Tuesday, January 02, 2007

No apologies

Such is the general disdain for things military shown by my more politically savvy colleagues and rivals, who feel they have far more important things to write about than men (and women) fighting and dying, that I almost feel impelled to apologise for writing another post about things military.

For the sake of this blog too, which always shows a slight downturn in readership when we deal intensively with military matters, one tends to the view that we should avoid the subject for a while and write about more popular issues in order to maintain the hit rate.

However, safe in the knowledge that vital matters of state are being closely monitored here and here, I feel we can nevertheless attend to what many are treating as a trivial issue - the "grim milestone" of the 3,000th recorded US military death since the invasion of Iraq.

If in so doing we are taking a side-swipe at UK political blogs, it is not only because this event is important in its own right but also because it is a political event, and one of some significance to the UK. The reaction to it by the American public will have an impact on our own foreign policy in that vital area of the Middle East, and also on the fate of our troops committed to the theatre, that in itself having political repercussions.

That our own bloggers are so heedless of such issues, however, is not so much a reflection on them as on the body politic as a whole. It – rather like the media - has become so introverted and wedded to its own internal affairs that it has ceased to understand the relevance of such tedious things as foreign policy and defence matters – unless a cheap debating point can be scored.

Nevertheless, of the several points arising from this sad event which are of political concern to us, all are hugely important. The first one is that, while the US military has now suffered 3,000 fatalities, in comparative terms, we are not that far behind. The US currently maintains an establishment of 134,000 in theatre against the UK's 7,200. If we maintained the same number, our fatalities (currently standing at 127) would, on a pro rata basis, have reached nearly 2,500. And that is in a supposedly more peaceful sector where there is no sectarian rivalry.

For the Americans, the biggest single cause of deaths from enemy action is the improvised explosive device (or IED) which has accounted for a third of US casualties. That brings us to the second point of political concern to us: roughly a third of UK combat casualties have also been caused by IEDs.

Third, in both cases, the casualty rate has been needlessly high as a result of reliance on inadequately armoured patrol vehicles, in the US case the Humvees and with us the "Snatch" Land Rovers.

Fourthly, in both instances, some improvements are being made. The US is fielding RG-31s, Cougars and Buffaloes, the latter two vehicles being extraordinarily resistant to IEDs. (The photographs show three instances of Buffaloes hit by IEDS, with the crews walking away unharmed.) The UK, on the other hand, is fielding up-armoured FV432s, known as Bulldogs, and Mastiffs.

Fifth, the rate of introduction of these vehicles is too slow, in the US sector, and – with the UK, overly delayed. In both cases, it is a question of too little too late.

Finally, both governments are going to have to make tough decisions in the near future. They are going to have look at public reaction to the current (and likely future) casualty rates and assess whether they are politically sustainable - in our case, how many more "Snatch" Land Rovers we are prepared to see burn.

If the respective governments conclude that they are going to let the casualties mount at the same rate, then they are going to have to work out how to neutralise the hostile sentiment as the figures increase. If, on the other hand, they decide that the death rates must be contained, then they are going to have to spend serious money on countermeasures.

In the UK, that means billions in new money. And, given the parlous state of public finances and the already over-stretched budget, spending more on defence - especially on an unpopular war - is going to have major political consequences. It could even be one of the issues which influences the outcome of the general election, when other "services" have to be cut in order to buy kit for our troops. And the Party that is able to make the most convincing noises about supplying that kit will garner many new votes.

As we asserted, therefore, the death of 3,000 Americans is not only a "grim milestone" in human terms. It is also a political milestone, on both sides of the Atlantic. It is indeed a measure of the failure of the body politic that it cannot see (or understand) its significance. And, for remarking on that, I make no apologies.


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