Thursday, 30 June 2016

Body count

So we're finally going to see the Chilcot Inquiry about a hundred years after the British military fought its bloodiest, most costly battle ever. The coincidence made me think about how many British people the British state was prepared to sacrifice in the furtherance of diplomacy by other means, in the early 20th Century and the early 21st. The contrast is jaw-dropping:

19,240 British personnel killed on the first day of the Somme, 179 in the Iraq War between 2003 and 2009 and 454 in Afghanistan from 2003 to 2015. There are many other considerations, like how many enemy combatants and civilians our state is prepared to kill, but the drop in British military casualties is astonishing.

I'm not drawing any conclusions from the figures, although explanations range from the size of an effective fighting force shrinking, because weaponry has become more deadly, to the move from fighting against powerful, well-equipped states to asymmetric warfare against weak states and insurgent groups, to The Better Angels of Our Nature idea that we're just becoming less violent over time.

I suspect that more than one of these factors (and some others I've not thought of)* play a part in explaining the huge discrepancy. But there's one other fact which makes me think there might be something in the Better Angels explanation. That's the fact that, although the scale of the slaughter in World War One was staggering, it wasn't the bloodiest conflict in British history, if you think of the casualties as a proportion of the national population:
Although more Britons died in WW1 than any other conflict, the bloodiest war in our history relative to population size is the Civil War, which raged in the mid-17th Century. A far higher proportion of the population of the British Isles were killed than the less than 2% who died in WW1. By contrast, around 4% of the population of England and Wales, and considerably more than that in Scotland and Ireland, are thought to have been killed in the Civil War.

*Update - I should also have mentioned another obvious difference - that Britain was one of the major players in World War One, but was America's junior partner in Iraq and Afghanistan. But even the American deaths (4,486 US personnel killed in Iraq and 2,345 in Afghanistan) add up to less than half the body count of that one day on the Somme.