forget that European social order was established following thousands of years of conflict, and that European adventurism exacerbated many of the conflicts that are now taking place throughout the world. Indeed most of the conflicts in Africa and the Middle East stem from colonial European imperialism that created political divisions ignoring the indigenous people’s social and religious divisions.

      Worse, Europe is not a terribly stable place either as artillery duels rage in the Ukraine, the Balkans are far from a “done deal” either, and Turkey/Greece/Cypress are one miscalculation away from organized violence.

      GAB

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    4. GAB, you're on a hopeless position if you want to tell us that warfare has made as much impression on Americans as on Europeans.
      American 19th century tales are no more relevant to Americans than the 17th century 30 Years War is to Germans.
      To Americans WW2 is "the Golden generation", 1942-1969 is remembered as a golden age of achievements.
      To Europeans, the same period is a period of suffering from war, hardships and a tough recovery from war - and in case of the French and British the loss of empires.

      "It is pretty highhanded for 21st century Europeans to stop back and proclaim that war is unjust, while they forget that European social order was established following thousands of years of conflict (...)"

      Not at all. There' no logical conflict in here. We have learnt.

      "Worse, Europe is not a terribly stable place either "
      = off-topic.

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    5. Anonymous. In none of these wars was the US suddenly invaded by a foreign army. (You might claim that happened during the war of 1812, but remember, that conflict was started by americans) Nor did they have their citys decimated by indiscriminate air attacks.

      Experiencing these traumatic events 1st hand leaves an imprint on a nations collective memory that is hard to erase. Two world wars brought about a 180 degree face heel turn for germany, who used to be the worlds favorite bad guy.

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    6. "Two world wars brought about a 180 degree face heel turn for germany, who used to be the worlds favorite bad guy."

      Nonsense. that's the British propaganda version of world history.
      Germany hadn't waged a single war in Europe during 1872-1913, four decades of peace. It had half a dozen expeditionary/colonial wars, while the British had many times as many during the same period.
      The last time 'bad boy' behaviour in Europe originated from Germany prior to 1914 (and then it was really the Habsburgians) was in 1740-1742.

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    7. "GAB, you're on a hopeless position if you want to tell us that warfare has made as much impression on Americans as on Europeans."

      xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

      Obviously!

      My point, is that it is a European myth to attribute the difference of perspective to Americans lack of historical experience with war in North America.

      Perhaps, the difference stems from observing Europeans slaughter one another.

      Perhaps it stems from the fact that when the U.S. tried to use soft power (oil embargo) against Japan we got bombed, and after declaring war on Japan, Germany declared war on us? Limits to soft power indeed!

      But I do find it hysterical that you cite Andrew Bacevich (whom I agree with on many issues) as though he is an arbitrar of U.S. public opinion. Perhaps you should spend more time looking at Gallup, Pew, ABC, and other polling institutions. The American people are *not* agitating for intervention in Iraq, Syria, the Ukraine, or any where else for that matter.

      GAB

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    8. Kessler: “Anonymous. In none of these wars was the US suddenly invaded by a foreign army. (You might claim that happened during the war of 1812, but remember, that conflict was started by americans) …”

      xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

      A most cursory historical analysis will show that you are wrong about the War of 1812, and particularly wrong about the 500+ Indian nations that were already in North America – you prove my point!

      The War of 1812 was *not* started by AMERICANS; it was in fact a continuation of the American War of Independence and ultimately settled many outstanding grievances between England and the USA. It took place almost exclusively in the USA, U.S. territorial waters, and in modern Canada.

      You might also take note that it involved more than England and the United States and in fact, included the: Miami, Winnebago, Shawnee, Fox, Sauk, Kickapoo, Delaware, and Wyandot nations (the indigenous Indian peoples). For the indigenous peoples, this was a continuation of the French and Indian war and it lasted almost into the 20th century.

