The quality of sacrifice

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?

Author: Idrees Ahmad

I am a Lecturer in Digital Journalism at the University of Stirling and a former research fellow at the University of Denver’s Center for Middle East Studies. I am the author of The Road to Iraq: The Making of a Neoconservative War (Edinburgh University Press, 2014). I write for The Observer, The Nation, The Daily Beast, Los Angeles Review of Books, The Atlantic, The New Republic, Al Jazeera, Dissent, The National, VICE News, Huffington Post, In These Times, Le Monde Diplomatique, Die Tageszeitung (TAZ), Adbusters, Guernica, London Review of Books (Blog), The New Arab, Bella Caledonia, Asia Times, IPS News, Medium, Political Insight, The Drouth, Canadian Dimension, Tanqeed, Variant, etc. I have appeared as an on-air analyst on Al Jazeera, the BBC, TRT World, RAI TV, Radio Open Source with Christopher Lydon, Alternative Radio with David Barsamian and several Pacifica Radio channels.

3 thoughts on “The quality of sacrifice”

  1. Horrid politicians could not take us into wars without being encouraged to do so by globalist bankers.And the global synarchy has a nasty habit of financing both sides-which is ominous for the civilian populations affected.

    Perhaps Marx’s legacy-and let us not forget Marx like Engels was,along with his sponsors,a creature of international finance capitalists-has bequeathed a certain blindness across the left to the role of bankers in promoting war and revolution.

    All the wars mentioned were conceived,orchestrated and sustained by international banking families.Both World Wars and Vietnam were started and prolonged by these banksters and their agents.

    The civilian populations who suffered so appallingly in all these conflicts have been ill-served by this unforgivable failure of analysis.

    For the history of international bankers’ predilection for wars go to

    There’s a profile of Louis MacFadden a Congressman who stood up to the banksters who hi-Jacked the Fed in 1913 and like many before and since paid for it with his life.

    Also a short film on International Bankers and War.

    Don’t miss the interview with Eustace Mullins the writer whose history of the Fed is the Ur-text for all others on the topic.

  2. The cited web-page is so packed you could miss the piece re-the war-mongering Illuminati bloodlines of Richard Holbrooke-his role with Kissinger in Vietnam,the Balkanization of Yugoslavia,the AIG financial scam and currently his part in Obama’s escalation in Afghanistan.

    Don’t miss!It’s an insight into how the synarchy and its agents create and sustain war.

    The stated war aims begin as a crusade against “tyranny” for “civilisation” and “democracy”.These war aims become steadily blurred and ambiguous,then as the wars escalate in the nurturing and sustaining hands of the Baruchs,Kissingers and Holbrookes of this world and civilians are slaughtered and put to flight in their millions people either forget what the stated war aims were in the first place or they notice the discrepancy between the stated aims and the achieved results.

    The TAPI gas pipeline Israeli/US agenda will never figure in mainstream coverage as the main incentive for Obama’s intensification of the US war effort in Helmand.The Golden Triangle drug trade hardly features in orthodox histories of the Vietnam war.These war aims are less saleable than the high-falutin’ ones aforementioned.

    In the aftermath of the carnage of these wars historians of the left and right will argue that they were noble in intention though ill-conceived and clumsily executed.If “leftist” victories have resulted,as in the Soviet Union in 1945 and Vietnam thirty years later,then for left historians these are evidence of the resilience of the communist system in the face of capitalist aggression.

    The sordid truth behind all these wars can be established by eschewing these interested parties and shutting oneself up in the Library of Congress or the library at Stanford where the facts are in the public record.Once ensconced in these citadels of knowledge stay there until you’ve found out the why and wherefore or until you’re forcibly removed- as Anthony Sutton was from Stanford.

    When you’re removed from the library by the authorities-now that’s when you’ll know you’re on to something….

    For those interested in how WWI was deliberately prolonged by Rothschild agents like Bernard Baruch google Belgian Relief Commission.

    On how Kissinger et al persuaded the South Vietnamese not to accept peace terms in 1968 that suddenly became acceptable after 5 more years of profitable slaughter-Christopher Hitchens short bio is a good place to start.

    When Avril Harriman turned up in Moscow at the end of WW2 Stalin thanked him for Wall Street’s invaluble assistance in building the Soviet industrial base and war machine.

    The Harrimans were just one of the US railroad families cultivated as allies by Illuminati bankers like the Rothschilds who conceived and orchestrated the war in the aftermath of their WWI effort that in its turn had been financed through their US agents,J P Morgan.

    Seen in this historical context the labels “left” and “right” become somehow absurdly redundant.

