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International relations, War

Those Who Die as Cattle

The death toll in the Ukraine War steadily increases.

by Stephen Shenfield



2 min read

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?

      — Only the monstrous anger of the guns.

      Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle

Can patter out their hasty orisons.

No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells; 

      Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,—

The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;

      And bugles calling for them from sad shires.

Wilfred Owen

In his Anthem to Doomed Youth, Wilfred Owen was writing about the Western Front in World War One. Except for the bugles, however, he might have been describing the war of attrition in the Donbas, where youth are again doomed, to futile sacrifice on the altars of Russian and Ukrainian nationalism. 

Each Ukrainian brigade of 3—4,000 men that is sent to the front gets withdrawn and replaced after losing about two thirds of its men killed or wounded. It is mainly those fortunate enough to get withdrawn before they are maimed or killed who have a chance to survive. Some run away, but are hunted down as ‘deserters’ by the Ukrainian Security Service.  

Official Ukrainian sources issue no figures for losses – they are regarded as secret – but the figure of 100,000 already killed has been widely floated.  

As on the Western Front in World War One, if you are fighting in the Donbass your chance of survival depends on two main factors – how well dug in you are and whether you climb ‘over the top’ for a suicidal assault on enemy defenses. It is reported that some Ukrainian units have defied orders to undertake such assaults. 

Ukrainian troops are less well dug in than their Russian adversaries. They have less access to earth-moving equipment. In one video the commander of a Ukrainian frontline unit talks about begging his superiors to lend him such equipment. Fifteen men in his unit, he tells them, have been killed because they were not well dug in. His superiors reply that they don’t want to risk damage to the equipment! 

Clearly soldiers are inadequately fed and poorly protected against the winter cold. Many suffer from sinusitis and respiratory ailments. A special danger is frostbite. Perhaps as many are now being lost to frostbite as to artillery strikes. In southern Ukraine, where most of the fighting so far has taken place, the weather in late fall and early winter is wet and cold but not freezing. The rain and mud make it extremely difficult if not impossible to keep feet dry. When in January temperatures fall below freezing point the moisture inside footwear turns into ice and the result is frostbite. According to Lieutenant Colonel Andrei Marochko of the People’s Militia of the Lugansk People’s Republic, 40% of the men hospitalized with frostbite have to have one or both legs amputated (https://lug-info.com/en/news/some-100-ukrainian-servicemen-hospitalized-with-frostbite-marochko).   

Another scourge rapidly spreading among both soldiers and civilians is tuberculosis, much of it multidrug-resistant. According to retired colonel Douglas Macgregor, one reason why tuberculosis has assumed epidemic proportions is that troops are moved around from one battleground to another with no account taken of their medical condition (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4jkBtKkN3Pg).  

The situation in Ukrainian military hospitals must be horrific. Medical staff overwhelmed by masses of the sick and wounded; electricity available only intermittently due to Russian attacks on infrastructure; shortages of practically everything, exacerbated by corruption, with 60—70% of Western medical as well as military aid stolen and sold on the market (https://www.cbsnews.com/news/ukraine-military-aid-weapons-front-lines/). How many seriously wounded men can possibly survive under those conditions?   

In one respect at least, the war in Ukraine is even worse than World War One. In that war relatives were informed when a son, brother, husband, or father was killed or went missing in action. In the current war, by contrast, there is no reliable system of notification, especially on the Ukrainian side. When relatives lose contact with a soldier, they have no idea whether it is because he is dead, in hospital, or in captivity or  because he no longer has a functioning cell phone. 

We can expect that in the course of time much more information will reach us concerning the human costs of the war in Ukraine, ruthlessly prolonged for the sake of the strategic goals of great power rivalry.  

Tags: attrition, doomed youth

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I grew up in Muswell Hill, north London, and joined the Socialist Party of Great Britain at age 16. After studying mathematics and statistics, I worked as a government statistician in the 1970s before entering Soviet Studies at the University of Birmingham. I was active in the nuclear disarmament movement. In 1989 I moved with my family to Providence, Rhode Island, USA to take up a position on the faculty of Brown University, where I taught International Relations. After leaving Brown in 2000, I worked mainly as a translator from Russian. I rejoined the World Socialist Movement about 2005 and am currently general secretary of the World Socialist Party of the United States. I have written two books: The Nuclear Predicament: Explorations in Soviet Ideology (Routledge, 1987) and Russian Fascism: Traditions, Tendencies, Movements (M.E. Sharpe, 2001) and more articles, papers, and book chapters that I care to recall.

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