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Last Updated: Thursday, 2 February 2006, 12:19 GMT
Death on the battlefield
With the death toll of British service personnel in Iraq now standing at 100, military historian Peter Caddick-Adams, in a personal viewpoint, considers the private and public impact of battlefield losses in the 21st Century.

As the sad death of Cpl Gordon Pritchard, the 100th British soldier to be killed in Iraq, is announced, it is worth pondering how this has impacted on the nation.

Predictably, newspapers, radio and TV have covered this milestone in great detail. It is an inevitable fact that casualties are the currency of war and worth reflecting that 77 of these deaths were in combat, and the remaining 23 were the sort of losses the British military unfortunately suffers in peacetime at home - traffic collisions, accidents with firearms and so on.

The military is a dangerous environment, so it is appropriate that training is as realistic (and therefore challenging) as possible.

Looking at casualty rates objectively is difficult territory for a military historian - with accusations of treading on the sensibilities of those who mourn the loss of their loved ones - for each statistic represents a dead serviceman and a traumatized family.

Tony Blair and Cpl Pritchard
Tony Blair meeting Cpl Pritchard, the 100th British soldier to die in Iraq
With 80,000 British service personnel having served in Iraq over three years, the chance of a death in combat that gives a member of the forces a 1:1,039 chance of death in combat. Sounds pretty high, doesn't it? Actually, no.

With around eight million enlistments into the British armed forces during World War I and nearly a million casualties, the chances of death whilst wearing a uniform were 1:8. During the World War II casualties were much lower and the odds of a fatality fell to 1:17.

By the time of the Korean War (1950-3), with just more than 1,000 killed in three years, members of the UK armed forces suffered a 1:60 chance of death, while the three-month campaign in the Falklands (March-June 1982) took 255 lives of the 30,000 personnel engaged in the campaign; a fatality rate of 1:118.

Just over 1,000 members of the security forces were killed in Northern Ireland over 30 years (from 1969), out of well over half a million deployed there, resulting in a fatal casualty rate of 1:500.

It is sobering to reflect that it is more dangerous to be a journalist in Iraq (77 have been killed out of over 5,000 who have covered the war there since March 2003, or 1:39) than a soldier.

Previously, suffering a death in the family from military action may have been easier to bear because everyone knew someone in the forces and shared the same anxieties
Peter Caddick-Adams
But the real impact is, of course, on the families of those killed.

Until the last conscript had left the British forces in 1962, military service was a fact of life that touched most families. Suffering a death in the family from military action - whilst still traumatic - may have been easier to bear because everyone knew someone in the forces and shared the same anxieties about their loved ones. You could share grief, if you needed to, more easily with others who understood and sympathised.

In 2006 this is not the case. How many of you even know someone in the military? Therefore, the families of those 100 soldiers who have died may feel far more isolated in their loss and less ready to accept the reasons for it. They are all, nevertheless, facing their family tragedy with great bravery and dignity.

Perhaps the decision to repatriate our fallen warriors makes a difference, too.

Traditionally, our men (and so far, no women have been killed in combat, although around 10% of all service personnel are female) have been buried in "some corner of a foreign field". But since the Falklands War, next of kin have had the option to bring their loved ones home, and all 100 who died in Iraq will ultimately rest in their native country, flown back with great dignity to a muted ceremony at RAF Brize Norton.

Coffin
Next of kin can now retrieve their loved one's body from abroad
Comparison will inevitably be drawn with the US casualty rate of 2,243 at the time of writing, but this reflects the size of their commitment (more than 550,000 have served in Iraq) and the wider area of hostile territory they have to control.

So what do the 100 deaths tell us?

It is worth reflecting that the size of the initial UK commitment, which numbered about 45,000 service personnel, and the massive resources required to support and sustain them in Iraq suggests, if anything does, we should look at Iraq as at least a five-year deployment.

No general or politician will tell you that, but historically it is rare for Britain to deploy and depart large forces in under that time-frame.

This is not an occasion to argue the legal basis of the war in the first place, but if we regard ourselves as three years into a five-year term in Iraq, then where are we?

Perhaps my observations won't be welcome, but I see a tyrannical regime overthrown, a hint of democracy in a region where that is rare, the beginnings of a local militia and police force that can one day take control, and an excessively fair trial of a ruthless and bloody former dictator - and possibly another two years left in which to create greater stabilization.

