All Commentary
Wednesday, May 31, 2017

The Human Mind Cannot Fathom the Full Cost of War

We’ve killed people who would have accomplished things that we can’t even imagine.

“I hate war as only a soldier who has lived it can, only as one who has seen its brutality, its futility, its stupidity.”
– Dwight D. Eisenhower

I’ve never killed anyone. My war experience – my lack thereof – does not entitle me to speak about war.

I have created things. That does entitle me to speak about war. I hate war as only a businessperson can.

Monday was Memorial Day, a holiday instituted to honor the dead of the American Civil War. The Civil War Trust describes the toll of that war:

Nearly as many men died in captivity during the Civil War as were killed in the whole of the Vietnam War. Hundreds of thousands died of disease. Roughly 2% of the population, an estimated 620,000 men, lost their lives in the line of duty. Taken as a percentage of today’s population, the toll would have risen as high as 6 million souls.

We hear a number like 620,000 and don’t know what to do with it. Our minds aren’t made to conceive what that number looks like. Our minds certainly can’t conceive of the 37 million casualties of the world war which came just 50 years later, or the 130 million civilian and soldier casualties of the war which came just a generation after that.

“Such a shame,” we say about it. And then we watch the military parade walk by, and we cheer the flag and the military.

I don’t think we really understand what a shame it is. I certainly didn’t. I spent much of my youth reading military history and playing out battles in my free time, and while I might have solemnly mouthed the “war is a horrible thing” platitudes, I didn’t get it really.

If we try to think about the tragedy of 620,000 lives, we’ll never understand it. We need to think about the tragedy of the deaths of one, or five, or ten human beings.

Make It Personal

We can all think of ten people who we work with, who we count on, who we laugh with. We need to think about ten of our classmates having their heads blown to bits. We need to think about all of our uncles, fathers, brothers, and sons lying in pieces.

Things start to change when you make war personal. The utter wastefulness of war hits home only at a personal level, because only there do you remember just how complex and vast and deep and hard-won and holy a single human life is.

Tens of thousands of people like me have bled to death, screaming for help.

This is where things started to change for me. I went into a business which regularly calls on my intelligence, patience, persistence, and courage. My colleagues give the same to their work. We’ve grown, we’ve learned, we’ve let go of things, we’ve suffered, and we’ve spent years of our lives building this business together. And we’ve only just begun it, but I feel sometimes like I’ve lived more than just three years doing it.

When I imagine all of the work and suffering and learning we’ve done being snuffed out in seconds by some random bits of metal, I get bloody infuriated.

For some vapid nationalistic or socialistic or authoritarian ideology or other, for some border line or artillery position, for some self-loathing general or noble or politician or dictator, tens of thousands of people like me have bled to death screaming for help. Millions of lives, like the lives of my friends and coworkers, have died through millions of moments of horror and pain.

Did they work so hard for that? Did they face the difficulty and beauty and challenge of life just to die for a bloody government, at the hand of some other poor bastard about to die for his bloody government?

We Don’t Know What or Who We’ve Lost

Perhaps you feel killing is justified to defend the innocent. Fine. How many wars between nation-states were truly fought for the defense of the innocent? Not the war of European empires that was raging 99 years ago. How many of the battles within those wars were really fought to defend innocents? How much of the killing in those battles happened between true-hearted defenders and rabid aggressors? Look just a hair deeper than your history textbook and you’ll find few good guys and no good wars.

We’ve killed the inventor of a cancer cure ten thousand times over.

We have no idea what we’ve lost and with what complete carelessness we’ve treated humans in battle. In a few seconds, we have destroyed lives which took years of nurturing and education to raise. In a few seconds, we have destroyed land and buildings and art and wealth which took generations to create.

In a few seconds, we have destroyed intellects which we may never see again. In a few seconds, we have destroyed knowledge and learning which is irrecoverable. All of the combined effort of decades of mothering, fathering, working, inventing, crafting, saving, investing, waiting – gone in a few seconds.

We’ve killed the inventor of a cancer cure ten thousand times over. We’ve killed the inventor of spaceflight three thousand times. We killed the inventors of the internet before their time. We’ve killed ten thousand philosophers, ten thousand entrepreneurs, and ten thousand peacemakers. We’ve killed the man who was going to discover super-abundant energy. We’ve killed the man who would have prevented the creation of nuclear weapons. We’ve killed men and women who would have shown us things or given us things we can’t even imagine.

All of this is a near certainty, and we don’t realize it.

Our wars have killed people who would have done the impossible and saved the world, given enough time. We didn’t give them enough time. We didn’t give them the only things they needed – freedom and peace. We stripped them of their noble reason, their infinite faculties, their admirable actions, their godlike apprehension. We gave them serial numbers and uniforms and made them cannon fodder.

If we ever do realize what a waste we made of just those 620,000 lives of a war just six or seven generations ago, we might shrink back in horror next time some asshat politician tries to lure us to the glorious fate of having everything we’ve worked for destroyed.

Reprinted from James Walpole.

  • James Walpole is a writer, startup marketer, intellectual explorer, and perpetual apprentice. He is an alumnus of Praxis and a FEE Eugene S. Thorpe Fellow. He writes regularly at