By Stuart Crawford
It sometimes seems that hardly a day goes past without news of another military death in Afghanistan. So much so that we have become, I suspect, almost inured to it. But the families and relatives who are affected directly are not inured, that’s for sure.
Every death must be a blow to the soul, not only for the latest victim’s loved ones, but also for those who have suffered previously and who need no more reminders of their own losses.
The British military death toll in Afghanistan now stands at 357 (although it should be noted that casualty figures do not always add to an agreed total figure owing to differences is reporting procedures and other anomalies). The statistics say that 309 have been killed in action, with 42 dying from “other causes”. That seems to leave six deceased unaccounted for – but, whatever the circumstances, the ever-increasing total makes grim reading.
It wasn’t long ago that we reached 100 dead, and now the 500 milestone looms. I fear it won’t be long in coming unless we see sense and get out of there soon.
Closer examination of the butcher’s bill reveals some other information. Some 290 of the total were killed by hostile action, five by “friendly fire”. As anyone who has been in the military will tell you, there is no such thing as friendly fire: all fire is unfriendly and can kill you. The Americans call it fratricide, which is more accurate, or “blue on blue” – friendly forces are habitually marked on the map in blue, the enemy in red. But it is heartbreaking however you label it. Killed by your own side is really hard to take.
The ages of the dead make for sobering reading. “Only” 15 were aged 40 or over. The vast majority were in their prime, aged 20–29, while 31 were aged 19 and under, barely out of childhood. This indicates that – surprise, surprise – most of those killed in the line of duty were in the front line, as it were, where the enthusiasm and fitness of youth – and perhaps the innocence, too – is at a premium. Nowhere is really safe for the troops in Afghanistan, with IEDs (improvised explosive devices) and suicide bombers unrestrained by any recognizable conventional combat zone. But it is the boys and girls at the sharp end who bear the brunt.
Worth mentioning in passing is that the death rate for officers is proportionally higher than that for NCOs and soldiers. A total of 30 officers have been killed in theatre, compared to 323 other ranks. This is twice as many as one would expect had deaths been proportionate across the ranks. It is a very British statistic. Not only is the proportion of officers to men (and women) high in the British army compared to European equivalents, at approximately one in every 20, but it also reflects the British tradition of leading from the front.
Nobody can accuse the British “officer class” of shirking its duties – quite the opposite. At Sandhurst, we were taught never to ask one’s men to do anything one wouldn’t do oneself. The lesson obviously still sticks.
Interestingly, the gender of those killed is out of kilter with the makeup of the army at least. Some 10 per cent or thereabouts of the army is now female, yet there has been just one female soldier killed in Afghanistan. One is too many, but it may reflect the fact that, even in these modern times, traditionalists keep women out of the combat areas. Do feminist activists see this is a good or bad thing? Would true equality include a proportionate number of casualties?
Not surprisingly, it is the army which has borne the brunt of those killed in action, some 289 so far. But what is noticeable is that the Royal Marines, part of the Royal Navy, seem to have suffered the highest proportional casualties of all. Forty-nine Marines killed out of a total corps strength of just over 8,000 is a rate roughly three times higher than the army equivalent, based on total numbers in both cases. Possibly this is because the Marines, like the Parachute Regiment, are elite troops and are always to be found where the action is hottest.
Finally, we should look closer to home. Of all military deaths in the current conflict, some 24, or 6.7 per cent, have been Scots. Given that Scotland comprises roughly 8.6 per cent of the UK population, and that traditionally Scots have provided a disproportionately larger part of the British armed services, this seems to indicate that, for once, we have been spared the very worst of the casualty toll to date. Compared with the first world war, when 557,000 Scots served and one in four was killed – a death rate of 26 per cent compared to 11 per cent for Britain as a whole – we have, thankfully, got off lightly.
But not lightly for those who have suffered the grievous loss of a son, brother, husband, partner or friend. I wish I could believe that their deaths have not been in vain.