BBC News Magazine

Page last updated at 16:41 GMT, Friday, 25 September 2009 17:41 UK

Counting the human cost of war

Naming the dead ceremony by Stop the War Coalition
Ceremony for the British soldiers and Afghan civilians who have died

Different ways of seeing stats

How should we think of the sacrifice by British soldiers in Afghanistan? So far, 217 men and women have been killed, many more injured. In his regular column, Michael Blastland reflects on the measure of the dead.

The casualties rise in Afghanistan. In newspapers and online, you can find a wall of photographed faces, read the names and look into the eyes of every soldier who has died in the conflict. Can there ever be an objective measure of cost, human or otherwise? This slideshow offers some attempts at an answer.

Afghanistan Chart Vietnam Chart WWII Chart Daily Telegraph Image

Every number raises questions. Some will ask where are the numbers for coalition forces, or Afghans who fought with them, or for civilians.

Others will wonder if it's right to compare the casualty rate for the front line in Afghanistan with the overall casualty rate in World War II, or, if we really want to make such a comparison, should it be between the front lines of both?

Most recent UK fatalities

Total deaths 2011: 32

Updated: Dec 18 2011

But does that mean we measure Afghanistan against the terrible losses of the First Airborne Division at Arnhem, to take one of many possible examples? Or is the question ridiculous, even offensive? Rates of casualty take no account of the changing composition of an army, once far fuller of administrative staff than now.

If we say that other wars should be our context, which ones? Maybe Cyprus or Malaya are better comparisons.

Dan Todman, a social historian at Queen Mary University, London, who has researched the figures for WWII, says casualty statistics are fraught with problems. See his blog here.

Another suggestion: if we say that the cost should be compared with the prize, what is the prize? Will it be the defeat of terrorism? How do we count the threat of continued terror attacks? On the Today programme on Radio 4 recently, the opinion pollster Bob Worcestor said no-one put the Afghanistan losses into context, and that we should compare these with those killed in the 11 September attacks.

Graph: Can we compare cost of terrorism with cost of war

Dan Todman also wonders if soldiers have a sense of collective loss for the whole operation, or if they simply feel the terrible loss of a friend and colleague. Perhaps what matters is not the big numbers, but the one, among the handful who knew him or her best, or his or her family.

Soldiers with coffin

Journalists are often told to provide context, but which context? There isn't one answer. Data matters, but often only when we know which question we want answered. And the question we ask is seldom in search of an objective measure of cost, human or otherwise, but an expression of what we think important, of our values and whatever politics of the war we support or oppose.

Readers might like to tell us how they would measure the human cost of war. For in the end, context starts within each of us as much as in any measurable comparison.

Here is a selection of your comments.

Never mind WWII, in WWI on a quiet day on the Western Front, British casualties were around the 2,000-mark each day. In WWII this was matched during the Normandy breakout in 1944.
Ian JOne, Wallasey, UK

No Quentin Campbell, not many feel ashamed of Bomber Command. In fact most are proud of what they did and the sacrifices or the air crew. Without Bomber Command, the war would have gone on for years longer with many more deaths.
JJLouis, London

"How about showing the rest of the 'human cost'... the civilian casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan" Deborah, Amersham

If we were to do this we should also do it for the Vietnam war and for WWII in the slideshow. This would further highlight the huge difference such as the estimated 40-80 million Russian casualties before and after the war.
Edd, oxford

How about showing the rest of the "human cost" the casualties and deaths on the other side, particularly the civilian casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan, which are seldom reported, but (I suspect) are huge.
Deborah, Amersham

I don't think anyone's ever asked about this war in terms of how it affects the population as a whole - how does the impact of coffins coming back to the UK from Afghanistan compare to the same from WW2, for example? I know only a handful of people who can't put a name, face, voice to someone in uniform and a depressing number speak about them in the past tense. I don't think the bottom line has changed though - we just want them to come home.
Elle, UK

Why are the Afghans who have been killed, both civilians and enemy fighters, not counted as part of the human cost? Is it not tragic and even shameful that the innocent civilians killed by in this conflict far outnumber the number of coalition military deaths? And even the enemy fighters who have died were someone's son or father, husband or brother. When will we ever learn that nothing will be solved by war.
Carol, Sheffield UK

It is facile to attempt to obtain "true context" in terms of the human cost of the Afghan War until we know what has been achieved. Even then it may prove difficult. We can evaluate and contextualise losses sustained in WWII because they can be viewed as part of the 'bigger picture.' In layman's terms we know what the end result was in WWII, so we can evaluate the human cost accordingly. In Afghanistan the end result is still far from clear. Even after our troops have gone it will be almost impossible to confidently state what would or wouldn't have happened if we had stayed longer, gone sooner or never gone at all. As such our only option is to define measurable and achievable military objectives, commit the resources we need to achieving them, then stand back and allow history to judge us. If generations to come perceive that we have done well the human cost to our troops and the suffering of the Afghan people becomes noble and worthwhile. If we are perceived to have failed, the human cost will be judged high in terms of the futility of the war. All that our troops can do, (and to a certain extent our politicians as well), is their utmost to make good decisions and stay the course.
Richard Burnell, Birmingham, UK

217 soldiers is exactly the number of aircrew in 31 Lancaster or Halifax bombers of WWII which could be lost in just one night in a raid over a heavily defended target. RAF bomber aircrew knew that the odds of surviving a tour were less than 30% but they always held on to the belief it would not be their aircraft that was lost.

Canadian pilot and author Murray Peden recalls: "The crews faced formidable odds, odds seldom appreciated outside the Command. At times in the great offensives of 1943 and 1944 the short-term statistics foretold that less than 25 out of each 100 crews would survive their first tour of 30 operations. On a single night Bomber Command lost more aircrew than Fighter Command lost during the Battle of Britain. Yet the crews buckled on their chutes and set out with unshakeable resolution night after night. They fell prey to the hazards of icing, lightning, storm and structural failure, and they perished amidst the bursting shells of the flak batteries. But by far the greater number died in desperately unequal combat under the overwhelming firepower of the tenacious German night fighter defenders."

Many in Britain feel ashamed of what Bomber Command did in WW II in spite of the terrible sacrifice in aircrew. Will history be as unkind to the soldiers killed in Afghanistan for whom we grieve now?
Quentin Campbell, Corbridge, Northumberland

Print Sponsor


A very modern way to mourn the fallen
18 Aug 09 |  Magazine

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific