Blood and War: The Hard Truth About ‘Boots on the Ground’

The past 100 years have seen great casualties chasten leaders to say they can win the next war from above, without sacrifice.

Neil Hall / Reuters

LONDON — In its nearly thousand-year history, the Tower of London has gathered a reputation for being a place of bloody executions. In fact, only seven people were actually executed inside the Tower (most notoriously, Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII’s second wife). Right now, though, blood is pouring from one of its turrets, down the ancient walls and forming a scarlet river that is slowly filling the moat.

The “blood” is figurative. It is actually the coagulation of thousands of ceramic poppies. By November 11, when Britain marks the end of World War I every year, there will be 888,246 poppies covering 15 acres around the Tower’s grim walls, each one representing a British soldier fallen in the war. This astonishingly simple yet devastatingly graphic representation of mass carnage attracts many thousands of visitors every day.

As I joined them it struck me that this had become more than a novel memorial to those who fell in a war that began 100 years ago. It serves as a potent reminder that the cost in lives of one war can erode the will of a people to fight another. That so-called war to end wars decimated an entire generation in Britain, as it did from France to the Ottoman Empire. Consequently, among the British survivors were future political leaders whose gut instinct was to avoid at all costs another European war—even when faced with Hitler.

Some of those men, like Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, who signed a “peace” pact with Hitler in Munich in 1938, were branded as appeasers (although in fact Munich allowed Britain valuable time in which to re-arm). But Chamberlain understood that in 1938 the British public’s disposition, still influenced by the ineradicable memories of blood mingling with the poppies on the fields of Flanders, remained firmly set against war.

This mood only began to change after the Nazi blitzkrieg of Poland drew Britain into the Second World War. That was also the moment when two veterans of World War I slowly and covertly initiated a relationship between London and Washington that led ineluctably to total war on a scale never seen before.

That relationship began in a highly unorthodox way. Within two weeks of the outbreak of war, a secret channel of communication opened up between the president of the United States, Franklin Roosevelt, and the future prime minister of Britain, Winston Churchill.

On September 11, 1939, Roosevelt wrote to Churchill, who was then first lord of the admiralty in charge of the Royal Navy. Citing his own experience as assistant secretary of the navy during World War I, Roosevelt said he would like regular contact with Churchill to review the progress of the war:

“I shall at all times welcome it if you will keep me in touch personally with anything you want me to know about.”

Churchill welcomed the approach and immediately continued the exchanges using the code name “naval person.”

Roosevelt had made a shrewd calculation that flouted all the official channels used between the countries—he was gambling that if Chamberlain lost the confidence of the British people, Churchill would replace him. FDR was also circumventing the views and influence of his ambassador in London, Joseph Kennedy, who was openly defeatist about Nazi aggression and whose views he didn’t share.

Indeed, Kennedy was advising that it was only a matter of time before Hitler invaded Britain. The British, he said, were too weak to survive and would have to settle for a pact with Hitler. Kennedy mixed socially with leading British figures, particularly among the aristocracy, who agreed with him. He was also abetted by Charles Lindbergh, who had been flattered and wooed by the Nazi leaders and, gullibly, accepted their view that the Royal Air Force would be quickly disposed of by the Luftwaffe.

Kennedy’s views, however, accurately reflected those of most of the American people. Roosevelt knew he lacked the political support at home to openly ally with Britain. There was little appetite to get involved in another European war. The correspondence between the two became, in effect, an alliance by stealth, waiting for events to make it safely transparent.

Get The Beast In Your Inbox!

Daily Digest

Start and finish your day with the top stories from The Daily Beast.

Cheat Sheet

A speedy, smart summary of all the news you need to know (and nothing you don't).

By clicking “Subscribe,” you agree to have read the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy
Thank You!
You are now subscribed to the Daily Digest and Cheat Sheet. We will not share your email with anyone for any reason.

When Churchill became prime minister in May 1940, only 30 percent of the American people believed that Britain could win against the Nazi juggernaut that had by then reached the coast of France, within sight of the white cliffs of Dover. By July, Kennedy was telling Chamberlain, then a dying man, that everyone in America thought Britain would be beaten by the end of the month. As a top American military aide stationed at the London embassy wrote:

“The ambassador has been wrong on many points about the war and I don’t believe Churchill has had much use for him, preferring to deal directly with Roosevelt.”

That fall, soon after the German blitz on London began, Kennedy headed back to the U.S. As punishing as it was, the blitz never humbled London. Used without a German army on the ground, as it had been in mainland Europe, the Luftwaffe was incapable of securing victory.

