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Casualties of War

Battle of the SommeOn July 6, 2016, the British Government, under the leadership of former government civil service official, John Chilcot, issued its definitive summary of the six-year (2003-2009) British occupation of Iraq. The final result, twelve volumes, over 2.6 million words, seven years in the making, was a devastating critique of the adventure and of Prime Minister Tony Blair and his government. Concluding that the occupation was unnecessary, misdirected, and flawed from the beginning, the Chilcot report rocked the British public to its core and, coming shortly after the Brexit vote, made for one of the worst periods of modern British history. 

Calling the aftermath “more hostile, protracted and bloody than ever we imagined,” the report prompted former PM Blair to confess that his decision to support the U.S. in Iraq was “the hardest, most momentous, most agonizing decision I took in my ten years as Prime Minister.” 

The initial British invasion force consisted of 46,000 troops and support but dwindled down over the ensuing occupation. By the end in 2009, the U.S. fatality list numbered about 4,500 amidst a force of about 160,000. The total British fatalities from this six-year mission: 179. That’s right: 179 in six years, described as “more bloody than we ever imagined.”

Is there a disconnect here? If so, there is certainly no perspective. Consider the following.

July 1, 1916: the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) charges from the river Somme in France over no-man’s land toward German trenches just yards away, expecting to end World War I. They never made it. Hundreds of enemy machine guns and artillery cut them to pieces, averaging eight dead each second! By 2 PM on that same day, the BEF had suffered 60,000 casualties, 20,000 dead! The Battle of the Somme ended on November 18, with 92 more charges by the BEF (none as bad as the first). The war went on for two more years, taking tens of thousands of men from both sides on any given afternoon.

There was no “Chilcot Report” in 1916, and BEF Commander, Douglas Haig, remained as one of the bright stars in British military history, claiming that the Somme was, in fact, a British “victory.” This battle took five miles of French ground and cost 420,000 British casualties total, but life went on in Whitehall. One searches in vain for words to compare this one hundred year gap between generational fantasy versus reality. They both can’t be right.

A greater perspective than even the Somme would reveal a profound disparity between what our modern generation calls “suffering” and what earlier generations, around the globe, accepted as the price of war. Consider just World War II, within the lifespan of many readers, including this writer. A summary of that conflict’s terrible battle statistics might serve to remind us of the nature of human “suffering” with a deeper appreciation of our current problems.  The following list is characteristic (casualties in parentheses):  Battle of Stalingrad (1.8 million), Berlin (1.3 million), Moscow (I million), Narva (550,000), France (469,000), Luzon (345,000), Kharkov (300,000), Kursk (388,000), and The Bulge (186,000). The list goes on, seemingly endless. If not sufficient, we can return to World War I after the Somme: The Hundred Days Offensive (1.8 million), The Spring Offensive (1.5 million), Verdun (976,000), and Passendale (848,000). 

It’s been said that a single death is a tragedy; a million is a statistic. The Chilcot Report in Britain diminishes the sacrifices of those British soldiers who gave their-all to keep that country alive.

A mature and stable society requires a perspective on its own identity or else it roams loose without compass or direction.