In all the history of warfare between nations, one of the adversaries has almost always been declared the winner. In the Peloponnesian War, it was Sparta; in the Punic Wars, Rome; in the Norman Conquest, William of Normandy; in the War of the Roses, Edward VII of the House of Tudor; in the American War of Independence, the newly-formed USA; and in both the First and Second World Wars, Britain, France, the USA, and their allies.
On more than one occasion, ‘though, armed conflict has ceased with no winner declared. In 1953, for example, an armistice brought fighting to an end between North and South Korea. No peace treaty was ever signed; a demilitarized zone was created to separate the two countries. Hostilities ceased, but a mutual hostility has continued to this day.
That struggle on the Korean peninsula was not the only war fought between north and south armies. Almost a century earlier, the USA endured its Civil War; southern forces, the rebels, opened hostilities with an assault on Fort Sumter in 1861, and ended the fighting with a formal surrender at Appomattox in 1865. In this war, the northern forces defending the union were the winners.
(In a strange twist, and unlike almost any other conflict, where defeated leaders have been vilified by the victors, heroes from both sides in this war have been venerated by succeeding generations—Lincoln and Grant from the North, Lee and Stonewall Jackson from the South.)
The official history of these wars, and every other war, has been written by the victors. And any attempt to counter their accounts has generally been ineffective in supplanting the approved versions. We know who won because the winners told us.
It’s worth considering, however, if future wars will similarly boast clear winners and definite losers. Or will everyone lose?
The world is presently on tenterhooks, wondering where the simmering tensions between North Korea and the USA will take us. Whenever one side in a conflict is headed by a preening, egotistical, autocratic, and impulsive leader, we have a right to worry. But in this case, both sides are thus afflicted, and both, to some extent, have (or are feared to have) access to nuclear weapons.
It is an irony of diplomacy among nations that treaties and accords are signed by various and sundry allies in an effort to keep the peace. But it is those same mutual-defence agreements that pull nations into war when one of the signatories is attacked from outside. Secure in our North American fortress, Canada has never gone to war because she was attacked, but because she was bound to defend her allies who were.
There are no exact, universally agreed-upon figures, but in the First World War, almost 31 million military personnel from all nations were killed in action. In the Second World War, nearly 25 million were killed. In the Korean conflict, almost 1.2 million military personnel were killed.
Ask those deceased veterans who won the wars.
Civilian casualties are another matter. Almost 7 million lost their lives in WWI, nearly 55 million in WWII, and 2.7 million during the Korean conflict.
Ask those poor souls who won the wars.
In the next war, if there is one—perhaps pitting the USA and its allies against North Korea and its allies—one can only imagine what the death tolls might be. The current population of Seoul, the capital of South Korea, is approximately 25 million. The city is well within the range of North Korean bombardment. The population of Pyongyang, North Korea’s capital, is close to 4 million, and it, too, lies within range of enemy attack.
Imagine the horror of a nuclear strike against either city, or a chemical or biologic-pathogen attack. Imagine the carnage that would follow. Strike would be followed by counter-strike, the targets would multiply, and any nation that dared join the fray would leave itself open to similar attacks.
If past examples are anything to go by, such hostilities might well lead to a world-wide conflagration, where even western-hemisphere nations would be affected. It might not last long, but it would almost surely be the most deadly conflict of all time. And as we know, the hangover from nuclear detonations or man-made epidemics would alter living conditions on the entire planet, perhaps threatening everyone still alive to witness it.
One might imagine (if one had a macabre sense of humour) a cluster of cockroaches amidst the ruins, perhaps the only survivors. After surveying the desecration, one might turn to the others with a quizzical expression.
“So, who won?”