Robert Fisk: Why these deaths hit home as hard as the Somme

Share
Related Topics

More than 200 soldiers dead in Afghanistan, and now Gordon Brown advises us that "the best way to honour their memory is to see the course through". I don't know which particular "course" Gordon has in mind – protecting democracy, training the Afghan army, defeating the Taliban, talking to the Taliban, or just fighting them so they don't turn up on British shores – but this is straight out of the George W Bush tear bucket.

Not so long ago, I seem to remember, Bush was telling us that we would be betraying the American dead in Iraq if we gave up the fight. We owed it to the dead to go on killing more Iraqis. And now we owe it to the dead to go on killing more Afghans. Who, of course, will go on killing us. Is there no end to this madness?

If we are now going to send our soldiers to be killed because the soldiers we sent before have been killed, then we should get out of Afghanistan today. As a matter of fact, I believe that's what we should do. None of our military – or any other Western soldiers – have any business occupying a square metre of the Muslim world. But there you have it.

We've lost more than 200 soldiers but to honour them, we've got to lose some more. The Brits – wise folk, though sometimes a bit slow on the uptake – worked all this out a long time ago. Hence the lines of mourners at Wootton Bassett (no government ministers, of course) every time a flag-draped coffin comes home.

Yet I do wonder whether our concern about this war doesn't just come from the weirdness of the military campaign, but from the funerals themselves.

Until the First World War, our soldiers – unless they were rich or famous – were not even memorialised but simply dumped in mass graves. At Malplaquet and at Waterloo, there were no gravestones. In the First World War, soldiers wrote the names of the fallen on wooden crosses and the bodies were later transferred to the Great War Lutyens cemeteries of the Western Front, where they lie to this day. At Ypres, the local fire brigade still play the Last Post every evening. And our soldiers were buried at Gallipoli, in Palestine and even in Mesopotamia (where other wars, alas, have scythed down their headstones).

So, too, in the Second World War. Our soldiers still lie in rows in Normandy, in Germany, in the Far East. No flag-draped coffins arrived back in Britain. Just a telegram through the door of their families. Did this save us from questioning the wars in which they were dying? Most Brits thought the second great 20th-century conflict worth fighting. Not so – after the Somme – the first.

And let's just remind ourselves of the casualty figures. We've lost just over 200 soldiers – admittedly most of them in the past 14 months – in a war that has lasted for eight years. In the Second World War, which lasted for almost six years, Britain lost 650 men on D-Day, 6 June 1944, alone. The Canadians lost only 335, but the Americans lost 1,465. In just one day. And let's go back to the Great War. On the first day of the Somme – 1 July 1916 – we lost almost 19,500 dead. That's almost a hundred times our Afghan dead in 24 hours.

At the 1917 battles of Arras and Messines, the Brits lost 37,500. But they didn't come home. They stayed on the battlefield. Of course, we cannot keep our soldiers in Afghan graves – indeed, when the Victorians did just that, the Afghans dug them up and mutilated their bodies – but the steady drip-drip of corpses home from foreign fields is something that British prime ministers have never had to deal with before.

Needless to say, few of those who gather at Brize Norton spare a lot of time remembering the Afghan and the Iraqi civilian dead. How many months would it take for their hundreds of thousands of bodies to be driven in solemn cortege through British towns? Their fate is, after all, no less "deeply tragic" – the Ministry of Defence's words for our latest casualties – as the loss of British soldiers.

I guess we've grown used to TV-war, the kind where we live and they – the other, alien people with brown eyes and a strange religion – die. And they must not be allowed to reach the shores of England. Which is why, occasionally and few in number, we die too. Or so Gordon would have us believe.

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Front-End UI Application Developer

£30000 - £40000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Front-End UI Application ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Service Engineers - Doncaster / Hull

£27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Domestic Service Only Engineers are requ...

Recruitment Genius: Employability / Recruitment Adviser

£23600 - £27500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The Employability Service withi...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Errors & Omissions: how to spell BBQ and other linguistic irregularities

John Rentoul
 

South Africa's race problem is less between black and white than between poor blacks and immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa

John Carlin
Where the spooks get their coffee fix: The busiest Starbucks in the US is also the most secretive

The secret CIA Starbucks

The coffee shop is deep inside the agency's forested Virginia compound
Revealed: How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Loch Ness Monster 'sighting'

How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Nessie 'sighting'

The Natural History Museum's chief scientist was dismissed for declaring he had found the monster
One million Britons using food banks, according to Trussell Trust

One million Britons using food banks

Huge surge in number of families dependent on emergency food aid
Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths 2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths trove
The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey, 25 years on

The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey 25 years on

The space telescope was seen as a costly flop on its first release
Did Conservative peer Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

Did Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

A document seen by The Independent shows that a week after he resigned from the Lords he sold 350,000 shares in an American company - netting him $11.2m
Apple's ethnic emojis are being used to make racist comments on social media

Ethnic emojis used in racist comments

They were intended to promote harmony, but have achieved the opposite
Sir Kenneth Branagh interview: 'My bones are in the theatre'

Sir Kenneth Branagh: 'My bones are in the theatre'

The actor-turned-director’s new company will stage five plays from October – including works by Shakespeare and John Osborne
The sloth is now the face (and furry body) of three big advertising campaigns

The sloth is the face of three ad campaigns

Priya Elan discovers why slow and sleepy wins the race for brands in need of a new image
How to run a restaurant: As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food

How to run a restaurant

As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food
Record Store Day: Remembering an era when buying and selling discs were labours of love

Record Store Day: The vinyl countdown

For Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Usher, Mary J Blige and Will.i.am to give free concert as part of the Global Poverty Project

Mary J Blige and Will.i.am to give free concert

The concert in Washington is part of the Global Citizen project, which aims to encourage young people to donate to charity
10 best tote bags

Accessorise with a stylish shopper this spring: 10 best tote bags

We find carriers with room for all your essentials (and a bit more)
Paul Scholes column: I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England

Paul Scholes column

I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England
Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

The heptathlete has gone from the toast of the nation to being a sleep-deprived mum - but she’s ready to compete again. She just doesn't know how well she'll do...