War is Code for the Production of Corpses

Quoting Richard Rhodes’s The Making of the Atomic Bomb:

“The end result of the complex organization that was the efficient software of the Great War was the manufacture of corpses.

This essentially industrial operation was fantasized by the generals as a “strategy of attrition.” The British tried to kill Germans, the Germans tried to kill British and French and so on, a “strategy” so familiar by now that it almost sounds normal. It was not normal in Europe before 1914 and no one in authority expected it to evolve, despite the pioneering lessons of the American Civil War. Once the trenches were in place, the long grave already dug (John Masefield’s bitterly ironic phrase), then the war stalemated and death-making overwhelmed any rational response.

“The war machine,” concludes Elliot, “rooted in law, organization, production, movement, science, technical ingenuity, with its product of six thousand deaths a day over a period of 1,500 days, was the permanent and realistic factor, impervious to fantasy, only slightly altered by human variation.”

No human institution, Elliot stresses, was sufficiently strong to resist the death machine. A new mechanism, the tank, ended the stalemate.”

Big Data describes another war of attrition:

McNamara epitomized the hyper-rational executive who relied on numbers rather than sentiments, and who could apply his quantitative skills to any industry he turned them to. In 1960 he was named president of Ford, a position he held for only a few weeks before being tapped to join President Kennedy’s cabinet as secretary of defense.

As the Vietnam conflict escalated and the United States sent more troops, it became clear that this was a war of wills, not of territory. America’s strategy was to pound the Viet Cong to the negotiation table. The way to measure progress, therefore, was by the number of enemy killed. The body count was published daily in the newspapers. To the war’s supporters it was proof of progress; to critics, evidence of its immorality. The body count was the data point that defined an era.

McNamara relied on the figures, fetishized them. … McNamara felt he could comprehend what was happening on the ground only by staring at a spreadsheet—at all those orderly rows and columns, calculations and charts, whose mastery seemed to bring him one standard deviation closer to God.

In 1977, two years after the last helicopter lifted off the rooftop of the U.S. embassy in Saigon, a retired Army general, Douglas Kinnard, published a landmark survey called The War Managers that revealed the quagmire of quantification. A mere 2 percent of America’s generals considered the body count a valid way to measure progress. “A fake—totally worthless,” wrote one general in his comments. “Often blatant lies,” wrote another. “They were grossly exaggerated by many units primarily because of the incredible interest shown by people like McNamara,” said a third.  — Viktor Mayer-Schönberger and Kenneth Cukier, Big Data

Humans are reasonably smart creatures, but we so easily get stuck in terrible modes of thinking.

On a battlefield men die quickly, they fight back, they are sustained by fellowship and a sense of duty. Here I saw people dying in solitude by slow degrees, dying hideously, without the excuse of sacrifice for a cause. They had been trapped and left to starve, each in his home, by a political decision made in a far-off capital around conference and banquet tables. […] The most terrifying sights were the little children with skeleton limbs dangling from balloon – like abdomens. Starvation had wiped every trace of youth from their faces, turning them into tortured gargoyles; only in their eyes still lingered the reminder of childhood. Everywhere we found men and women lying prone, their faces and bellies bloated, their eyes utterly expressionless. Anger lashed my mind as I drove back to the village. Butter being sent abroad in the midst of the famine! In London, Berlin, Paris I could see with my mind’s eye people eating butter stamped with a Soviet trademark. “They must be rich to be able to send out butter,” I could hear them saying. “Here, friends, is the proof of socialism in action.” Driving through the fields, I did not hear the lovely Ukrainian songs so dear to my heart. These people had forgotten how to sing. I could hear only the groans of the dying, and the lip-smacking of fat foreigners enjoying our butter… — Kravchenko, Victor. I Chose Freedom: The Personal And Political Life Of A Soviet Official

Like human sacrifice and cannibalism:

The word tzompantli is Nahuatl and was used by the Aztecs to refer to the skull-racks found in many Aztec cities; The first and most prominent example is the Huey Tzompantli (Great Skull-rack) located the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan and described by the early conquistadors. … Excavations at Templo Mayor in the Aztec capital Tenochtitlan have revealed many skulls belonging to women and children, in addition to those of men, a demonstration of the diversity of the human sacrifices in Aztec culture.[15] After displaying severed heads, many scholars have determined that limbs of Aztec victims would be cannibalized [16]

… based on numbers given by Taipa and Fray Diego Durán, Bernard Ortiz de Montellano[18] has calculated that there were at most 60,000 skulls on the “Hueyi Tzompantli” (Great Skullrack) of Tenochtitlan. … There were at least five more skull racks in Tenochtitlan but by all accounts they were much smaller. —Wikipedia

All of the individual parts of a system can seem logical, and yet the end result can still be grotesque, inhuman, and insane.

I am on holiday so your normal Book Club post will resume next Wednesday.

7 thoughts on “War is Code for the Production of Corpses

  1. Seems insanely Natrual, doesn’t it? That humans, as a natural force, would function to cull their own population through a sort of “natrual’ selection. Perhaps like the Marine saying “kill them all and let God sort them out”.

    Morality and abhorrence against gruesome figures of death a Natrual counter-balance to the Naturallly downplayed and ‘negative’ aspect which occurs “naturally” in humans as well as Nature proper.

    I mean, it isn’t just in war that people kill. It is everyday for a number a reasons, good and bad, sensible and incompressible.

    I mean think about how big our population would be if not for drugs gangs and wars? And the diseases?? Think of all the more mutation of diseases would pop up given the sheer more number of living human bodies, most of which would only contribute to Humanity, as a grand project, in the most idealistic way, while many of those would be morally excluded anyways by the fact they don’t want to do anything “good”.


  2. There’s another question lurking behind the one you address here. Namely, why does all this death bother you and not bother Montezuma the First? There have been many civilizations and peoples for whom death in battle (or even upon a sacrificial altar) would be considered a positive good.

    Why don’t we think that way?


    • Good question.
      I think modern tech (like books) gives us more empathy. We are simply exposed to other peoples’ points of view more often, and this makes us more inclined to realize that other people have feelings and don’t want to die.
      I am also, unlike Montezuma, much more inclined to think that I am the one who will get sacrificed in a conflict, rather than make the sacrifices, because I am small and weak and don’t have a personal army.
      Then there is the domestication hypothesis–that essentially some societies have been selecting for a variety of traits that make people less likely to kill each other, which includes a revulsion to killing.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I think that’s part of it, but I don’t think it satisfies the problem completely.

        I’m currently doing research on the Dahomey Kingdom, a west African country that lasted until 1904. In this society, they persisted through constant warfare and slavery. The economic model was to invade tribe X, enslave everyone young enough to be a slave and then sacrifice and cannibalize everyone else.

        The thing was, the commoners of Dahomey were big fans, even though they were up close and personal doing the killing. (There are portraits and descriptions of the vestal female warriors rhythmically cutting the heads off their vanquished foes.) It’s hard to imagine being more exposed to the victims of violence than they were.

        In that society, honoring the ancestors (reason for the sacrifices) and cultivating an aura of ferocity were the real values worth maintaining, not the equality, human rights and other “soft, effete” stuff we believe in.


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