The Changing Yardsticks of War

Before we begin, allow me to share a little perspective about writing in general and essays in particular.  First Rule:  It’s really easy to become addicted to writing about fun stuff that everyone agrees upon.  Second Rule:  If you subscribe to the First Rule for very long, your writing soon becomes pointless mush.

My son, Cameron cautioned me last week about an essay I was writing (the one below) saying that I will probably lose a reader or two or ten because of the nature of the essay.  Last week I blinked and wrote a fun article chronicling a heaping handful of the stupid things I’ve done in my life.  For the record, that was a pretty easy essay to write.  In the course of mounting decades, we all do dumb things.  That doesn’t scare me a bit.  Some of the dumbness I’m even proud of.  However…

soldiers army men tanks battlefield aaaa helmets

The minefield of paragraphs below was not a whole lot of  fun to write, nor will it be a particularly fun read.   It is, however, important. And to steal a lyric from an old song by Rick Nelson,  “You can’t please everyone so you gotta please yourself.”  I’m writing this because I think it’s important, with the full realization that I may very well piss-off the entire readership in a single shot.  The subject is War…and the Yardsticks of War.  Yardsticks don’t remain the same by the way.  They morph.  Sometimes for the good.  Sometimes for the bad.

Amnesia:  Here is a fact:  Pick any country on this smoky blue orb we’re standing upon and look at the wars each country has spawned, the people they’ve killed and…the weaponry they’ve used.  Every single war has been a war of atrocities.  Strangely, however, every country develops a convenient amnesia as to their exact degree of culpability.  There’s a “joke” that went around a while back:  Kill a man, or a handful of men and you’re a murderer.  Kill  two or three million men, and you very well might become a president or a general, or at the very least, an interesting figure in history.  Think about that.  Let’s refresh our memories just a bit, painful as that may be:

Crusades:  A conservative estimate puts it at more than 9 million people.  Keep in mind that this was approx. 1100-1300  A.D. when the population of the planet was much smaller.  In today’s terms percentage-wise, it would probably equate to more than 60 million.

During the civil war in China, close to 40 million people were killed.

Russian Revolution:  Over 20 million killed or murdered.

WWI:  Over  8 million lives lost.

WWII: a total of approximately 66 million people died of which 6 million were Jews who were hoarded like cattle into pens and fields and then executed with such stark efficiency that the efficiency itself seems to be the most revolting of all to humanity.

Are our hands clean?   Way, way down in your guts, I believe you already know the answer to this question.

Between Nagasaki and Hiroshima, we killed close to 200,000 people, mostly civilians, and achieved the dubious “honor” of being the only country to nuke another country.   The myth, up until recently was that it was necessary to do this to convince Emperor Hirohito to bring the war to an end.  With a bit of digging and sleuthing, it was discovered that it wasn’t Hirohito we wanted to “impress” but Joseph Stalin.  Which ever side of the argument you choose to stick with, it is (and I’m using profound understatement) arguable whether impressing Joe Stalin was a viable reason for killing 200,000 civilians.

Operation Meeting House:   In a single B-29 bombing raid over Tokyo, America killed over 100,000 people using over three hundred bombers…mostly firebombing though sometimes it’s a moot point exactly how you are killed.

The Civil War:  At Antietam we killed over 23,ooo of our own…of us, our brothers and sisters, neighbors and fellow Americans.   We killed over 60,000 of our own at Gettysburg.  Americans killing Americans.  The camera lens wasn’t capable of showing ALL the luminarias representing those who died at Gettysburg.  What you see below is a small portion.

How We Became America:  And then there’s that really uncomfortable and difficult-to-argue fact that when we came to America close to 500 years ago, it wasn’t really our country was it?  We kind of elbowed our way in and then we began spreading our toes and moving westward.  Put in perspective, if another country attempted to do that to us now, what do you think would happen?

