An Ethos of Casualty Sensitivity

By Mortensen, Daniel R. | Aerospace Power Journal, Summer 2000 | Go to article overview

An Ethos of Casualty Sensitivity


Mortensen, Daniel R., Aerospace Power Journal


A battle is lost less through the loss of men than by discouragement.

-Frederick the Great

ONE OF THE greatest battles of World War II, one occasionally considered a failure, is the escape of German army remnants through the Falaise gap in Normandy. The usual argument claims that Gen Bernard Montgomery, the British army commander, and Gen Omar Bradley, the American Army commander, failed to bring their forces together, closing the gap to trap the German army. Part of the German army escaped to prolong the war into 1945. When questioned later, Bradley claimed that he "preferred a solid shoulder at Argentan to the possibility of a broken neck at Falaise."1 Bradley believed that German forces were being ground to oblivion by air attack and artillery firing from the shoulders. Why chance a decimating struggle between his soldiers and German remnants in the Falaise gap desperately seeking to escape to their home country?

My reading of history suggests a counterview to the essence of Dr. Jeffrey Record's essay on "Force-Protection Fetishism" (this issue). Americans have a long-standing cultural characteristic-sensitivity to casualties-and, if not horrified during the heat of the moment, afterwards reflect with revulsion on the human costs of some terrible battles. One can see this in the aftermath of both the American Civil War and the western front in World War I. Coincidentally, one finds a consistent theme in American military history of employing technologyairpower particularly-in exchange for casualties, even when airpower itself precipitates heavy casualties, as it did in World War II. The decision to drop the atomic bomb at Hiroshima fits into this category. There is also a persistent theme of using artillery in place of deadly tactical infantry fighting along the fronts. During the war, the American Army was famous for its profligate employment of guns to "soften" the enemy, preparatory to infantry attack. In short, American casualty sensitivity long predates Vietnam.

Dr. Record is accurate on the point that the air war over Serbia projected dangerous suggestions of American paralysis about combat casualties. This issue needs serious attention if the United States is to be militarily effective in twenty first-century battles, and, indeed, much has already been written in the press and elsewhere on the subject (including the article by Maj Charles Hyde in this issue). But to consider this fear of casualties a recent fetish is more hype than reality. Take a further look at casualty sensitivity in World War II.

Max Hastings's study of the Normandy invasion, June-August 1944, captured another sense of America's traditional casualty aversion ethos: "The attitude of most Allied soldiers was much influenced by the belief, conscious or unconscious, that they possessed the means to dispense with anything resembling personal fanaticism on the battlefield: their huge weight of fire-power. . . . Artillery and air power accomplished much of the killing of Germans that had to be done sooner or later to make a breakthrough possible."2 Hastings argues persuasively that even in 1944 "an ethos, a mood pervades all armies at all times about what is and is not acceptable, what is expected."s Although it is true that the German army, its back to a Russian wall, had to fight with great verve, the Allies at that point were not fearful of losing the war. …

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