Wednesday 26 August 2009

The vocabulary of war

"The bloodshed is likely to prompt further questions about the international mission in Afghanistan ... ". That happens to be in The Times today, but that partial sentence, or something very like it, probably resides within virtually every journalist's toolkit, ready to be pasted in whenever deaths are now recorded.

This cut and paste effort records a bombing in Kandahar which destroyed the offices of a Japanese construction company, killing at least 41 including women and children and wounding at least 64 people. Another stock phrase tells us it was "the bloodiest such attack since ... ". Held in stock, it has no doubt the instruction in brackets: (insert date here). In this case, it was July last year.

Another stock phrase, which is becoming horribly familiar is: "killed/wounded in an explosion while on a foot patrol near Sangin ...". In this case, it is the "wounded" variant, the soldier concerned having been injured on 15 August, probably alongside Sergeant Simon Valentine, 2nd Battalion The Royal Regiment of Fusiliers. Of the same Battalion, sadly, the soldier has now died, the 207th to die in Afghanistan since 2001.

Also recorded, to add to the bloodshed are the deaths of four US soldiers, bringing the number of coalition soldiers who have died this year to 295, one more than in the whole of last year, provoking headlines declaring the "deadliest year" so far in Afghanistan – for coalition troops.

Suddenly, the vocabulary of war assumes a deadly leadenness of its own. We are running out of words to use, things to say and are doomed to the same old phrases, now repeated endlessly, their impact diluted, their meaning dulled by the repetition. No wonder people turn away and busy themselves with their own affairs. Yesterday's news is the same as today's news which will be the same as tomorrow's news. Only the numbers change.

Even the arguments are the same. Allan Mallinson trots one of them out in The Daily Telegraph yesterday. "The Army is just too small." This invites the question of: "too small for what?" That is answered in the headline: it is too small to fight all of the battles facing Britain, claims Mallinson.

The trouble with the likes of Mallinson and all the rest of the stock merchants is that they are in the retail game – retailing stock phrases, the stock vocabulary of war. None of them get down in the weeds. They are not picking up raw data like Michael Yon. Nor are they attempting systematically to collect data and analyse it, building their views and crafting their phrases on the basis of what the evidence tells them.

Take the "battle" that Yon described in his latest despatch, the Battle for Pharmacy Road. This, and the many others like it, collectively, are the battles which Mallinson asserts the Army is too small to fight.

Actually, Yon does not specify how many troops were engaged in the "battle", but it must have been at least a Company directly or indirectly engaged – probably many more, putting it at a hundred men plus. On the other hand, even without the major surgery to the road network that we had in mind, that road as it exists could have been cleared by one man, provided he was driving a D-9 bulldozer.

The Army already has the kit, or would have if it did not insist on selling it off. And it would have a lot more money too, if it did not keep wasting it on crap kit.

That points up what is missing from the vocabulary – questions such as, could we fight smarter? Could we use better or different kit? Could we get more value for money? Are there different, more successful ways of achieving what we are trying to do?

So, all of a sudden, the vocabulary is as soul destroying as the news that, with the latest reported death of a British soldier in Sangin, this is the 23rd death in that town and its environs this year, 20 of them from IEDs.

Mallinson wants a bigger Army. I want a better Army. "Bigger" could simply mean more targets. "Better" could mean we do considerably more, with considerably less, and keep more people alive. We need a new vocabulary for this war.