The Ugliest Fact:  There’s one more horrible little fact of humanity in general that is perhaps the worst of all.  Through the vehicle of nationalism, every country appears to be incapable of fathoming this simple misconception:   If another country does something to us, they are monsters.  If we do something to another country, it’s just good strategy and good leadership.  The hardest thing to swallow is that this is true of every country…every single one, not every single one except America.

aaa napalmFact:  America refined the delivery systems for napalm to a fine art:  Napalm, by the way, is essentially jellied gasoline.  Get a bit on you and if you try to wipe it off, you spread it.  In Vietnam we elevated the use of napalm to such a fine art (dropping it from B-52s cruising at 30,000 feet)  that the people below never heard it coming.  Suddenly square miles were carpeted with fire.   Did you know, however, that in 1980 the UN Convention outlawed the use of napalm?  Every country signed the ban except one.  You don’t have to speculate for very long to figure out which one didn’t.

Once again, when we do it,  it’s necessary.  If a country were to drop napalm on any town or city in America, we would be well within our rights to retaliate with every weapon at our disposal.  It is a hideous and horrible and utterly unacceptable thing to even conceive of.  Yes?   Can we agree on that?   When any country does this it is equally hideous, equally horrible and equally unacceptable.  That, is where we as humans, lose our perspective.  In war, whatever we do is AOK.  Whatever they do…is not.

Is it possible to end this dark examination on a high point?  Yes.  Maybe…

aaa obamaThis week the focus is on drones, a topic with which I am highly familiar.  I have several small drones which I fly often.  I have written a number of articles on their many advantages…as well as the huge number of threats they pose to life in ANY country.  They are here, spreading fast and they’re not going away.

I have an acquaintance who is a drone operator, meaning he sits in a cubicle and operates a drone remotely…very, very remotely a half a world away.   If you look on the cover of about every magazine this week, you will see President Obama with a huge frown on his face addressing and apologizing for the fact that two innocents were killed during the most recent drone strike.

Candidly, this is not a rarity.  It is the norm.  Do we report each one?  We do not, nor will we ever.  In every war that has ever been fought, truth is the first casualty.    The good thing is we have the president of our country, whether you love him or hate his guts, standing up, acknowledging and taking responsibility for a mistake that was made.   If you were to overlay this single act done by our president over any other period in history, the players back then would only scratch their heads, not understanding.  War is insanity that has been sanctioned.   At least we are trying to keep the numbers down.  In anyone’s world of math, a drop of two million or even two hundred thousand…to two is an improvement.

DronesA Serious Caveat about Drones:   Beware.  We are using them with relative precision.  Used by us, drones appear like a gallant attempt at using surgical precision.  The countries receiving our drone fire would not agree about our gallantry.  The problem in the very near future is this:  A drone doesn’t have to cost 8 million dollars and require a squadron to handle.  Ten drones can be packed in the trunk of a Toyota Corolla and launched…by anyone and fly into any town or city, singly or in groups.  We are, at this moment in time, without any form of localized defense.

gyrocopter2This week alone, a gyrocopter made it all the way to the innermost real estate surrounding the White House.  Fortunately, it did not contain a Sarin gas or a suitcase- nuclear warhead. It easily could have.  Easily.  We’ve been lucky.  When you use a weapon, don’t be naive.  It can be and will be used against us…anywhere and at any time.  At some point, I hope the viability of war itself comes into question.  There are no noble wars.  There never were.

For What it’s Worth, and for those who don’t know me, I was a captain in the United States Air Force.  I enlisted during the Vietnam War and flew jets, and was an LES (launch enable officer) for the Titan II missiles.  My dad was an officer in the United States Navy.  He was also a well-known author and the writer of  Air War: Vietnam a best seller chronicling the specifics of that war.

Am I a loyal American?  Damn right I am…to the death,   And yet, like many many, many, many of my fellow soldiers, sailors and airmen, ones who actually served, I don’t glorify war.  In all good conscience, I can’t.  Look around you and you will see that few veterans do so.  What we did and what we do is sometimes necessary and once chosen, we must follow orders.  But we are also human beings.  War is no longer a viable alternative.  The world got way too small.

