The need for pointless casualties

One of the absurd aspects of the “war on terror”, compared to real wars, is that it hardly involves any casualties. There was an obit in today’s Daily Telegraph — one among a thousand “moustaches”, as they’re known — of a sapper colonel, five times married, immediate MC in Sicily in 1943, fought for four days and nights at Arnhem until wounded in the head and neck and captured; fought Jewish terrorists in Palestine in 1947:

On one occasion, O’Callaghan was called out to deal with a domestic hot water tank which had been crammed full of explosives and placed on a milk float in a heavily built-up area.
The explosives were starting to sweat, and O’Callaghan decided to try to move the float to a beach near Haifa. While one of his sappers drove the float, O’Callaghan straddled the tank to prevent it rolling off and sprinkled the explosives with a watering-can. At the end of his tour, he was appointed MBE and received a second mention in dispatches.

The other remarkable note in the obit was supplied by the matter-of-fact description of his part in the invasion of Sicily.

In the late afternoon of July 9, O’Callaghan lifted off in a glider for the three-and-a-half-hour flight to Sicily. The wind was rising and the heavy buffeting caused many of the fabric coverings to split. The rapid inrush and outflow of air inflated and deflated the interior, giving rise to apprehension that the craft might disintegrate at any moment.
Many of the tug aircraft pilots, new to this work, became lost – and their gliders, released prematurely and forced back over the water by the strong winds, came down in the choppy sea causing heavy casualties. O’Callaghan said afterwards that his towing aircraft was either hit by flak or developed engine trouble. The pilot was not able to sustain height and the glider crash-landed on top of a wall several miles from its target, killing or injuring several of the men.

Now, if this were to happen today, the waste, the blundering, the stupid, pointless loss of life due to inadequate equipment and training, would be turned into a major scandal. No one would think the subsequent victory worthwhile. No doubt Lord Black would blame this defeatism on the media. But it goes back at least as far as the reactions to Jimmy Carter’s failed attempt to rescue the Iranian hostages. That wasn’t attacked by the BBC, but by the Republican media i the USA. Something profound has changed in our Western apprehension of war, or in the way we reckon odds. The traditional view was that the odds were badly against us in any case. Heavy and painful casualties were inevitable. Shouldn’t join the Army if you can’t take a joke. What mattered was a chance of hurting the enemy more. And now the loss of 49 soldiers in a series of deliberate, targeted enemy guerrilla attacks is thought to undermine the whole basis of the Iraqi war.

What’s really interesting is that public opinion is, in an important way, quite right, because it’s self-justifying. When you’re fighting guerrillas, or terrorists, the enemy is quite literally hydra-headed. You cannot kill them all, as the Israelis have so painfully been demonstrating for years. In the end, for every civilian that you shoot, another two “terrorists” are made. So the sacrifices our boys make are pointless,in a way that they were not when we were fighting the organised armies of an enemy state.

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