You don't win wars just by killing people

From a lecture by Niall Ferguson, the Professor of Political and Financial History at Oxford University, delivered on the internet
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The Independent Online

Could germany and her allies have won the First or Second World Wars? To an economist, the outcomes of the wars might seem a foregone conclusion, so great was the superiority of Allied resources. Yet if victory in total wars went to the side that killed more of the enemy, then it was the Germans who should have won.

Could germany and her allies have won the First or Second World Wars? To an economist, the outcomes of the wars might seem a foregone conclusion, so great was the superiority of Allied resources. Yet if victory in total wars went to the side that killed more of the enemy, then it was the Germans who should have won.

In the First World War Germany and her allies managed to kill 35 per cent more of the other side than they themselves lost: 5.4 million compared with 4 million. In the Second World War the percentage difference in - to use a macabre phrase - "the net body count" was a staggering 144 per cent.

So how did the Allies win when the other side was so much more lethal?

The answer is that victory in war goes not to the side that kills the most men, but to the side that persuades the other to surrender. It was mass surrender that signalled the end of the Russian war effort in 1917, as well as that of the Germans in 1918 and of the French in 1940. It also signalled the end of the war in 1945.

But why did German and Japanese soldiers prove so reluctant to surrender even when it was obvious (which it was by 1944) that they could not hope to win the war? The answer would seem to be that in two key theatres of conflict - the Eastern Front and the Pacific - surrender had become too dangerous.

A "take no prisoners" culture had taken root, which had its origins in the killing fields of the First World War, but which became official policy in a number of armies in the Second World War. The Germans were the first to adopt the policy of killing prisoners in the invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941. And the Japanese cruelly maltreated prisoners because they despised any soldier who surrendered.

It was not only the Axis powers that behaved this way, however. The US Marines' battle cry on Tarawa was "Kill the Jap bastards! Take no prisoners!" In his diary of his experiences in New Guinea in 1944, the famous aviator Charles Lindbergh observed: "Our men think nothing of shooting a Japanese prisoner or soldier attempting to surrender." An infantry colonel told him simply: "Our boys just don't take prisoners."

Survival rates for men surrendering are far from easy to calculate. But survival rates for men who were taken prisoner are at least indicative A British prisoner in German hands. had a reasonably good chance of surviving the war, as only one in 29 died in captivity. A Russian captured by the Germans, by contrast, was more likely to die than survive. The trouble with prisoner-killing was that it was ultimately counter-productive. Prisoners were valuable as sources of intelligence or labour. Above all, prisoner-killing had the unintended effect of prolonging enemy resistance. Why lay down your arms if you were likely to be shot anyway?

It was only quite late in the war that the proponents of psychological warfare on the Allied side managed to persuade Allied front-line soldiers that it was in their own self-interest to encourage enemy soldiers to surrender. In the Pacific, American troops had to be offered extra leave and ice cream as an incentive to take Japanese prisoners alive.

The puzzle is why Hitler and other Germans failed to see the importance of psychological warfare when they themselves had been on the receiving end of it in 1918. The best explanation would seem to be that Hitler drew the wrong lesson from the experience of defeat in the First World War. Second time around, Germany would wage war more ruthlessly. And if that did not work, he and the German people would rather perish than lay down their arms again.

Fortunately for the 4.4 million German soldiers taken prisoner in the final three months of the war, Hitler chose to kill himself before he was able to orchestrate the suicidal last stand of an entire people.

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