A War Weariness That Dare Not Speak Its Name

This post was written by Reuben Bard-Rosenberg on November 11, 2009
Posted Under: Afghanistan,Anti-War

These are strange times in which we live. Not for a generation have governments had so many important political decisions pressed upon them by world events. Yet rarely has political discourse been so focused upon the personal behaviour of those in power. For the past few days, the serious issues surrounding Afghanistan – the fact that we have been fighting for 8 years in war that we can ill afford, and for which we have no plausible exit strategy – have given way to a national debate on an apparent spelling mistake made by the PM. It seems, sometimes, that as a nation we are practicing displacement, worrying excessively about smaller things  to avoid worrying about the bigger things. Hence we are far happier talking about excessive parliamentary expenses – which for all their moral implications represent a drop in the fiscal ocean – than the systemic crisis that looks set to ravage our public services.

Yesterday Jacqui Janes repeated the now well established line that we need more damn helicopters. The now ubiquitous complaints that “our boys” are underequipped are arguably more a reflection of the politics surrounding the war than the actual situation on the ground. Compared with the grand sweep of even modern history, British soldiers today are incredibly well protected. Indeed it is worth considering that fewer British soldiers have been killed in this 8 year conflict than were killed during the falklands war. By definition the government cannot pour unlimited resources into making things safe for those who sign up to kill and be killed, but as things stand they are pouring in a hell of a lot.

What then is causing this near constant anguish and recrimination as to whether our troops need more stuff? It is perhaps instructive to ask why such concerns were more muted over Iraq. The answer, in my opinion, lies in the options available to those who are sick of seeing young men coming back in body bags.  The war against Iraq split the poltical nation, and indeed the political establishment.  Numerous newspapers rallied against it and it became normal to be anti-war. Where people  were anguished by the sight troops returning without life and limb they could turn around and demand that the troops withdrew. The perception of Iraq as a war into which the big bad Americans had dragooned us decent brits made this easier. Getting out of there – rather than staying and trying to win – could be patriotic.

By contrast there was no serious opposition to Afghan war, whose declaration in fact gained support from across the political and media landscape. As such expressing discontent with its bloody consequences is a more difficult matter. Thus ill feeling at the sight of dead bodies is expressed in technical terms. Rather than blame the war itself – which surely makes these unnecessary deaths inevitable – many commentators cling to the idea that British hegemony can be maintained without British blood – if only the war were better fought.

In a sense then, the whole discussion about how many helicopters we have represents a war weariness that dare not speak it’s name. It reflects a desire to reconcile support for the war with an understandable distaste for it’s bloody consequences. The leader writers in the Standard and the Sun would like to believe that enough military equipment can square this circle. Bitter experience will prove them wrong.

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Reader Comments


The amazingly low casualties western militaries now expect when fighting poorer nations has pissed me off for ages (191 british soldiers dead in an 8 year war, equivalent to an average 2.5 hours worth of British casualties in WWI). Apart from the general sense of unfairness, it’s the lowering of the threshold for going to war that bothers me.

Related, and more interesting / contoversial, is the issue of proffesional armies vs. conscripted armies and which the left should support (or at least view as the lesser of two evils). Obviously I have no desire whatsoever to do military service, but on the other hand, sending a conscripted army to Iraq of which 60% opposed the war would have been far harder than sending a largely cooperative army to war against the background of a disaproving general public.

Overall I probably do oppose the idea of a conscription on the general principle of wanting a less militaristic society.

Written By Michael on November 11th, 2009 @ 11:18 pm

It’s interesting that three years ago, the media was referring to Afghanistan as “the forgotten war”. And now it’s all they’ll talk about. The casualties are relatively low given the intensity of the fighting and the length of the war, and comparison with previous conflicts.
The increasing hostility is surprising when compared to the relative consensus on all fronts when it started. Is it because of disappointment over inadequate equipment? I’m not convinced. Maybe I’m being cynical, but the change in public mood coincides rather neatly with the shift of focus by the media from Iraq to Afghanistan. A picture of every single casualty, and the immediacy of the “breaking news” ticker, is quite an emotive way of reminding us there’s a war on.
It wasn’t really doubted that this was a Good Fight, until recently. I think Afghanistan really poses a wider, more complex question of how war-averse peoples are to respond to unstable states with a result that justifies losses, or possibly (unrealistically) even avoids any losses at all. In a society that took military force for granted, this would be an easier question to answer. But even such a society would have to accept, as previous ones have, that in responding to unstable states, war is a dead end. And occupation is largely unacceptable for its exepense and the political unease it raises; and it’s ultimately also a dead end. Sanctions? ‘Yeah right’. The discussions in the UN and int. law community leading up to the war convey this deep unease; the idea that the traditional international responses to errant or unstable states are no longer up to the job (to be fair, they were designed in 1945).

Written By Tendai on November 12th, 2009 @ 7:10 am

“The amazingly low casualties western militaries now expect when fighting poorer nations has pissed me off for ages…Apart from the general sense of unfairness, it’s the lowering of the threshold for going to war that bothers me.”

Although I kind of know what you mean, I think it’s probably a feeling to be suppressed. There’s nothing pleasant about evenly-matched conflicts (see WW1, Iran-Iraq for reference), and although I despair of the behaviour of the UK internationally, I don’t think military parity with Saddam or the Taliban would have made war less unpleasant. In terms of the threshold lowering, I think you have to acknowledge that the public threshold for casualties has fallen even faster, to the point where Somalia is considered a disaster because of 18 US rangers killed there 15 years ago. I think this balances the military advances we’ve made – are we seeing a massive rise in aggressive wars since we invented the cruise missile?

Written By Roger on November 12th, 2009 @ 3:09 pm

Yes there is something in what roger is saying. It is influenced in part by civilian life wherein death has become a very substantially less normal part of life for under 50s

Written By Reuben on November 12th, 2009 @ 4:00 pm

I certainly didn’t mean to imply that I thought high casualty, equally mathced, wars were less unpleasant – I was thinking in terms of the effect on the descision of a western nation as to whether to go to war, even if fewer people (on either side, although still with a huge imbalance) are killed.

As to whether lower casualties on western agressors has lead to more millitary agression, fundamentally there is no way of telling, not having any comparison for the same political situations with more balanced, infantry heavy millitaries. The point about lower public tolerance for death is also a good one.

My point perhaps applies more strongly to the low level air strikes the U.S. is capable of maintaining without even calling it a war, for example, the air strikes against Afghanistan in 1998, or the bombing of Tripoli in 1986 (although in the latter case there was some on-going military conflict and two U.S. servicemen were killed). Of course, military conflicts that fall below the level of wars are not new, but there is something different and disturbing about a country having the ability to use military force in a distant country without any significant direct millitary risk to themselves.

Written By Michael on November 12th, 2009 @ 11:04 pm

The above is a close equivalent to the use of gunboats in controlling colonies in the 19th and early 20th centuaries, so my implying that this is something new is a bit dubious (excepting that landlocked countries are now open to the same tactics that once required a coast or substantial navigable rivers).

Written By Michael on November 13th, 2009 @ 12:12 am

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