Paths of Glory was a powerful anti-war motion picture made in 1957. It depicts the horrors of trench warfare in World War I, and it illustrates the dehumanizing effects of warfare.
The story describes the travails of members of a French battalion on the front line during the third year of the Great War. The division commander is ordered to attack a German strongpoint. He insists that he needs more men for the assault, but the corps commander goads him to agreeing to attack with his present strength. The attack is led by the subject battalion and is an absolute disaster. The men are mown down as they leave their trenches, and some fail to advance more than a few yards. Casualties are heavy. The failure of the attack is not because of lack of effort on the men’s part. Instead, the reverse is because of poor planning and an underestimation of the strength of the enemy’s position.
The division commander feels that the failed attack is a reflection on his competence. He is furious and seeks to find a scapegoat. The battalion commander is directed to pick out three men to be executed for cowardice. Despite his objections, the battalion commander must comply with the order, and each company commander is told to pick one soldier for sacrifice. Actually, no one could truthfully be charged with cowardice. One company commander chooses the company slob. Another chooses his victim by lot. The third company commander, because of personal animus, picks the most decorated man in his unit.
A court martial is held, and the battalion commander makes an eloquent and moving defense of his men. But the fix is in, and any argument is useless. Three innocent soldiers are condemned and executed.
Unfortunately, the story is based on certain real-life incidents in the French army in 1917.
As the movie clearly shows, there is no glory in war.
Though there is no glory, death abounds. World Wars I and II saw a massive effusion of blood on battlefields all over the world. We Americans endured our own losses in those gargantuan struggles, but in certain respects we were extremely fortunate. Many other nations suffered far more than we did. To gain a better understanding the magnitude of these losses, let us compare losses by one European nation in World War I to that the United States in World War II.
With a population of almost 40 million, 8.41 million Frenchmen were in the army or navy during the war, and 1.4 million died in service. Another 4.27 million were wounded.
21.0% of Frenchmen saw active service in World War I. 85% to 90% of French males of military age served in the war, and 42% of them died or were seriously wounded.
(We have assumed that at least 33% of reported wounds among the French were very serious and debilitating.)
These losses were among the best and the bravest, an antithesis to the idea of the survival of the fittest. Indeed, I read a statement by one researcher to the effect that French recruits in 1939-40 were not as tall and healthy as their Napoleonic and World War I forebearers, and there is little doubt that the 1914-18 bloodletting effected French strategy and performance in 1939-40.
Let us now consider American casualty percentages from the war years 1941-45. It was, excepting the Civil War, our bloodiest conflict.
The United States had a population of 132 million in 1941. Approximately 17 million served in the armed forces and 407 thousand died in service. Another 672 thousand were wounded.
12.9% of Americans experienced military service in World War II. 50% to 60% of American males of military age served in the war and 3 to 4% died or were grievously wounded.
If America battle deaths in World War II had been equivalent to French losses in World War I, we would have had approximately 4,300,000 men killed, ten times more than the number actually lost. It is difficult to imagine the effects such slaughter would have had on our society.
Americans have never experienced death rates like that in any war, the only comparable numbers being military deaths (from battle and disease) suffered by several Southern states during our Civil War.
During World War II Germany and the Soviet Union suffered even more appalling losses.
May God protect us from such bloodshed. We must be prepared to defend ourselves, but let us take up arms only when absolutely necessary. Let us never foolishly charge into the so-called “Paths of Glory.”