Health and safety at war

Dateline 05 March 2008

What is this obsession with seeking to find health and safety where it doesn’t belong? Risks cannot be reduced to zero.

In the Vietnam War America lost 60,000 troops with 97% of the bodies accounted for. An astonishing record, for the time, and amounting to only 6% of those killed. So far in the Iraq conflict fewer than 4,000 American military personnel have been killed. In Iraq, America is fighting using an all volunteer military, whereas many casualties in Vietnam were conscripts. Granted, the Vietnam conflict lasted 16 years, though the most violent period with high American engagement was nearer ten years. The Iraq conflict will pass its fifth anniversary this month. In other words, the average annual total in Vietnam was some 50% higher than the five year total for Iraq.

By previous standards, even the Vietnam War was very small scale. The British Army suffered 54,470 casualties, including 19,240 dead, on 01 July 1916 – the first day of the Battle of the Somme.

This same British Army has just pulled Prince Harry out of Afghanistan on the grounds that . . . well . . . he might get killed. And well he might. He is a volunteer too, just like all the others. He was apparently furious when the government would not allow him to go to Iraq. Prince Harry is not the heir to the Throne. The line of descent passes to Prince Charles and then to Harry’s older brother, William. William’s future children can be expected to inherit, entirely bypassing Harry. Monarchs and their heirs are expected to produce – in the old phrase – an heir and a spare. Harry is the spare.

Previous spares have fought in wars and it has not caused this sort of panic. Just a generation ago, Prince Andrew was a helicopter pilot in the Falklands War. He was technically second in line to the throne at the time, though Diana was pregnant with the heir who would displace him.

Harry’s great grandfather – a spare who eventually inherited the throne as King George VI – fought in World War One, a war which, as we saw above, made Vietnam and Iraq seem very safe.

The British government’s argument is that Harry’s presence – once known to the enemy – not only endangered him, but his comrades too. But they, too, are volunteer soldiers. Harry’s presence in Afghanistan did not give al Qaeda or the Taleban any additional capacity to attack British troops. If soldiers serving directly with Harry were in greater danger it follows that all the rest were somewhat safer. Indeed, if the enemy is foolish enough to concentrate its efforts on a known target, then it is almost asking to be ambushed. Ultimately, targeting Prince Harry would have been very risky and, if successful, would have provoked a worldwide backlash.

We cannot expect our volunteer soldiers to live a life of total safety. That levels of risk are much lower than in previous generations is fantastic and reflects, in part, the one-sided nature of conflicts between the sophisticated militaries of the West and the rag-tag armies of our enemies.

The Health and Safety Nazis have made far too many inroads into business, sport, the arts and even our homes. We need to keep them out of the military altogether.

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