In WWI, WWII, Korea and Vietnam, America still had vast oceans to protect us.  With technology those oceans shrank and the enemies changed.  It’s not only arrogant to think any country is safe, it’s potentially lethal.  We didn’t win the war in Vietnam.  No country that attacked Vietnam has won.  The Soviets got their asses kicked in Afghanistan.  So did we.   I don’t believe one actually wins wars in the Middle East.  You just pay for them and suffer the consequences.  We didn’t learn from history so we repeated it and we continue even now to do so, making the same mistakes over and over, thinking the results will change. That’s the true definition of insanity.

military shotiHenry


26 Responses to "The Changing Yardsticks of War"

  1. Hello!
    Really liked your latest blog! You took a thorny topic and hit it in a really fair and balanced way. If it was hard to write like you said, it sure didn’t come across that way- very smooth.


  2. Henry Harvey says:

    Glad you liked it and yeah, it really was hard to write. What to put in…what to leave out, and trying to be objective about a third-rail topic.
    Thanks for the comments.


  3. James Renner says:

    Santayana said, “Those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” If you look at the wars you mentioned: WWI, WWII, Vietnam, The Afghan War, as well as the huge civil wars of China and the Soviet Union, you can see through the lens of history that none of them bore much fruit other than death and destruction. Barbara Tuchman, two times Pulitzer prize winner, novelist and historian predicted with extreme precision what would happen if we entered Vietnam. The information was there. No one listened.
    James R.

  4. Gavin Darby says:


    Gavin D.

  5. Joee H. says:

    Thank you!


  6. Lynn Walker says:

    Does anyone remember the old Crosby, Stills and Nash song,”Teach Your Children Well”? We go to war like clockwork. Having lived through the miserable Vietnam War years, which was proved to be a sham, Bush and Cheney trumped up a war in the Middle East, which 1) was based on nothing and 2) appears to have no end in sight.
    Obviously, they also had amnesia…
    maybe due to Cheney’s five deferments. A perfect example of two power hungry chicken hawks.
    BTW, the other poignant line in CSN’s song is, “Teach your parents well”.

    Lynn W

    • Henry Harvey says:

      Well… You’re preachin’ to the choir here, but you also raise an interesting question. How differently would the world have turned out, and specifically would we have gotten enmeshed in the Middle East if young Dick Cheney had actually been drafted into the military.

      I know for a fact that my perceptions changed when I joined and then spent time living the life of a military person. I would slide a million bucks on the table to gamble that things would have been better. This is one of the scariest people (Americans) I’ve ever seen.

      Also….had Cheney spent even a little time in basic training, he probably wouldn’t have shot his buddy on a quail shoot.

  7. Bruce Huff says:

    #39 In 1971 Draft – So I enlisted.
    USN Submarine Service
    Why? Not getting shot at or shooting others.
    My dad was a career Air Force flight engineer.
    War, was all I knew and that had to change.
    Currently at 62, I attend anti-war rallies, protest environmental abuses, and write letters to the editor occasionally. Also a member of the Waco Friends of Peace.
    War is disgusting.
    War is ugly.
    War is not necessary.

    Cheers Henry. You didn’t lose me as a reader.

  8. Henry Harvey says:

    Thank you..!
    At some point, the absurdity of bombing as a solution to anything should become clear. If your cynicism isn’t skewered to 100% yet, look closely at the Middle East over the past 50 years and discover that through every war that’s been fought, the oil continued to pump and money continued to change hands.

  9. Frank Gerome says:

    F. Gerome

  10. Henry Harvey says:

    Thank you for reading, Frank!

  11. Henry Harvey says:

    Henry, liked your essay. If readers can’t take your argument that there may be times when what Americans do in warfare might just be hideous, well, FT. Your 20 million lost in the Russian revolution might be on the low side, because Uncle Joe kept things going for the better part of 40 years, and didn’t believe in governmental transparency. BTW, maybe a minor typo in WWII … shouldn’t hoarded be herded?

  12. Henry Harvey says:

    You’re probably right on the numbers lost in the Russian revolution. In the fact-checking I did there was a range or numbers. I took the conservative route. Thanks for the typo-find. No matter how many times you edit something there’s always something. Yesterday on NPR they interviewed an editor and…after it had been final edited, someone found three errors in a four word sentence. That’s hard to do.

  13. Henry Harvey says:

    My fear is that pirated Amazon Drone deliveries at Christmastime will end the world. Not kidding.
    LOVES to you both.