      Other factors in the War of 1812 (from the U.S. perspective):
      - British impressments (kidnapping and forcing U.S. citizens to serve in the British military)
      - British Orders in Council, which authorized the seizure (theft) of U.S. cargo at sea (Britain was the worse transgressor, but all European powers embroiled in the Napoleonic wars were culpable)
      - Chesapeake–Leopard Affair

      Also curiously it is another example where the U.S. attempted to use soft power (Embargo Act of 1807) to force England (and to a lesser extent France) to stop seizing U.S. cargo, and impressing its citizens. It failed…

      GAB

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    9. This blog isn't about the moment, day, week, month or year - not even necessarily about the decade either.
      The quote has some truth in it, in my opinion since 1989. Short term fluctuations in polls aren't that interesting by comparison.

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    10. Sven, it doesn't matter whether the myth of germany as a bad guy is true or not: Its simply the official view held by the public which has withstood the test of time. The arguments put forward by one guy on his blog aren't going to make a dent in that narrative: 20th century germany was seen as the aggressor, and thats all there is to it.

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    11. This blog isn't about toleration of myths, though.

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    12. SO,

      Since you are quoting Bacevich, you might want to take note of his commentary on NATO (and a U.S. departure):
      http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2010/02/22/let_europe_be_europe

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  2. "And before your start in on other European mythology about the USA"
    This, as you ramble on about US mythology about the USA, come on...
    Well, at least, you sparred this blog's readership the joy of the US mythologies about Europe - best reserved for the typical US "red meat" online circlejerk(s), anyway. Thanks you, kind sir.

    "but North America has been a tough part of the world to live in for a long time."
    Not any much, and probably any less, I'll grant you that, that any other place on earth, sorry to burst your bubble. And this contrary to the absurd sense of exceptionalism that seems to be at the very core of a particular type of "americana". Ridicule.

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  3. "but North America has been a tough part of the world to live in for a long time. GAB"

    Going back at it, because it's just so absurd it pisses me off. In that very same timeframe, I'm not sure you realize how (comparatively) easy you had it... Ireland? France? Germany?? Interwars East Europe?
    Hell, why not Russia, China or India???

    Citing the *normal* course of human History, and a pretty mild one to boot, with the exception of a bloody civil war, to tell how tough you had it? What about some kind of perspective?

    "If they keep up the way their going, however, all thats going to change."
    That's absolutely, totally, utterly unlikely, ICBM aside - and even then, geography and arsenals clearly favor CONUS. So, no, IMHO, the USA are as safe as ever, the only marginal threats coming from internal scissions. The one "risk" that will likely materialize may/will be a loss of "power", going down from the top dog to one among several. IE an ego threat, nothing more.

    Still, it's darkly amusing to note how afraid (no other word) that same strain of "americana" is... scaring itself with rumors of Chinese hordes secretly massing in Mexico (since the 50's), constantly riled up against the ennemi du jour, fear, fear, fear... After 9/11, small wonder they had to project that fear on the French, it probably was not as much bigotry, than a survival mechanism.

    Amazing how a country that is so far removed from having to deal with war on its soil, unless a self-inflicted mess, is still so anxious and obsessive about having that safe bubble breached in.
    Just browsing through my favorite gun nuts/RWNJ boards, there *always* is a thread of some kind about the USA under assault (or already invaded, with them Patriots! climbing up a tree and sniping at the blue helmets/Chineses/Russians/... mongrels).

    Maybe it has to do with the historical myths and founding narratives, but, still, to me it's absolutely quaint... So secure, so isolated, so favored by geography that talking about exceptionalism is quite apt here... and yet, so afraid.

    Sorry for the rant.

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    1. about fears:
      http://defense-and-freedom.blogspot.de/2009/12/comment-reply-and-discussion-culture.html

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    2. Kevin "What about some kind of perspective?"

      xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

      Your response to my rebuttal has been not one, but two (!) long winded rants that claimed things that I did not say and your perspective seems to stem from jealous envy coupled with a few delusions as well.

      My point remains that warfare in North America has been a constant since the inception of the U.S. through the Mexican Revolution (and its direct effects on the USA.

      You might want to take a closer look at the implosion going on in Mexico today (a nation of 118 million people and almost 2 million km^2) before you lecture about fear.

