Shield of the West

If it weren't for Poland, we'd all be speaking Mongolian right now.

Tadeusz Haska died last week at 93. A long-time chairman of the Polish department at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, Dr. Haska joined the Resistance to fight the Germans during World War II. Soon after the war he ran for elected office, but was imprisoned when the communists took over Poland. He escaped to Sweden, then returned on a daring boat raid across the Baltic Sea to spirit his wife out of the country. They made it to America in 1949 and he began his Cold War career educating our service members during the protracted struggle against the Soviets.

In many ways, Dr. Haska personified the indomitable Polish spirit, something that neither Nazi terror nor communist control could ever break. Indeed, even as we marvel today at the people power of the Arab Spring and the "color revolutions" in Ukraine and Georgia a decade ago, our gaze should extend back to an earlier mass movement: Poland's Solidarity. Not only did the rising there free the Poles, it also sparked the collapse of Soviet control in central Europe.

Zbigniew Brzezinski, in his book Game Plan, a prescient strategic meditation on what was to become the final phase of the Cold War, pointed out Poland's critical role then -- and in the future. As he saw it, for Moscow, Poland was a "linchpin state" whose loss would prove a fatal blow to Russian geostrategic aims in Europe. So it was. By 1999, Poland was a NATO member. Today, it serves as a bulwark of strategic forward defense for the whole alliance -- against a range of threats, perhaps even those posed by a looming new age of missile warfare.

It is interesting to note that Poland has played a similar role as shield more than once in its earlier history. In the 13th century, even in defeat at the Battle of Liegnitz (1241) against the Mongols, the Poles' and their allies' fierce resistance may have served to deter future invasions by the steppe hordes. Historians suggest that the Mongol commander was distracted by a budding political succession struggle back home. But the fact is that the Mongols never came back; they stayed on to rule in Russia, but left the Poles -- and the rest of the West -- alone.

In the 17th century the major threat to Europe came from the Ottoman Empire, which was already in control of the Balkans and battering at the gates of Vienna (1683). After two months under siege, the city was close to falling, but once again the Poles, under King John Sobieski, rode to the rescue. The Turks were defeated in battle, the siege was lifted, and the Ottoman threat to Europe was over for good.

In the following decades, though, Poland itself came under siege. Russia pressed from the east, Germany from the west, Austria from the south, and even Sweden encroached from the north. By the centennial of the siege of Vienna, Poland was being partitioned. In 1795, after an insurgency led by Tadeusz Kosciuszko -- a "foreign fighter" who helped the colonies during the American revolution -- was put down, Poland disappeared from the map of Europe. Hardly a fitting reward for a shield of the West.

Poland was restored to Europe's map in 1919 by the post-World War I Treaty of Versailles. The nation was reborn fighting. Russia's new communist rulers, in the process of winning a civil war against tsarist loyalists and defeating an intervention by the Western Allies, began to look to the heart of devastated Europe as a field of easy conquest. The only thing standing between the Soviets and their goal was the newly minted Polish military.

The Poles were outnumbered and, for reasons that still defy logical explanation, on the receiving end of pro-Russian Western press accounts that left them virtually without external support -- save, that is, for a small French contingent whose members included Charles de Gaulle. The war raged back and forth, with the Soviets finally seeming on the verge of capturing Warsaw. The Poles, refusing to accept defeat, conjured the "miracle on the Vistula" that autumn of 1920, saving their country -- and probably the rest of Europe.

While Poland was swiftly overrun by German and Soviet forces in 1939, the Poles continued to resist at home and tens of thousands made their way to the West to continue the fight. One of their most notable contributions came in the fall of 1940, during the Battle of Britain, when about 1,500 Polish pilots comprised a very significant percentage of those that Winston Churchill called "the Few" who saved Britain -- and so much more. The Normandy invasion would never have been possible had England fallen.