  3. Of course it was the Harrimans who had re-injected funds into the bankrupt Nazi political machine in 1932.

    The usual crew of liberal-left commentators were lined up on DN this week to opine re-McNamara’s legacy.Zinn and the other two like-minded commentators desperately sought for signs of moral anguish exhibited in later life by war criminals like McNamara and Curtis LeMay-his mad bomber mentor.

    For missing the point DN coverage of the McNamara
    legacy could hardly be bettered.When one is dealing with an entirely amoral or satanic enterprise like the MIC and the synarchy behind it moral philosophy is risibly irrelevant.

    To shed some light on this moral irrelevance Goodman need only have reminded us that DN sponsors are the very same Ford Foundation where their subject,McNamara cut his teeth.

    Ironically in 1948 Rand was incorporated as a non-profit organization independent of Douglas Aerospace but it continued to receive the bulk of its funding from the airforce.Soon afterwards the Rand think-tank began to accept donations from the very same source as DN-the Ford Foundation.

    McNamara’s “whiz kids” were imported from Rand when he took the post of Defense Secretary.Yet the systems analysis and game theory they brought with them and which they thought would help them defeat the Soviets and win the cold War was of limited relevance to the prosecution of the Vietnam war.

    Why did McNamara and Rand so signally fail to predict the Tet Offensive? Why did Mac fail to understand Vietnamese nationalism?

    These are questions that dominate the post-mortem that coincides with the death of any of the major participants on the US side of the war.Zinn et al grapple with second of these questions in the recent broadcast.

    The answer to the second question is simply that game theory with its emphasis on the predicting the rational choices open to one’s enemy are entirely irrelevant when the game has been rigged from the start.

    Like other 20th century wars the Vietnam war was prosecuted by those like the Rand “whiz kids” who the PR taught us were the brightest and best of their generation etc.but these were people who were ultimately controlled by far more intelligent handlers who picked them for the psychological defects and human flaws they are so adept at spotting.These controllers were the people who were determined not so much to win the Vietnam war rather their goal was simply to sustain it for as long as possible.

    The precipitating “event” for the US escalation was Tonkin.It was later described typically by McNamara as “a mistake”.The truth was a little more prosaic- the so-called “attack” on US destroyers by NV M-T boats never in fact happened.

    Following Tonkin in 1966,LBJ,obligingly for the warmongers,lifted trade restrictions against the Soviets knowing they were supplying up to 80% of the NV armaments programme.Contemporaneously the Rockefeller interests began financing Soviet factories whose arms went to NV.

    The 1985 declassification of the US Rules of Engagement reinforce the case that a sustainable rather than a winnable war was the key MIC interest in S E Asia.

    The Rules make clear that the US wanted to calibrate its efforts to sustain a long and profitable war with plenty of opportunities to experiment on civilian populations with new weapons.

    Much is made in left histories of the Vietnam war about the effectiveness of the NV A-A defences.Kolko suggested that towards the end US pilots were aborting their missions because the A-A strike rate against US planes was so high.

    The rules suggest something quite different.

    NV A-A were not to be bombed until they had been verified fully operational.

    Critical strategic targets were not to be engaged without the prior approval of high officials.

    Unbelievably the US informed its enemies of the nature of these self-imposed restrictions on the US war effort.NV was thereby enabled to base entire strategies around what they knew from US sources re-the restricted nature of the US bombing campaign.

    Precisely calibrated bombing efforts had featured in previous wars orchestrated by the same people using precisely the same bright and intelligent public planners as McNamara and Rand in Vietnam.

    In 1940 the British began the bombing of German cities because the “phoney war” which had followed the declaration of war on Germany the previous September was in danger of petering out with there being no sign whatever that Hitler had any intention of attacking Britain!

    The British got what they wanted in response when Goebbels announced to an outraged German public that the Nazi response would be “total war”.The Wall Street and the Bank of England synarchy must have seen the cash registers burning up from then on!

    Similarly the calibrated nature of the Allied bombing effort became clear to the Germans late in
    the war when they noticed that the Allies had no intention of bombing the “death-camps”.Armaments and military installations on the German side naturally moved to these sites.

    Applying their pseudo-Freudian diagnostic techniques to the public servants who prosecute the wars the synarchy has conceived long before and trying to explain why they failed to show any real remorse for the millions of civilian deaths they caused as Zinn et al did on DN is about as relevant to the cause of war as ….ascribing Hitler’s warlike tendencies to his predilection for coprophilia!

    The Elders in the document described by establishment historians as a fake envisaged surrounding government with a host of economists,bankers,traders and millionaires whose record and character would be so bad as to form a gulf between the nation they served and themselves.To such people “who in case they disobey our orders,may expect judgement and imprisonment.These people will defend our interests to their deaths.”

    McNamara did defend these interests to the end,and so no doubt will Brzezinski,Kissinger,and Holbrooke.

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