Don’t miss Democracy Now’s coverage of the passing of Robert McNamara which includes a discussion on his later qualms about the massive human suffering that he had inflicted on Japanese and Vietnamese civilians. Geoffrey Wheatcroft here reflects on the true scale of the tragedy of modern wars that is concealed by the mealy mouthed tributes to dead soldiers. ‘Tributes to soldiers killed in action only underline that the victims of today’s wars are mainly civilians’, he writes .
A week ago, on 1 July, Lieutenant Colonel Rupert Thorneloe, the commanding officer of the Welsh Guards, was killed in Afghanistan. He and Trooper Joshua Hammond, who was killed with him, were returned to RAF Lynham on Monday with full military honours. As they were borne off the aircraft, did any of those watching remember another date, and other deaths in action?
Ninety-three years ago, on 1 July 1916, the battle of the Somme began. By the day’s end, almost 20,000 British soldiers had been killed, among them no fewer than 30 officers of the rank of lieutenant colonel or above. “Equality of sacrifice” can be a dishonest phrase, but it had some meaning then.
But then the army, and the nation, knew to expect terrible casualty lists, filled with soldiers of all ranks. Thorneloe was the first commanding officer of an infantry battalion to have been killed in either Afghanistan or Iraq during nearly eight years’ combat, in fact the first of his rank to be killed since the Falklands war. In general, what’s so remarkable about “coalition” casualties in these wars is not how high they have been but how low.
That’s to say that they have been low in any case, but shockingly small compared with Afghan or Iraqi deaths. No one really has any idea how many civilians have been killed in either country, and we have grown inured to one story after another about dozens of mountain villagers killed by an American air strike. What that means is that these disastrous campaigns have seen the culmination of a trend visible for much of the preceding century: we now live in the age of wars in which only civilians are killed.
Both of the great wars of the last century saw appalling bloodshed. Even now, as the very last men who served in the great war depart, the western front is an indelible national memory, and to a most striking degree. The other day the ever-unpredictable Andrew Flintoff went awol when he should have been in Flanders Fields, on a “bonding trip” with the rest of the England cricket team to the 1914-18 battlefields and graves.
Meantime other authors bow their heads or grind their teeth at the astounding success of Anthony Beevor’s D-Day: The Battle for Normandy, the runaway bestseller of the summer. Its success cannot be explained simply in terms of merit, good as the book is. Public fascination with battlefields, and an insatiable appetite for military history, at a time when fewer of us than ever before have any personal experience of war, surely represents a phenomenon of real significance.
To speak of those two great wars is to elide a crucial difference between 1914-18 and 1939-45. Frightful as the carnage was at Verdun, the Somme and Passchendaele, those who died in the first world war were almost all soldiers in uniform. No one has ever called it “the good war”, the phrase for the second world war popularised by the late Studs Terkel, the American oral historian. That name is indecent in any case – some wars may be necessary, none is ever good – but it ignores what was more horrible still about the second world war: military casualties were hugely outnumbered by civilian dead.
Millions were murdered by Hitler, while millions of Russians died as the wastage of war, from hunger or disease. During some earlier wars the sufferings of “non-combatants” had been miserable, with as much of Germany depopulated by the Thirty Years war as if it were the Black Death or cholera. But on the whole, and not least in the wars between Waterloo and the armistice in 1918, those who died were mostly soldiers.
In the second world war, German soldiers killed in action were considerably fewer than the Jewish men, women and children exterminated by the Germans. And the 300,000 British servicemen who died were outnumbered by the German civilians – at least 400,000 and possibly more – killed by British bombing. Apart from deliberate rapine or punishment, when whole cities were put to the sword, kings and generals had previously tried to distinguish between soldiers and others; in that “good war”, hundreds of thousands of civilians were deliberately incinerated.
And the trend continued. In yesterday’s obituary of Robert McNamara, there was one chilling passage. He was one of the architects of the Vietnam war – although he had decided the war was a mistake before President Lyndon Johnson removed him as defence secretary in 1967 – and spent the rest of his long life wrestling with his conscience.
As well he might. His obituary reminded us that, before the war ended, 58,181 Americans had died – along with about 200,000 from the South Vietnamese army, 900,000 North Vietnamese army and Viet Cong guerrillas, while “Vietnamese civilian deaths totalled more than one million”. Not only leftwing pacifists have pondered those figures with distaste. The late Colin Welch, for years deputy editor of the Daily Telegraph, had a lifetime earlier been a young infantry officer who fought bravely from Normandy to the Rhine. He once said with dry understatement that the contrast between American and Vietnamese casualties was not one that reflected much credit on the United States.
Nor does the contrast between “coalition” military losses and civilian deaths in Afghanistan. Could it be that, between our absorption in distant battles and our respect for men like Thorneloe and Hammond, we silently acknowledge our guilt about wars which our horrible politicians still take us into, and which inflict terrible sufferings on faraway innocents, but which so few of us now know anything about at first hand?