So there it is. Whether in ferocious resistance to the Mongols, the Ottoman Turks, the early- and late-Soviet Union -- even the Nazis -- Poland has repeatedly served to shield Europe from aggression, and in its own distinct way. A Slavic nation, but Roman Catholic rather than Orthodox. Sharing an open, hard-to-defend geography with its Prussian neighbor, but liberal and peace-loving rather than militaristic. In short, a most paradoxical nation, cast against type for the role it played.

Dr. Haska embodied the Polish national character. A thoughtful intellectual, a master of nine languages, and a historian, he had also been a partisan who mounted hit-and-run raids against the Nazis. And he was so proud of his heritage. When I first met him, greeting him with a passable Dzien dobry, his face lit up and he spoke only Polish with me. Most of which I could not understand -- but I got the gist.

At his wake last Thursday night, most of the whispers I heard were in Polish, too. There was much sorrow in the words, but there was a strong current of pride as well, duly honoring this fallen shield-bearer.

Sean Gallup/Getty Images

National Security

Steven Pinker Sees Peace, I See Dead People

The author responds to his critics.

I would really like to believe that the world is getting safer, but seen even in light of the thoughtful critiques of my article, war still seems a terrible human scourge. Even more dangerous than in the past.

Here's why: There are significantly more wars going on in the world today than there were 60 years ago -- per the Human Security Project's own listing -- and more people are getting killed in or dying directly from them. All too many of the victims are noncombatants.

Professor Pinker's use of numbers killed per 100,000 people as a key measure over the past half century is a very good one. For me, though, it is the absolute numbers that remain a principal concern. In a world whose population has risen from 3 to 7 billion since 1960, the same percentage killed per 100,000 means more carnage.

And all too often the victims of war are concentrated in the poorest parts of the planet, with the least amount of relief infrastructure available. This leads to very large proportions of national populations dying -- even in wars that see "just" a quarter- or half-million dead -- a percentage far higher and seen far more often than in most other wars. Those Tutsi living inside Rwanda, for example, were basically wiped out in 1994 --to our shame, as this catastrophe could have been prevented with even a modest military intervention. President Bill Clinton refers to his failure to act there as his "greatest regret." It should be.

I include Rwanda, Cambodia, and other "big kills" because they do indeed represent wars -- albeit internal wars, the sort that the Human Security Project has rightly noted have come to dominate conflict. I simply cannot leave them -- and other conflicts like them -- out, especially because of the genocidal war aims all too often on display.

Which brings me to the point about civilians becoming more and more targeted for killing over the past century -- a point that both critiques of my article contest. Here's how I came to my conclusion (drawn from a range of official tabulations that most scholars agree upon): In World War I, about 10 million soldiers died in battle, while just under a million deaths were "military caused." This is the 10 percent I was referring to: those who were killed when armed men pointed their guns and fired.

Yes, base-line death rates rose in many countries during World War I, due to disease and starvation, reaching a number calculated to be about 6 million. If these deaths are added in, so should the 2 million soldiers who eventually died of their wounds, and the 6 million who went missing in battle -- which meant, in most cases, that they had been blown to atoms. By this expansive measure (i.e., beyond deaths in battle and from direct military causes, the categories I compare), just under 30 percent of total deaths were civilians -- a percentage that is still much lower than in the next great conflict.

In World War II, the percentage of military-caused deaths skyrocketed. Battle deaths in the 20-25 million range were dwarfed by the 35-55 million military-caused deaths of civilians -- precise estimates remain beyond our reach -- many by execution in concentration camps and other charnel houses. In Burundi, Rwanda, Darfur and other lands torn by war today, armed men kill the innocent at even higher rates. The noncombatant is without question more in the crosshairs today than a century ago.

Let me close by thanking Steven Pinker, Andrew Mack, and Sebastian Merz for their wonderful bodies of work, which I deeply respect and fervently hope have it right. Or will at least be right one day. For now, though, I continue to worry about, and in my work for the military try to cope with, a world with a rising number of wars, mostly internal and irregular, in which innocent civilians are ever more targeted for killing. My heart is with those who see a world where war is already on the wane, but not my head. Not yet.