      GAB

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    3. Yeah, two long-winded rants (and admittedly so, as you'll note), in response to a breath-taking display of... lack of self-awareness I'd say?
      As for your online persona, well, "jealous envy", "delusions", nice, pretty much on par with the "European mythology", and very telling.
      GAB, please, stay right as you are, you are just too fine a specimen.

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    4. "about fears:
      http://defense-and-freedom.blogspot.de/2009/12/comment-reply-and-discussion-culture.html"

      Oh, well, and I thought I had some original insight. That'll teach me not to go through the archives more thouroughly - already failed that test with the "appeasement" video.
      In any case, my apologies, this blog deserves better, in the guise of more (rational) comments in its "core" entries, and less (emotional) comments in "warning : some internet butt-hurt may occur" ones.
      Sorry for the waste of bandwith, then.

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    5. Everyone clam down here, now.

      Both GAB and I are somewhat stereotypical here.
      I am the stereotypical anti-war German, and GAB is the stereotypical 'you attacked my tribe, now I counterattack and distract from your point' responder.


      Because the point was the idea that there's a cultural belief that 'war works' - temporarily weakened or suspended by disappointment or not.
      This is an alternative explanation to "GWB was stupid", "Dick was evil", "all about oil", "military-industrial complex" and what else floats around as proposed explanations for displayed patterns of behaviour.

      I think it's plausible that the idea that "war works" persists in the elites and press, and that this is both a huge enabler and a huge driver for the aggressiveness. The United States are not alone, of course. Russia and Israel appear to share this belief, and they also had (short) periods of disappointment.

      The difference is in most of the EU there's little faith in the idea that "war works", and instead an ingrained commemoration of war is about its decimating and devastating effects, with the WW2 generation remembered as a lost generation, not as a golden one.

      BTW, nothing new for this blog either: I amended the blog post with a link from 2007.

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  4. Objectively, geography means the United States is in a tremendously advantageous position: vast tracts of arable land, enormous natural resource wealth, access to two of the world's largest oceans, natural defense from all major powers at the time of it's founding, not to mention a tremendous diversity of natural beauty (okay, I'm biased).

    That being said, I think that "fear" in both personal and national forms, isn't based on objective measure. I don't worry about where my next meal is coming from, which puts me in a better position than a great number of people on this globe, but I still worry. Likewise, America as a whole doesn't worry about major threats, but it still worries.

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  5. "Others – the citizens of Great Britain and France, of Germany and Japan – took from the twentieth century a different lesson..."

    Scratch Japan from the list...

    http://online.wsj.com/articles/japan-policy-shift-to-ease-restrictions-on-military-1404211813?tesla=y

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    1. I won't. Japan has understood just as Germany and Italy that not military prowess (or territorial expansion, bases, "influence"), but industrial activity produce prosperity.

      They have kept a certain nationalism and react to the PRC's growing military capacities, but the lesson appears to remain intact.

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    2. A bold statement considering the structural changes going on in Japan.

      Just curious, how much time have you spent in Japan?

      GAB

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  6. BAG_

    The Wars on American soil were Army on Army. Never has the general American populace faced the incomprehensible devastation that was suffered by Europe in WWII, for example. I suggest you read a bit of history about the land of my maternal family, Belorus. 25% of the population died in WWII. Or the numerous cities that were reduced to rubble.

    America's largest scale "domestic war", the Civil war, resulted in about 700,000 soldier deaths and 50,000 civilian deaths. That's about 2% of the country's population, or less that 1/10th of Belorus' fatalities.

    As to the geographical comparison, I suggest you look at a map of US Civil War Battles and compare it to the virtual universal coverage of Europe and western Russia by maneuver force battles. Just the Siege of Leningrad, alone, exceeds the casualties of the US Civil War.

    Sorry, BAG, but war has really been, for Americans, a spectator sport, as it has never been rained upon the general population. You may think that America is bigger and better in every way, but in suffering the ravages of war on home turf, the US is a novice.

