Casualties of War

In our politically aware age, military strategists strive to minimise casualties, not just on their side but on the enemy's, too. Yet Afghans are killing each other in their thousands, coalition forces risk life and limb every day and, where there is conflict, there are journalists in the firing line. Dead or alive, they are all victims of collateral damage and human wastage
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The Independent Online

War is a brutal business. Its glamour cannot disguise that it is ultimately concerned with killing human beings. In years gone by, generals such as Napoleon were willing to accept heavy losses among their own soldiers.

War is a brutal business. Its glamour cannot disguise that it is ultimately concerned with killing human beings. In years gone by, generals such as Napoleon were willing to accept heavy losses among their own soldiers.

Things have changed. Democratic governments are reluctant to accept heavy losses in war. Usually, roughly one third of all men lost are killed, the remainder wounded or taken prisoner. Indeed, the 58,000 deaths of soldiers in Vietnam so scarred Americans that ever since they have demanded that wars are fought with minimal "friendly" losses – preferably with no casualties at all. The fear of body bags coming home underpinned President Bush's Thanksgiving address last week, when he warned of the tough fight ahead in Afghanistan. But the hope is that the US armed forces, trained to fight smart, can win without a heavy "butcher's bill".

In a democracy, public support for military action is essential. There is a dubious but influential theory that during the Vietnam War there was a direct correlation between casualties and American public support for the conflict. Every time US losses increased by a factor of 10, opinion poll figures dropped by 15 per cent. In addition, the idea that unfavourable media coverage "lost" the Vietnam War remains common, in spite of the fact that there is very little evidence to support it.

A complicating factor is the need to avoid "collateral damage", the unintentional killing of civilians. Moreover, excessive enemy casualties can undermine domestic support for war. The grisly scenes on the Basra road when Allied aircraft destroyed a convoy of retreating Iraqis caused revulsion at home and seemingly led to Washington's decision to end the war quickly. As it was, critics such as the influential academic Noam Chomsky denounced the Gulf as slaughter, not war.

The lessons have sunk home. One of the first questions George Bush and Tony Blair would have asked when contemplating military action in Afghanistan was: "How many dead can we expect?". Their military advisers' answers would have been based in part on the arcane practice of OA (Operational Analysis).

By evaluating long-term trends in battle and using mathematical models, OA specialists forecast future activities and assess probable "wastage" of manpower. The British army's predictions for infantry in the Second World War were based on the figures of 1918, which proved roughly accurate. Today, the callous arithmetic would be based on operations from the Falklands onwards.

OA practitioners need to consider all kinds of issues: the effects of terrain over which the battle will be fought; the climate and how it will affect the sick rate, which was high among Soviet soldiers who served in Afghanistan in the 1980s. Perhaps the most important aspects are the likely toughness of the opposition; the state of training of the enemy forces; how advanced their equipment is; the state of their morale – all these have to be factored in.

Appearances can be deceptive. Before the ground offensive into Kuwait many pundits predicted heavy casualties among coalition forces, on the grounds that the Iraqi army was the fourth largest in the world, was armed with modern Soviet-supplied equipment, and was battle-hardened following its eight-year war with Iran. These views influenced coalition planning.

In fact, the Iraqi army was not battle-hardened but war-weary. Large numbers of reluctant Iraqi conscripts proved eager to surrender in the face of massive coalition military supremacy. The Gulf War turned out to be a crushing victory with minimal friendly casualties. Some OA models, had, in fact arrived at remarkably accurate predictions of casualties before the conflict began, but they seem to have made little impact on decision-makers.

Getting the forecast right is all-important, otherwise an army can find itself running out of men. This happened to the British army in the final campaigns of the First World War. The battles of 1918 were the greatest victories in British military history, but they followed the terrible losses of the Somme and Passchendaele in earlier years. In 1918 the army was a wasting asset.

If it is difficult enough to provide an accurate forecast for conventional battles, it is easy to see the problems of trying to predict operations against an opponent such as the Taliban. OA can only be as accurate as the information the analysts have to work on. Reputedly, during the Gulf War, an American offered to swap all the satellite photographs for one spy who could say what was going on in the Iraqi army. High technology, for all its virtues, is inferior to good quality "Humint" (human intelligence).

The pressure to keep fatalities as low as possible has contributed to the development of American and British military doctrine which is different from that of Normandy and Vietnam. The essence of the "manoeuvrist approach" is to think and fight smart, to avoid the adversary's strengths, and shatter the cohesion of the enemy forces rather than destroy them through attrition. Their favourite strategist is Sun Tzu. The ancient Chinese strategist's emphasis on intelligence, subtlety and deception, and his belief that the height of skill is not to destroy an army but subjugate it without fighting, is well-suited to the 21st-century mindset. We now have a thinking army.

Modern technology has produced the ability to deliver missiles and bombs on to targets very accurately and at long range, with minimal risk to friendly forces. The addition of the manoeuvrist approach to advanced weaponry and computer-based communications has produced a vision of a perfect war. This war is one in which there are zero friendly casualties, collateral damage and enemy personnel losses are kept to a minimum. Enemy forces are, however, so thoroughly disrupted by hi-tech military action and psychological warfare that they are incapable of fighting effectively.

We are not here yet. Even if the Taliban is thoroughly defeated – and we cannot take that for granted – old-style operations on the ground are a distinct possibility. In the American Civil War, General Sherman declared that "war is cruelty, and you can't refine it". His words still ring true. In the age of the cruise missile, war is still ultimately about the brutal business of killing and dying.

Dr Gary Sheffield is land warfare historian at the Joint Services Command and Staff College, Shrivenham, and is the author of 'Forgotten Victory: The First World War – Myths and Realities'