Learning to bear losses

Earlier this summer, the Prime Minister commented that the nation should expect a spike in casualty numbers as the summer ‘fighting season’ begins, just as Sir Jock Stirrup said last summer in the build-up to operation Panther’s Claw. These are perfectly sensible comments, the number of casualties does increase in the summer in Afghanistan – and, of course, when coalition troops carry out offensive operations.

One such statement at the start of this year struck me as very reminiscent of warnings about casualties in the First World War.  Bob Ainsworth, warning of casualties in Operation Moshtarak, said that

“Of course casualties are something we have to come to expect when we’re involved in these operations and people have had that brought home to them. This is not a safe environment and it doesn’t matter how much kit and equipment we provide for them, we cannot entirely make these operations risk-free…We shouldn’t deny or pretend to people that we can provide security and that casualties are not a very real risk on these kind of operations and people have to be prepared for that.”

Compare that with this memo, issued to the press in 1916:

Together with patience, the nation must be taught to bear losses. No amount of skill on the part of the higher commanders, no training, however good, on the part of officers and men, no superiority, however great, of arms and ammunition, will enable victories to be won without the sacrifice of men’s lives. […] The aim for which the war is being waged is the destruction of German militarism. Three years of war and the loss of one-tenth of the manhood of the nation is not too great a price to pay in such a cause.

The writer was the new commander-in-chief of the army in France and Flanders, Douglas Haig.  These days, Haig is seen as the quintessential callous butcher of the Western Front.  This comment can be read as a heartless disregard for the lives of his men, suggesting that 2 million war deaths would not be too high a price.  Actually, though, it is a recognition – like Ainsworth’s – of the need to link the costs of war to its aims and scale. The war’s are of vastly different scales (Britain’s losses of Afghanistan being similar to those of a small town in 1914-18), but reaction to war deaths is still vitally important.

Work by American academics looking at public opinion have concluded that support for wars is affected by ‘elite cues‘ (whether those politicians/parties with whom one agrees with on other issues support the war), identifiable objectives (or reasons for fighting) and perceived likelihood of success. In their view, casualties are less important – they add to disillusionment if these other factors are lacking.

In the Great War, great losses were largely accepted because the aims were seen as just and important – the defence of the nation and men’s homes and families from an apparently barbarous enemy. The idea that people did not know the level of casualties (repeated, for example, by Walter Lippman) is, frankly, rubbish – at least in terms of the UK.  Lists of the dead were published in national and local press, as were total national casualty figures from 1916. While people believed in eventual (or imminent) accepted the reasons for the war – basically national defence – people continued to support the war.

In Afghanistan, by contrast, it is far from clear to most people why our troops are there. A recent yougov poll for Chatham House showed division between staying the course, coming out in a year or two and withdrawing immediately.  In Iraq, of course, support was partial from the start.

Wars cost lives. It’s an inescapable truth.  The public can cope with it if they think that the war is just and winnable.  If those key beliefs are lost, public support for the war falls away and casualties bring opposition to the war.


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