    Aviator47
    Colonel, US Army (Ret)

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    1. I suppose the absolute and relative effects are not as important as the fact that the elites in the Northeast weren't the ons suffering from the ACW very much. And they were afaik the ones who dominated the country in the late 19th century, which led to a great power navy and ultimately the entirely unnecessary entry into the First World War.

      And this persists; with elites spared from the effects of war, aggressive use of force remains an important method of foreign policy. They only need to wait till the disaffections from the last wars have waned among the general citizenry.

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    2. SO: "And they were afaik the ones who dominated the country in the late 19th century, which led to a great power navy and ultimately the entirely unnecessary entry into the First World War."

      zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz

      Which much describes the extraordinarily unnecessary German naval build up which provoked the English into siding with the Belgians, French and Russians!

      GAB

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  7. S.O.:And this persists; with elites spared from the effects of war, aggressive use of force remains an important method of foreign policy.

    If it were just the elites being spared, that would be one story. With the US waging wars on credit, and only those who choose to do so doing the actual trips into harm's way, 90+% of the population is being spared. Thus, who in America really cares about whom the US is blowing up?

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  8. Aviator: "The Wars on American soil were Army on Army."

    zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz

    And WWI and WWII were not army on army?

    Your arguments miss my point: stereotypes and mythic interpretations of history fail to explain the difference between current U.S. and European attitudes toward conflict.

    The author of this post has not clearly supported his arguments with facts like public opinion polls that compare American and EU attitudes toward intervention - I will strongly suggest that people make cost benefit calculations that affects their opinion on intervention. Worse, the assessment of historical impact of conflict on government and social institutions is off base for reasons I addressed earlier.

    Example: The founding fathers of the USA all suffered first hand effects from two devastating conflicts (really three if we add the War of 1812) when they decided most of the fundamental issues of the republic. George Washington was captured by the Delaware Indians during the French and Indian War and faced the traditional fate of being slowly burned to death before Tecumseh decided to free him. It is hard to say that examples like this did not affect a host of issues in the U.S. Constitution and legal opinion regarding war, military forces, Posse Comitatus, and so forth.

    Example: U.S. public opinion was overwhelming isolationist and anti-war following WWI, even though that conflict was fought far away from American shores. This is absolutely contrary to the explanations provided in this post.

    As to North American history, sorry colonel, you need to go back and read about Sherman's March, the French and Indian Wars, The burning of Washington DC et al, and particularly the ongoing wars with Native Americans.

    GAB

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    1. "The author of this post has not clearly supported his arguments with facts (...)"

      You might want to re-read the blog post and see what little was actually written in it. There's not really an argument, just a pointer at one way of look at things.

      "And WWI and WWII were not army on army?"

      I can assure you, there were no nigh bomber raids with firestorms in all Union cities during the ACW. What he pointed out isn't that WW2 "wasn't" army on army; he pointed out that WW2 "wasn't merely" army on army.
      And again, the people who drove the march into interventionism were not the ones who suffered from Sherman's rampage, the burning of Washington in 1812 and they're not the Founding Fathers. Nor are those who drove or supported interventionism during or after the Cold War part of those groups.
      You're mixing people up, mix period up and thus your output looks confused. In fact, your comments here look like a stereotypical response to foreign criticism of the own tribe.

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    2. “There's not really an argument, just a pointer at one way of look at things.”

      +++++++++++++

      It reads more like an endorsement without any supporting analysis…

      GAB

      Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz

      SO “I can assure you, there were no nigh bomber raids with firestorms in all Union cities during the ACW. What he pointed out isn't that WW2 "wasn't" army on army; he pointed out that WW2 "wasn't merely" army on army.

      +++++++++++++++++++++++++++

      Obviously, but the point is that the U.S. Civil War was very much a total war that devastated the South (aka half of the USA) as well as the Kansas territories. And the nonsense about “army on army” is just that: nonsense. Research “bleeding Kansas,” the Lawrence Massacre et all. Plenty of inhumanity by militias and other actors was in play.

