In a recent Foreign Policy blog entry, Paul Miller lays out a response to former Utah Governor (and Ambassador to China) Jon Huntsman’s comment that the US has given its “all” to Afghanistan. Miller compares the efforts there with previous wars in terms of blood and treasure.
The neat thing is that he links his argument to a 2010 Congressional Research Service report that estimates historical US major war spending, as well as a compilation of casualties in a laundry
list of other wars (from the US Army History Institute). *One Note: the NY Times “Disunion” series on the Civil War has publicized some
recent revisionist scholarship that would increase total casualties from the conflict from about 620,000 to between 750-850,000. This would mean that 1/10 died, as opposed to 1/13…
What’s important about this information – the classic, “So what?”
I’d say this factual information has three important lessons: for context, constraints, and
planning. In terms of context, knowing generally how much past wars have cost the nation in terms of blood and treasure can help put a new scenario into a range of potential outcomes. In turn, this context can help identify constraints.
For example, if a conflict starts to share characteristics with a previous one, a prudent decision-maker might set boundaries for national
effort (as long as said conflict wasn’t existential, in which case the historical record doesn’t offer much guidance, even from World War II).
Lastly, these constraints form the basis for planning. Major Albert Wedemeyer, writing the Victory Plan in 1941, used historical major war data (mostly international) in an effort to determine that the US could safely extract 10% of the adult male population to fight a
total/unlimited war effort against the Axis powers. Using these big picture constraints is an important part of the planning process.