All this has so far been achieved at the lowest-ever casualty cost in British military history. Perhaps the news is not so bad, after all, and more importantly, those 100 will not have died in vain.


Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

Andy in the UK says: "We have a society that is less able than ever to accept war losses.". I say: thank goodness.
Kevin, London

A statistical analysis like this only serves to disguise the real situation. British Service people are being killed for little benefit. Iraq is descending into chaos because our soldiers went in there. They went in because of a naive belief that arms alone could solve the ethnic and religious tensions.
Ian, Scotland

A very thoughtful assessment on how the general public view our military casualties in this campaign. I think it reinforces the understanding that the majority of us know that Iraq is not the first and won't be the last controversial deployment of our soldiers. They are in my thoughts.
Richard, London

Thank you for such a positive and helpful article from one who was there in 2003 and has had a constant stream of very close and special friends in harms way every since. Do not let all that effort be in vain. Soldiers are putting themselves at considerable risk to do what they believe is right for the greater good. They did not ask to go, but they are prepared to do a selfless and professional job in order to return Iraq to the control of the Iraqis as soon as they are strong enough to shoulder the burden. Those men and women of our armed forces need and deserve our support to achieve that goal.
Charlie Lambert, Warminster, Wiltshire

I'm an old soldier of the sixties and seventies and feel for the families of the casualties of Iraq. Words are of little comfort for the bereaved. I do admire what our soldiers have to put up with but they do accept the risk. As regards being sent to Iraq, it reminds me of the Chief Petty Office on his way to the Falklands who said "This is what they have been paying me for all these years!" The world must be a better place without Saddam's regime.
David Moorhouse, York

My husband is in the forces and quite frankly the public do not care unless it is something that affects them directly. The risks are and always have been a part of his job but he is trained to deal with these. For the most part, families who have lost loved ones in whatever conflict wish an acknowledgement by the public and government that their sacrifice is recognised. My heart goes to those who have family in all war zones may you all come home safely.
Alison , Lanarkshire

At last a sensible and sober analysis of the Iraq conflict.
Phil, Market Drayton

Coming from a country (Holland) where conscription up until a couple of years ago was compulsory and I indeed ended up in greens for just short of two years. I agree that families with serving members are more isolated over here. Two members of my battalion lost their lives during my time in the army. Maybe they felt less isolated. My heart goes out to the families over here.
Werner van Peppen, Uxbridge, London

How many more civilian deaths during the next 2 years - and after, due to our "liberation" of Iraq?
Alan, Geneva

I've served almost 22 yrs including one tour of Iraq. The fact that a tyrannical regime has been overthrown and democracy installed is irrelevant -: what about Zimbabwe, China, Iran - are they next? We invaded Iraq on the basis of lies and every British soldiers' death is a waste. No wonder we have a recruiting problem and cannot retain people.
JC, Blackpool

Perhaps we shouldn't have started, but all the more reason to stay and finish the job to justify the cost.
Simon Mallett, UK Maidstone

Historians are required to be unbiased, to present and examine the facts and alternatives. May we hope that Caddick-Adams learns to be so, so that he may in turn learn to be a historian. This presentation is one sided, therefore merely 'unhistorical' propaganda.
Jamie, Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic

What is also sad is the fact that there are so many more wounded surviving horrific injuries, ironically because of better and faster treatment on the battlefield. The continuing impact of the war on them as they struggle through rehabilitation does not get much press attention.
Candace, New Jersey, US

The difference between recent conflicts and the others mentioned is the technology. A death is reported immediately, and in every area of the media. This is the first time there has been so much instant coverage, maybe the media has a part to play in the hysteria over these losses.
Richard, Kent

It is extremely sad for the families of injured or dead servicemen and women. However, they are in the armed forces by choice and should expect, as history proves, to be called to arms at some point during their service.
Simon, Brighton

Whilst extending my sympathies to the families of all the UK troops who have lost their life in Iraq and Afghanistan, it should be noted that we have a society that is less able than ever to accept war losses. In a blame culture where "someone" is always to be blame and financial "compensation" is the 'norm' it's difficult to accept that fighting means losses, and that unless we accept that fact, then the UK forces will become handicapped to the point when our troops will not be able to be deployed anywhere except home. Whether this is admirable depends upon your point of view!
Andy, UK

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