      GAB

      zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz

      “In fact, your comments here look like a stereotypical response to foreign criticism of the own tribe.”

      ++++++++++++++++++++++++

      Given this is a European defense blog, your lack of attention to the Ukraine is likewise stereotypical of the Europeans ignoring the naked aggression occurring in *Europe* and deflecting the focus elsewhere.

      As Bacevich noted, it is time for the USA to depart the EU and NATO. Neither group agrees upon the future (apart from not fighting each other), and there is no reason for either side to waste more breath trying to argue. A friendly divorce is in order.

      GAB

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    3. Again, you fail to address the scale of devastation, BAG. While the "March to the Sea" and the burning of Washington were major events in continental American terms, they pale in proportionality to the suffering of civilians and infrastructure that ravaged Europe during WWII. Warsaw ceased to exist. Hamburg and Dresden were devastated. The city of Leningrad suffered more civilian casualties than the Union and Confederate Armies combined. The Piskarevskoye Memorial Cemetery alone has 186 mass graves for some 420,000 of Leningrad's civilian dead from the seige. What is there of comparison in the US?

      War hasn't been a "home game" for the US since the Civil War, which nowhere approached the devastation of WWII.

      Yes, the White Man devastated the Native Americans. The same white men who descendants find war to be a spectator sport. But what devastation did that bring on the vast majority of the "White" population?

      Sorry, BAG, but I have walked many of these battlefields. Many of the scars still remain.

      It's a matter of scale, BAG, and the scale of devastation in Europe during WWII pretty much defies comprehension. Most of the European population suffered the ravages of WWII first hand for an extended period. Compare that with the population of Oahu that suffered through one day of an attack on US soil, and primarily on strictly military targets.

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    4. "for the USA to depart the EU"
      Sounds wrong-ish.

      About Ukraine; I wrote about it, but I'm not focused on recent events, and the Ukraine is a complicated case best looked at ex post anyway.

      By the way; it's ridiculous how much people from the U.S. talk/write about their civil war. Most Germans barely have any knowledge about the First World War, that's how much the 2nd edition as overshadowing it - and Americans cannot shut up about their civil war as if it happened only a generation ago.
      That's as if the French still talked non-stop about the Franco-German War.
      And about the scale of destruction: Atlanta was "burned". Well, public buildings and a couple others were burned.
      In Germany hardly any city was destroyed less than 80% by mid-1945.
      Atlanta had abut 10k inhabitants during the ACW, Caen was destroyed in 1944 and had 60k. Ever heard of Caen as a major disaster in French history? No? That's because it was swallowed by the size of WW2.

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  9. GAB -
    You offered Kansas and the Lawrence Massacre as examples of "Total War". The Lawrence Massacre you cite resulted in some 200 dead. The total civilian dead in the US Civil War was some 50,000, about 0.14% of the population. The cities of Hamburg and Dresden suffered more than twice that number of civilian casualties in the fire bombing raids the Allies conducted, not to mention the obliteration of over 90% of all structures.

    Here's a few stats on WWII for civilian deaths only. Belorus lost 18.5% of its civilian population. Polish civilian deaths were 5 million, or 14.7% of the population. Ukraine, 12.6% of the civilian population. Latvia, 10% of the civilian population. Romania, 7% of the civilian population. Soviet Union, 6% of the civilian population. Even Norway, which did not see major battles suffered a higher civilian death rate than the US Civil War, at 0.22% of the population dead due to military activity. For simplicity’s sake, I won’t even address the Asian Theaters.

    BTW, these figures do not included the 10s of millions more who died of war caused disease and famine. Nor do these figures include the massive levels of such deaths in the period from 1945 to 1948 arising from a punitive occupation. And of course, these figures also do not address history's greatest level of "ethnic cleansing" that the Allies promoted and/or allowed in the post War period.

    While the Civil War was America’s costliest in lives, it was overwhelmingly military lives, not civilian lives. In continental US battlefield terms, it may be the closest to “Total War” the country experienced, but attempting to elevate that “Totality” to what was suffered in Europe during and after WWII? Please!

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