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How will Britain remember its ‘War on Terror’ dead?

I recently visited Beverley Minster, where I found tucked in a corner of the South Transept, three small chapels dedicated to the East Yorkshire Regiment. Wandering amongst the memorial tablets bearing the names of those young men killed in two World Wars, my attention was drawn to one plaque by the altar.

The plaque bore the names of local soldiers who had died during the counter-insurgency campaign against Communist guerrillas in colonial Malaya between 1948 and 1960. This inconspicuous memorial served as a quiet reminder as to the sacrifices made by our armed forces in conflicts against ‘unconventional’ enemies.  Campaigns undertaken against insurgents have been a frequent occurrence in the British experience, particularly after World War Two, largely due to the needs of decolonisation. The sun may have set on the Empire, yet the instigation of what is generally called the ‘War on Terror’ in the wake of 9/11 has unexpectedly rekindled the utility of counter-insurgency warfare of the kind evident in 1950s Malaysia. As we now mark the tenth year of British operations in Afghanistan, seeing this plaque got me thinking as to, not just how Britain memorialises its war dead, but more specifically how Britons interpret the sacrifices our government asks of the military in so-called ‘irregular wars’ against violent non-state actors.

British combat troops withdrew from Iraq in May 2009 having suffered 179 fatalities. Currently, in Helmand Province, British soldiers are engaged in fierce operations against the Taliban, which have seen 383 military personnel lose their lives. As Remembrance Day approaches, my mind turns back to that plaque in Beverley Minster. For counter-insurgency campaigns, from Malaya through to Afghanistan, represent something unique in the military mind. Such conflicts are fought against enemies who blend in with local populations, who play upon common grievances, and try to exploit the vulnerabilities of their regular army opponents. Conceptions of ‘victory’ in counter-insurgency campaigns are notoriously nebulous, with history demonstrating that compromise and deal-making is usually a precursor to walking away with what is practically attainable rather than witnessing the tangible ‘defeat’ of the enemy. Counter-insurgency campaigns are therefore not merely ‘half a war’ but should be seen as a very different and complex form of warfare in its own right. My own research has attempted to explore how the weight of historical experience has impacted upon recent British military performance in Iraq and Afghanistan. Arguably, the frequent inadequacies of the political management of such campaigns have placed military personnel under greater risk.

As we gather in silence to remember those who fought in wars associated with a just cause and an identifiable enemy, the current deployment of troops serves as a timely reminder of the sacrifices made by soldiers in so-called ‘irregular wars’, where the very purpose of the conflict is frequently questioned. The strategic purpose of counter-insurgency campaigns is often difficult to communicate to the public, especially when the ‘threat’ to Britain posed by bands of seemingly ill-equipped fighters thousands of miles away may seem obscure. Yet it can only be hoped that the waning public support for operations in Afghanistan, and the legal and ethical controversies surrounding the invasion of Iraq, will not prevent us from adequately honouring the lives of those who have fallen.

Since World War Two, the military has undertaken prolonged counter-insurgency campaigns in Palestine, Malaya, Kenya, Cyprus, Yemen, Oman, Borneo, and of course Northern Ireland. Like their contemporaries in Afghanistan and Iraq, soldiers fighting in these conflicts were faced with restricted resources, political meddling and controversy about their mission. Yet the contested nature of these conflicts should not stop us from marking the unquestioning way in which these soldiers gave what Abraham Lincoln called in his Gettysburg Address “the last full measure of devotion” to their country.

The emotional tributes paid to fallen service personnel whose bodies have been repatriated through Wotton Bassett has been a stirring, albeit temporary, act of remembrance to Britain’s recent war dead. Likewise, the fundraising efforts of organisations such as Help for Heroes provide only short-term solutions to aiding injured personnel or the families of dead soldiers. A more lasting legacy to their sacrifices needs to be enshrined. To this end, it would be fitting to see memorials commemorating the ‘War on Terror’ fallen in churches, cathedrals and on town square cenotaphs across the country.

Such memorials will serve not only as a way of remembering the past but also, perhaps, as a warning to our political leaders in the future as to the dangers of entangling Britain in complex ‘irregular’ wars.

Andrew Mumford

Published inBritish PoliticsUncategorized

3 Comments

  1. The commemoration of the “post-war” war dead is interesting. There is, of course, the National Armed Forces Memorial (unveiled 2007) to remember the nation’s post-1947 war dead individually.

    The UK National Inventory of War Memorials lists 62 memorials to the war dead from the recent Iraq War and 63 for the 1990-91 Gulf War. Many of these are individual plaques to those who died, some are additional names on existing war memorials and others are general new plaques “to those who died in wars since 1945” or something similar.

    The losses since 1945 are being commemorated, but they are done within the tropes established after 1918 and 1945 – remember the person and be thankful for their sacrifices. Like those inter-war memorials they very rarely make any comment of the horror and futility – or indeed the necessity – of the wars they commemorate.

    Personally I would be wary of efforts to add ‘war on terror’ plaques to war memorials or other public spaces. Yes Iraq War, Afghanistan (to add to the odd Korean War memorial dotted around the country), but ‘war on terror’ is a loaded phrase. Also, there are so few casualties from these wars that commemoration everywhere would be a bit odd – villages with no casualties in the First World War did not usually erect monuments, it would be strange for towns with no losses to do so now.

    Much better is what is already happening – commemoration of the war dead in the places they lived and by the people they knew. That was the root of commemoration from 1918 and it should remain so. It can have a political message or simply remember the deceased person, but it should be linked to specific losses that mean something to the locality.

  2. “Arguably, the frequent inadequacies of the political management of such campaigns have placed military personnel under greater risk.”

    Greater risk than they would have been placed in under better political management, or greater risk than prior wars? The latter seems pretty unlikely, given that 255 died in the 74 day Falklands conflict compared to 384 in Afghanistan over the past 10 years.

  3. Matthew Rendall Matthew Rendall

    ‘[I]t can only be hoped that the waning public support for operations in Afghanistan, and the legal and ethical controversies surrounding the invasion of Iraq, will not prevent us from adequately honouring the lives of those who have fallen.’ Hmm, but isn’t whether a war was ethically defensible relevant to whether we should? Should we honour German soldiers in the Wehrmacht or Americans who napalmed Vietnamese villagers?

    I am not suggesting that British soldiers in Afghanistan are the moral equivalents of these two groups–the Afghanistan war seems to me clearly more justified (whether it is justified in an absolute sense in another matter). But whether they are fighting for justifiable reasons does seem relevant to how we should respond to them. Unquestioning willingness among the rank and file to kill people when ordered to do so may be the only way that armies can function, but it is not clearly a virtue. In the case of Vietnam, I believe we owe more honour to those Americans who questioned the war than to those who fell unquestioningly into line.

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