It has become commonplace to suggest that British people today would not accept the levels of casualties suffered on the Western Front during the First World War. In Afghanistan the loss of 454 soldiers caused deep public unease. Yet already the UK has lost over 80,000 people to coronavirus and people have become accustomed to the tragic daily toll.
When the UK government planned its 2006 deployment to Helmand Province in Afghanistan there was little discussion in government of the likely level of casualties. Since the purpose was to support and protect the UK development effort (the Provincial Reconstruction Unit) the assumption must have been that casualties would be negligible, although it was known that the Taliban were reorganising in Balochistan and that a more serious conflict was possible, even likely.
Nobody expected that British troops would find themselves under siege within months in Musa Qala, Nawzad, Sangin and Kajaki; in what was described as ‘four simultaneous Rorke’s Drifts’ (the infamous 1879 defensive action during the Anglo-Zulu War). Until 2006 the UK had lost 5 soldiers (not all to enemy action) in four and a half years. But within a few months the numbers of killed in action had reached over 86 and the figure for life-changing injuries was even more substantial. As coffins arrived back at RAF Lyneham and then processed through Royal Wootton Bassett one could feel ministerial support for the campaign begin to waver.
Single Big Figures
An informal view percolated through government that the loss of a troop-carrying helicopter with, say, 30 soldiers aboard would lead to a fundamental reassessment of the campaign. Fortunately this never happened although an RPG round went through the rotor pylon of a half-full Chinook in May 2008. The French commitment to the Afghan campaign was seriously shaken by a single ambush which killed 10 soldiers and wounded 21 others near Jalalabad in August 2008.
A senior British military colleague argued that the public would never again tolerate a war with significant military casualties. He made the point that the 454 soldiers killed in Afghanistan represented ‘a quiet day on the Western Front’ during the First World War. Some basic maths suggests that Britain lost an average of 341 men each day on the Western Front between August 1914 and November 1918. On a quiet day the numbers would have been fewer; perhaps close to the average of 257 deaths per day from coronavirus since 16 March 2020.
Necessity or Choice?
At first sight there is a very obvious distinction between the First World War and the Helmand deployment. The First World War was ‘a war of necessity’, a fight for national survival, whereas Afghanistan has been described as ‘discretionary’, ‘a war of choice’ a long way from home.
But does this distinction stand up to serious scrutiny? To most people nowadays the First World War looks discretionary. Britain did not have to go to the aid of Belgium or France. Germany posed little direct threat to the British mainland itself but did represent a major challenge to Britain’s global position, its overseas empire and its naval dominance. Few modern observers think that imperial ambition is a valid reason for such a destructive war; but we must accept that contemporary views were very different.
Furthermore the war in Afghanistan did not feel ‘discretionary’ at the time. The scale of the 9/11 attacks gave the impression (wrongly in retrospect) that the US and the West faced an existential threat to their way of life. Even viewed 19 years later, the destruction of Al Qa’ida was surely a necessity. Only the slow slide into a secondary conflict against the Taliban turned the Afghan war from one of ‘necessity’ to one of ‘choice’ (and we failed to notice the moment when the one mutated into the other).
There will be other wars of necessity. Future conflicts are likely to be about access to resources (such as Nile or Himalayan waters) but also the protection of treasured ways of life. Democracies remain threatened by totalitarian states and weak countries are still vulnerable to acquisitive neighbours. Invasions may be ‘wars of choice’ by the hostile party but resistance becomes a ‘war of necessity’ for the defenders.
‘Resilience’ to Casualty Figures
There are other factors too which affect willingness to accept casualties. Whether generals and politicians are thought to be competent; whether the troops are volunteers or conscripts; and whether a war is unpopular (like Vietnam).
There is also the question of visibility. The First World War dead were not brought home for burial. Attitudes might have been different if they had been. Yet a century ago people were more familiar with death, especially premature death, whereas today mortality is something kept at arm’s length and largely outsourced to professionals.
Many future conflicts will involve hybrid and asymmetric tactics but, for as long as weapons of destruction exist, the potential for mass casualties continues. The coronavirus pandemic has shown that people can become accustomed surprisingly quickly to high levels of mortality. The balance between preserving life and keeping economies afloat has introduced a new calculation. Wars can stimulate economies whereas pandemics damage them. So pandemic casualties fall into both categories at once; ‘necessity’ (until a cure is invented or a vaccine widely distributed) and ‘choice’ (as lockdowns are avoided whenever possible).
We like to think of ourselves as more empowered than the First World War generation. The UK is certainly more democratic now than then and the media more willing to challenge orthodoxies. Social media provides a sense (or illusion) of agency. But the pandemic has reminded us that human beings are not fully in control of their destinies and that on rare occasions mass casualties will both occur and be tolerated however horrifying they might be.
We will remember them
On the Western Front, the British lost 532,617 troops in 1,560 days between 4 August 1914 and 11 November 1918. During the coronavirus pandemic, the UK lost 76,305 people in the 297 days between 16 March 2020 and 5 January 2021. However, these rather basic statistics do not reflect the substantial age differences between the two categories and therefore the total loss of life expectancy.
Tim Willasey-Wilsey is Visiting Professor of War Studies at King’s College London and a former senior UK diplomat.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.