Latest update: April 29th, 2013
The fact that the casualty toll from the first days of the Gaza fighting was three Israelis and 30 Arabs “underscores what critics of Israeli policy called Israel’s disproportionate use of military force,” The New York Times reported on Nov. 17.
If the body count determines whether an army’s actions are justified, then the historical record contains more than a few surprises.
In early 1916, Pancho Villa’s revolutionaries murdered 16 Americans in northern Mexico, and then 18 more in a cross-border raid into New Mexico. President Woodrow Wilson responded by sending American troops, led by Major-General John Pershing, after Villa. In a series of battles between March and June, the Americans lost 15 men, while Villa’s forces suffered about 200 dead.
Did anybody accuse Pershing of using too much force?
Fast forward 25 years. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, left 2,330 Americans dead. The United States responded not with a raid of similar size, but a full-scale war against the Japanese throughout the Pacific, culminating in the dropping of atomic bombs on the Japanese mainland. By the time the war was over, Japan had lost an estimated one million soldiers and two million civilians, including the approximately 200,000 civilians killed in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Was America’s response disproportionate?
President Harry Truman didn’t think so. Here’s what he said about using a nuclear weapon: “We have used it against those who attacked us without warning at Pearl Harbor, against those who have starved and beaten and executed American prisoners of war, against those who have abandoned all pretense of obeying international laws of warfare. We have used it in order to shorten the agony of war, in order to save the lives of thousands and thousands of young Americans.”
The German blitzkrieg rained terror on London and other British cities every night for eight straight months from September 1940 to May 1941. About 40,000 British civilians were killed in those German bombings.
But in just three nights, the Allied bombing of the German city of Dresden claimed an estimated 20,000 lives. Other Allied bombings of Germany brought the civilian death toll there to far more than what the British had suffered.
The chief marshal of the British air force, Arthur Harris, had this to say about Dresden: “Attacks on cities, like any other act of war, are intolerable unless they are strategically justified. But they are strategically justified insofar as they tend to shorten the war and preserve the lives of Allied soldiers. To my mind we have absolutely no right to give them up unless it is certain that they will not have this effect. I do not personally regard the whole of the remaining cities of Germany as worth the bones of one British Grenadier.”
Altogether, an estimated 3.2 million German soldiers, and 3.6 million German civilians, died in the war. Compare that to American and British losses. The U.S. suffered 362,561 military deaths in World War II. The British lost 264,433 soldiers, 30,248 merchant navymen, and 60,595 civilians, for a total of 355,276.
By the standards of today’s Mideast pundits, would that mean the Allies’ military actions were disproportionate?
More recent conflicts raise similar questions.
The Korean War, for example. Casualty figures are impossible to determine precisely, but there is no doubt that the North Koreans and their Chinese allies suffered many more losses than the U.S. and South Korea.
The U.S. lost 36,576 soldiers; the South Koreans more than 100,000 soldiers and some 300,000 civilians. By contrast, North Korean military losses were probably around 400,000, and Chinese fatalities were probably in the vicinity of 500,000. Together with North Korean civilian deaths, the casualty total on their side was well over one million. Does that indicate the Americans used disproportionate force?
In 1990, Iraq invaded Kuwait. The U.S. and its allies came to Kuwait’s defense. About 25,000 Iraqi soldiers and more than 3,000 Iraqi civilians were killed. The U.S. suffered 294 losses; the other members of its coalition lost a combined total of 188. Did the Americans overdo it?
Consider Afghanistan. About 3,000 Americans were killed in the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The U.S. and its allies responded by attacking Al Qaeda and its Taliban supporters in Afghanistan. As of this writing, more than 2,000 American soldiers, and more than 1,000 other allied soldiers, have died in Afghanistan, as well as some 10,000 Afghan soldiers. Estimates for Al Qaeda and Taliban casualty totals vary, but they certainly number in the tens of thousands – far more than the Americans and their allies. Should we conclude that the Bush and Obama administrations have used disproportionate force in Afghanistan?
About the Author: Dr. Rafael Medoff is the founding director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies and coeditor of the Online Encyclopedia of America's Response to the Holocaust.
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