  14. Henry Harvey says:

    Bravo. My fear is that pirated Amazon Drone deliveries at Christmastime will end the world. Not kidding.
    LOVES to you both.

  15. Henry Harvey says:

    Having used drones for a couple of years now, not even Amazon is ready to seriously send out multi-thousand dollar drones to deliver orange marmalade or old copies of Great Expectations. The logistics really really stink right now. One microwave burst from a tower or even someone keying up their cellphone can cause a crash.
    But…..Have you seen Ex Machina yet?

  16. Henry Harvey says:

    For quite some time, I’ve read – and enjoyed – your essays, with the majority evoking thought and conversation.
    However, especially in light of your preface, I feel compelled to let you know how much I appreciated and respected today’s commentary on war. So glad you didn’t “blink” – and opted to publish this astute, poignant and well written essay.

    Thank you!


  17. Henry Harvey says:

    Thank you, Laura!
    I know that one of these days I’ll zig when it might have been wiser to “zag” but that’s part of the deal.
    You really made my day with your email.

  18. Henry Harvey says:

    Excellent! I read it twice.
    Bob M.

  19. Henry Harvey says:

    Thanks Bob.

    If you peer behind the curtain, you’d see that you write something like this…not once or twice but dozens, trying to get it right. Thanks for your read.

  20. Henry Harvey says:

    You didn’t lose this reader/follower my friend. Though I worked for the Navy for 37 years as an aerospace engineer plus in the DOD, I have the very same opinions as you expressed. Those who don’t agree with you, only want to rationalize their unfounded beliefs. The best generals and admirals will till you that to avoid war is a better option that the justifiable destruction of other humans. But, the slaughter of ISIS atrocious terrorists makes the decision easy. Those who really want war probably never fought anything other than traffic jams on the expressway.

    I worked for the Navy. I worked closely with all levels in the military for my whole career, including multiple assignments aboard carriers and cruisers. Am I American and proud of it….you bet! No question.

    You listed many awesome numbers of casualties of wars and crusades. The only reason for war is real estate or religion or both. Malthus claimed in the 1700’s that population would exceed food supplies. He was partly right. Wars, famine and disease reduces population but never enough…..fact, not a wish. The population is now growing at an asymptotic rate. There are more people on earth today than the sum total before this since man walked upright. Do the math.

    Your blog was good. If you believe it, say it. I’ll still read you.

    • Henry Harvey says:

      Hey Phil,
      Thanks for your very thoughtful comments. Yes, real estate, and religion are the main causes of war. And I’d lump in our old buddy, the dollar sign with them. I get it with the real estate and I get it with the money. To launch a war to kill men, women and children whose only “crime” is to have been born on a piece of geography that didn’t happen to have your brand of religion seems obscene. Think for a moment. If you had been born in Iraq or Iran, what God do you think you’d be praying to? And vice versa. Transport an infant from the Middle East to the Midwest and guess who they’d be praying to.
      We humans have a long long way to go.

  21. Jonathan says:

    i feel a little silly saying this, but I fucking love you. And I don’t
    even know you.
    It’s like you take what I know and feel to be right and true (and funny!)
    and common sense and share it with the world. God bless you.

  22. Henry Harvey says:

    Jonathan, I accept your marriage proposal. Pam’s a bit miffed after the 47 years and everything but…she’ll adapt. Seriously….thanks.
    I got an overwhelming number of responses to this one and have posted a good handful. Part of me thinks I should retire this very second as a WINNER! And yet, like a moth to a flame, I continue to stick my neck out. Working on next week’s. It’s a ball buster.

  23. Rick says:

    Hi Henry,

    I understand your desire to provide some rational commentary on humanity’s predilection for warfare, especially given the hard and soft conflicts currently underway and their potential for escalation. It’s sad that six million years or so of evolution hasn’t taken us beyond brute instinct – it’s merely refined the technologies we use to enact it’s outcomes. Mr. Hemingway had his issues, but he nailed it when he wrote: “They wrote in the old days that it is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country. But in modern war, there is nothing sweet nor fitting in your dying. You will die like a dog for no good reason.” How many more million years before we’re truly civilized – and will we last that long?

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