Outside the marginals

a commentary on the politics that followed the UK 2010 & 2015 elections

A feasible war

Reading about the Great War and comparing it to more modern wars, I have previously been struck by two major differences:

  • The scale of casualties suffered by our armed services – the total (allied) losses in a war are now less than the losses in the first hour of the battle of the Somme
  • The level and intensity of media coverage – a press that now sees independence as more important than patriotism and has the means of instant communication

This had always led me to wonder about the present day feasibility of war.  Would the public accept even the current level of casualties or would they say “out”?  Could the media be controlled to hide our casualties?

In the Falkland’s war we had some control of the media (because they relied on the armed forces to transmit their stories home) and thus we had oddities like “I can’t tell you how many aircraft were involved in the operation; but I counted them all out and I counted them all back”.  Satellite phones now mean that the media can be independent of the armed services and the internet means that we get true mass communication (albeit unfiltered with speed sometimes being more important than accuracy).

The impact of these changes has been the much greater emphasis on war at an expensive distance (cruise missiles, drones etc.) and on “force protection”.  Without these the military risk getting engaged in a conflict which the public cannot stomach, and this would lead to a demoralizing humiliating and ignominious withdrawal.

But as Iraq II has shown, this can lead to other problems, particularly when a nation puts the safety of a single soldier above that of the dignity or lives of potentially thousands of (“alien”) civilians.  The consequences of this are that we are not true to our nations’ values and we create enemies – which is counter productive.

So does this make war less feasible?

I think it changes the nature of war. We need to have better control over our weapons systems (which can miss targets or be guided to incorrectly identified targets) and we need to have exceptionally disciplined services with a concern for the hearts and minds of civilians (even if that reduces their protection).  This might lead us to deciding that some conflicts are to be avoided as too likely to lead to counter-productive “collateral damage”.

It also may mean that we have to be a little bit more choosy about our allies; do they truly share our values and do they have a similar level of discipline?  To be allied to a country that believes “my country, right or wrong”, could be very dangerous.

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