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

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

Project Manager (App development, SAP, interfacing)

£50000 - £60000 Per Annum + excellent company benefits: Clearwater People Solu...

Systems Developer Technical Lead

£65000 - £70000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based i...

Energy Engineer

£25000 - £30000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: Job Title: Energy En...

Techincal Accountant-Insurance-Bank-£550/day

£475 - £550 per day + competitive: Orgtel: Senior Technical Accountant-Insuran...

Day In a Page

A selection of 'Pro-Choice' badges are displayed on the coat of a demonstrator during a march from the Garden of Remembrance to the Dail (Irish Parliament) in Dublin, Ireland  

Ireland's refusal to provide a safe abortion to a suicidal rape victim is a national shame

Peadar O‘Grady
Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

A descent into madness in America's heartlands

David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home
Lauded therapist Harley Mille still in limbo as battle to stay in Britain drags on

Lauded therapist still in limbo as battle to stay in Britain drags on

Australian Harley Miller is as frustrated by court delays as she is with the idiosyncrasies of immigration law
Lewis Fry Richardson's weather forecasts changed the world. But could his predictions of war do the same?

Lewis Fry Richardson's weather forecasts changed the world...

But could his predictions of war do the same?
Kate Bush asks fans not to take photos at her London gigs: 'I want to have contact with the audience, not iPhones'

'I want to have contact with the audience, not iPhones'

Kate Bush asks fans not to take photos at her London gigs
Under-35s have rated gardening in their top five favourite leisure activities, but why?

Young at hort

Under-35s have rated gardening in their top five favourite leisure activities. But why are so many people are swapping sweaty clubs for leafy shrubs?
Tim Vine, winner of the Funniest Joke of the Fringe award: 'making a quip as funny as possible is an art'

Beyond a joke

Tim Vine, winner of the Funniest Joke of the Fringe award, has nigh-on 200 in his act. So how are they conceived?
The late Peter O'Toole shines in 'Katherine of Alexandria' despite illness

The late Peter O'Toole shines in 'Katherine of Alexandria' despite illness

Sadly though, the Lawrence of Arabia star is not around to lend his own critique
Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire: The joy of camping in a wetland nature reserve and sleeping under the stars

A wild night out

Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire offers a rare chance to camp in a wetland nature reserve
Comic Sans for Cancer exhibition: It’s the font that’s openly ridiculed for its jaunty style, but figures of fun have their fans

Comic Sans for Cancer exhibition

It’s the font that’s openly ridiculed for its jaunty style, but figures of fun have their fans
Besiktas vs Arsenal: Five things we learnt from the Champions League first-leg tie

Besiktas vs Arsenal

Five things we learnt from the Champions League first-leg tie
Rory McIlroy a smash hit on the US talk show circuit

Rory McIlroy a smash hit on the US talk show circuit

As the Northern Irishman prepares for the Barclays, he finds time to appear on TV in the States, where he’s now such a global superstar that he needs no introduction
Boy racer Max Verstappen stays relaxed over step up to Formula One

Boy racer Max Verstappen stays relaxed over step up to F1

The 16-year-old will become the sport’s youngest-ever driver when he makes his debut for Toro Rosso next season
Fear brings the enemies of Isis together at last

Fear brings the enemies of Isis together at last

But belated attempts to unite will be to no avail if the Sunni caliphate remains strong in Syria, says Patrick Cockburn
Charlie Gilmour: 'I wondered if I would end up killing myself in jail'

Charlie Gilmour: 'I wondered if I'd end up killing myself in jail'

Following last week's report on prison suicides, the former inmate asks how much progress we have made in the 50 years since the abolition of capital punishment