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

Sunday 23 October 2011 03:20

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.

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