Josef Stalin is falsely rumored to have said that “the death of one man is a tragedy. The death of millions is a statistic.” Turns out the quote actually was coined by a German. Regardless of its origin, the quote is useful in that it identifies a key issue about numbers and disasters, man-made or otherwise: the larger the number of lives lost the less significant they seem to become.
At what point does tragedy become a mere statistic? It’s hard to say, but in his brilliant short film, The Fallen of World War II, Neil Halloran visualizes the cost in lives of World War II, and powerfully shifts this narrative.
His cutting-edge graphics depict the war’s staggering cost in civilian and combatant lives. As the numbers are explained and then pile on, it is difficult not to be moved. The bar graph representing Russian casualties is particularly poignant, rising for what seems like an eternity. The same with Poland, which lost 16% of its population. Slowly, Halloran weaves a narrative of war’s tragedy and cost.
Not all is black or white, however. The numbers also reveal that more Americans died seventy-one years ago, on June 6, 1944 (D-Day), than have died during Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan. We were more willing to tolerate casualties then, it seems. More shockingly, at one point we learn that millions of Soviet civilian deaths may actually be attributed to decisions made by the Soviet leadership. Nearly half a million Chinese perished the same way, when their leaders flooded a vast swath of the mainland to stop the Japanese advance.
World War II was the last armed conflict fought directly between the Great Powers. In its aftermath, the community of nations created the United Nations and the international legal system based on human rights that remains in place to this day. The suffering caused by the war had been too much and something had to be done. Or, as the framers of the UN Charter put it, they were determined “to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind.”
Since the beginning of the new century, however, cracks have begun to show in this system. For over half a century, modern armed conflicts have been fought in the peripheries. War between the Great Powers still seems like lunacy. And yet, tensions between them are rising in places like the South China Sea (and maybe even the Arctic).
Nobody knows what the wars of the future will look like. Technology has changed much in the last seventy years and changed the face, if not the nature, of war. As our memory fades, The Fallen of World War II is a strong reminder of what the greatest war in history looked like and why we can’t afford to fight another such war ever again.
Special thanks to Will Xu for sharing this gem of a video with me.