Casualty aversion and Blame Games

On both sides of the Atlantic, muscular interventionists perenially worry about whether their people have gone soft.

Thus Bill Rammell, Britain’s armed forces minister,confessed recently: ‘My great fear is that we as a nation will become so risk-averse, so cynical and so introverted that we will find ourselves in inglorious and impotent isolation by default.’

Rammell explains public unease with current operations as symptomatic of  a general ‘risk averse’ culture. His argument boils down to a crude position: its basically the people and the culture they inhabit who are to blame for low public support. They have little familiarity with the realities of war, as few have direct experience of it. They read garbage in the media that is out-of-date, sensationalist and partisan. They have unrealistic expectations of war itself, treating it like a workplace where injuries and death on the job are unacceptable. And so on.

What of a simple, plausible, alternative explanation: people are uneasy with the war in Afghanistan because they aren’t convinced its a war worth fighting? Its not just about helicopter shortages, the neglect of soldiers or equipment failures. Instead, for better or worse,the argument that ambitious expeditionary operations in Afghanistan are vital to UK security is hard to sell and hasn’t persuaded the people.

There are growing trends that increase pressure on the military not to take casualties, and which make force protection more of an obsession. But is that a good overall explanation for low public support?

There is good American literature on the ‘casualty aversion’ problem that can help us here. The thrust of it is that Americans will usually accept military casualties, if a) they believe the cause is legitimate and worthwhile, and b) they have a good chance of success. Against the occidentalist propaganda of their enemies and the anxiety of their leaders, they turn out not to be just debauched capitalists who have gone soft in their pleasure gardens. Despite the fact that fewer and fewer Americans are in contact with military life directly, they will support sacrifices if these conditions are met. One figure who banked wrongly on American casualty aversion was Saddam Hussein, who maintained until the final hours before invasion in 2003 that the Americans would not dare risk the losses, and would turn back.

In other words, context and politics matters. I’m not sure exactly how that would translate over in the UK. But the strength of this research is that it overturns the crude assumption that casualty tolerance is a biproduct of a monolithic and generalised ‘culture’, instead of something that is shaped by political context and political consciousness. It turns out people may not know that much, but are capable of balancing and judging sacrifices to causes, costs and outcomes.

Put it this way: since 2001, the Brits have lost almost 250 men killed in Afghanistan (not to mention some harrowing injuries too). And majority public opinion does not support the war, at least according to every recent poll taken.

Conversely, over a few months in the Falklands war of 1982, a war the British people firmly supported,  over two months 258 British combatants were killed (and many wounded).

So how do we explain this problem: a more deadly war where casualties were concentrated in a few months attracted high support, whereas a protracted set of operations in Afghanistan  is steadily losing public backing?

Do we assume that there is some general cultural explanation: that British civilians in 1982 were somehow more resilient? Instead of trying to measure societal resilience on some Dow Jones index of toughness, maybe we need to turn back to politics. In 1982, the government argued and the people agreed that British territory had unjustly come under attack, and that it was worth defending at a blood price. After 2001, they are less convinced that British security is served by the blood price of transforming Afghanistan into a strong, centralised state. The Prime Minister may argue that we have to disrupt the chain of terror in the mountains of Asia with the gift of ‘governance’ to prevent Islamist violence darkening our streets. But its a hard sell. Much harder than the Falklands.

There is a general problem with the ‘casualty aversion’ argument. It is ideologically loaded. Just because people oppose one war, doesn’t mean they oppose all wars. And anti-war sentiment, in Afghanistan or Vietnam, is not necessarily driven by a general risk aversion. Dissent is not necessarily cowardice, weakness or naivety. When people say they don’t think fighting in Afghanistan is a good idea, they might mean exactly that. If pirates blockaded the vital Straits of Hormuz tomorrow, and it would cost 500 deaths for us to stop them, including friends of mine, I know I would back the campaign. There would be so much at stake. (I realise that’s an improbably high number, but just for argument’s sake). On the other hand, do I think its worth losing hundreds more men in Afghanistan over the next five years, not to mention the other costs of the war? That’s a tougher one.

And if we step back and look at the uneasy triangle of people, state and military, there are lines of accusation between all three. Indeed, there is a toxic blame game.

The tabloids deliberately whip up public opinion to blame the government, in a kind of soft ‘Dolchstoss’ rhetoric, that the treacherous and incompetent ministers are stabbing the brave boys in the back. The government now turns around and blames the people, for being ignorant and risk averse.

In other words, the ‘casualty aversion’ slur is not a neutral or scientific charge, but part of wartime rhetoric itself.

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