Lies, Damn Lies and Numbers…

18 08 2009

Two interesting historical posts coming out of the Indepenent today. I’ll write something about the second later, but for now I wish to consider Robert Fisk’s comment on the number of British casualties in Afghanistan.

The full copy of Fisk’s thoughts is to be found here. It is emotively entitled “Why these deaths hit home as hard as the Somme”. Upon seeing such a headline I will admit to growing fearful about the content of the article. Where was Fisk going with such an ill-considered banner line? I actually disagree with the implication of such a headline, I think that these Afghanistan deaths hit home harder because of many things, not least the nature of the world media. That’s by the by though.

The real point that Fisk made, and it is something I agree wholeheartedly with him about, is this one. He writes it pretty succinctly so I’ll simply transcribe his words:

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. 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.

A good point well put I feel. The deaths in Afghanistan are, of course, tragic, but they are small fry compared to many other battles, wars, military engagements made by the British. The word ‘tragic’ above was carefully picked as to echo Stalin’s famous thoughts on war dead, paraphrased “one death is a tragedy, a million is a statistic“. This I feel has a certain resonance when considering the parallels between the two conflicts. The reason there is such a media outpouring when another British soldier falls is because the event is a comparative rarity.

The British army have grown a lot better at engaging an enemy, and because of this the death rate has fallen. However, this falling death rate has meant that more time can be given to each dead person. We are told their names, their ages, their private life. We are told this because we can be told. The media can keep up, and play with the public emotions of hearing of one more dead person. They simply couldn’t during WW1. The soldiers were falling in such numbers that no-one really knew who was dead, and who wasn’t. Soldiers were lost during battles, and only inaccurate numbers could suffice as to the number of dead on any given day of the war.

The real point is that we should actually be thankful that only 201 troops have died during eight years of conflict in Afghanistan. There is, of course, the lingering question of whether Britain should be in the country in the first place, but that’s a whole different issue. The result is that the soldiers are. And they’ve only lost 201 of their own through the course of eight years of action. That’s actually a pretty remarkable statistic. That’s 201 deaths in 2850 days (roughly). That’s mightly impressive really. The army should be commended for this, not chastised. Of course these soldiers should be remembered too, but the army should not be attacked for losing men, it is after all, the nature of the beast.




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