At the end of the war official censors in both countries decided that the correspondence between Churchill and Roosevelt was so sensitive that it was kept secret for three more decades. Neither of the men had informed their own cabinets of what they discussed. When their correspondence was finally disclosed, it needed careful parsing.

It might have been used as confirmation that a unique and cozy “special relationship” between the two nations was unassailable. But this was fanciful. It did not prove that Roosevelt was initiating an inevitable alliance against Nazism. The president was wary of being seduced not just into a war against Nazism but into sustaining Churchill’s grandiose attachment to the British Empire. Churchill, for his part, was by no means confident that Britain would survive and bluntly told Roosevelt that if the Royal Navy were defeated the U.S. would be left with no means by itself of stopping Hitler’s worldwide domination.

But after Pearl Harbor there was no longer a case for special pleading. Roosevelt wrote to Churchill: “Today all of us are in the same boat with you and the people of the Empire and it is a ship which will not and cannot be sunk.”

This was in every sense to be total war, conducted in Europe, in the Atlantic, and across the Pacific. But there was to be no repetition of the drawn-out and static trench warfare of World War I, carnage that littered the fields of Flanders with cannon fodder in a senseless conflict triggered by a tantrum dividing the royal houses of Europe. Nonetheless, despite the introduction of airpower on a massive scale, battles were resolved finally only by ground troops. Many of those battles, particularly in the Pacific on islands like Guam and Iwo Jima, were horrific and intimate with hand-to-hand fighting as merciless as on a medieval battlefield.

At the end of the victorious war directed by Roosevelt and Churchill, the body count of the armed forces of both countries totaled 790,000, just short of the audit presented in the form of poppies at the Tower of London. But this had been a truly global war dispersed over many battles on land, sea, and in the air and so, in effect, its toll had been more efficient.

Efficiency may seem a pitiless term to use but it does have meaning. There were significant advances in the treatment of war injuries. Blood transfusions on the battlefield, pioneered by Canadian doctor Norman Bethune in the Spanish Civil War, saved many lives. The ghastly after-affects of poison gas used widely in World War I were absent, but horrible mutilations and burn injuries were absorbed into the casualty statistics in a way that the crosses in a graveyard were not, lessening the shock. Unrecorded were psychological wounds like post-traumatic stress that went unrecognized, untreated and sometimes—disgracefully—disbelieved.

Ground war remained, inevitably, a place of high sacrifice as well as valor.

To be sure, there have been cases where victory was achieved without foot soldiers. One that is often overlooked is the Berlin Air Lift, when the Soviets began a blockade of the German capital in 1948, attempting to starve the citizens in the Allied-held western sector. The joint operation by the British and American air forces flew in more than 4,000 tons of supplies every day. By May 1949, the Soviets conceded defeat and agreed that west Berlin, isolated within Soviet-occupied Germany, would remain under Allied control. Only 101 lives were lost by the two air forces and most of those were not caused by crashes but by accidents on the tarmac.

More recently, in 1995, a short NATO air campaign ended the Bosnian war without any ground forces being deployed, although before that the war had seen horrors as bad as any in World War II, like ethnic cleansing and 2 million people made into refugees.

However, these are exceptions that prove the rule: Land cannot be taken and held without ground forces, and in cities that frequently means house-to-house and hand-to-hand combat.

The land now held by ISIS in Syria and Iraq is as challenging to a liberating force as in any previous wars from Europe to Vietnam—it’s an intricate cobweb of villages and cities studded with potential entrapments in which civilians can be used as shields. There is much touting of “smart” weapons that can be used from the air, fired either by airplanes or drones, that in urban areas can distinguish between innocents and combatants.

Don’t believe it. The euphemism of “collateral damage” comes with that package.

President Obama and the other leaders of Western forces facing the challenge of ISIS know they have no popular support for “boots on the ground,” another of those euphemisms that conveniently generalizes an issue that is far more complicated than it seems. Bombers and drones are often blind without intelligence that can be provided only by special operations forces on the ground who locate targets. There are already special ops and CIA teams equipping, training, and directing local units in Iraq. The line between training and planning an attack can be deliberately vague; battles have their own momentum and mission creep is virtually unavoidable.

The message sent from the Tower of London this fall is still as inescapable as it was in 1914. War is hell and, in the end, will take place not in some abstract dimension that removes human participation but in brutal and intimate contact.