Afghanistan: the dangers of a risk-averse war

In continually advertising their fear of suffering casualties on the battlefield, Britain’s rulers are unwittingly strengthening their enemies’ hand.

Frank Furedi

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Topics Politics

Increasingly, the main protagonists in the debate about Britain’s war in Afghanistan seem to be competing to see who can occupy the moral low-ground.

The British political class has made no real effort to engage the public in a serious discussion about the rights and wrongs of the war. Instead, a major international conflict has been treated as a banal health-and-safety issue. The defensive manner in which the New Labour government presents its case for staying in Afghanistan invariably raises the question: ‘Is any of this worth the life of a single British soldier?’ It also invites an often-tawdry, defeatist response from the government’s political critics.

The resignation last week of New Labour’s parliamentary private secretary, Eric Joyce, represented only the latest opportunist call for an exit strategy. Joyce resigned because, he said, we cannot ‘continue with the present level of uncertainty about the future of our deployment in Afghanistan’. Adopting the tone of an earnest risk manager, the Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg said: ‘Eric Joyce confirms what I have been saying for a long time: our approach in Afghanistan is over-ambitious and under-resourced.’ That’s another way of saying: ‘Let’s cut our losses and restrict the British involvement in Afghanistan to sending in election monitors and humanitarian aid packages.’

Of course, there are some honourable arguments that can be made against the war in Afghanistan. Legitimate questions can be asked about Britain’s decision to get involved in Afghanistan in the first place. But the current criticisms of the conduct of the conflict are not based on any principled political or moral disagreement with the government. They offer no alternative strategic vision. They simply appeal to war weariness and to the understandable public concern about the scale of British casualties.

What is really disturbing about these demoralised critics is not what they say about the conflict in Afghanistan, but what they implicitly say about war in general. The logical outcome of Joyce’s concern about ‘uncertainty’ is to call into question the viability of any protracted military engagement. Since there are no guarantees that a military venture will be risk-free and fought neatly within a clear schedule, the current criticisms of the engagement in Afghanistan really apply to all wars. Of course, the loss of a soldier’s life is always a terrible tragedy for his or her family, friends and comrades – but unless a community is prepared to countenance such terrible losses, or willing to experience some uncertainty and risk, then it implicitly invites others to trample on its freedom and liberties.

The attempt to abolish risk and uncertainty in military operations resonates with today’s powerful risk-averse culture. Risk aversion in the domain of childhood and everyday life is bad enough – but when it is extended to the battlefield, its consequences are potentially lethal.

The rise and rise of casualty-aversion

Western societies have become so obsessed with safety that virtually every human activity comes with a health warning these days. It is not simply children’s playgrounds and schools that are now dominated by the ethos of safety for it own sake. Even organisations such as the police and the army have become subject to the dictates of health and safety. As a result, both of these institutions are increasingly risk-averse.

In an article a few years back, Mick Hume noted that the police rarely venture out these days, and even when they are confronted with a serious situation they rarely take risks. In one case, armed police stood for 15 days besieging a London home, only venturing in after the hostage had escaped by his own efforts and the lone gunman had perished in a fire that he started (1).

The ethos of safety has also become institutionalised within the military. British Army commanders now have to draw up risk assessments for every aspect of their soldiers’ training. Some have given up testing soldiers to the limit lest they inadvertently contravene health-and-safety rules (2). General Sir Michael Rose, former head of the SAS, has spoken out about the destructive impact of risk-aversion and the ethos of safety on the morale of the military. He has denounced the ‘moral cowardice’ that has encouraged what he describes as the ‘most catastrophic collapse’ of military ethos in recent history (3).

If anything, the decline of the warrior ethos is even more comprehensive within the US military. One analyst believes that risk-aversion has undermined the very effectiveness of the American army: ‘As emphasis on risk avoidance filters down the chain of command, junior commanders and their soldiers become aware that low-risk behaviour is expected and act accordingly.’ (4)

Unlike some institutions in society, the military cannot survive without taking risks. And yet the military values associated with the warrior ethos are continually challenged by today’s potent cultural hostility to risk-taking behaviour. Despite the many Hollywood action-packed movies that celebrate heroism and bravery, there is little cultural validation of risky military behaviour these days. The military is not immune to the influence of the predominant precautionary culture. A culture that has a low threshold for coping with losses in everyday life is unlikely to be able to celebrate risk-taking behaviour within military institutions.

This is one important reason why the status and the authority of the military have declined in recent years. As the political and cultural elites have distanced themselves from military values, and as their participation in military institutions has diminished, so the military has tended to be seen as standing apart from society and culture, as something distant and inscrutable. Even mainstream sections of society have become estranged from military values. As two radical critics have noted: ‘The representative image of the US soldier is no longer that of a John Wayne, and more importantly the profiles of US soldiers do not resemble the profiles of the US citizenry.’ (5) In Britain, too, fighting wars is a task increasingly outsourced to private contractors, foreign mercenaries or the most economically disadvantaged sections of society: poorer people who still seem willing to sign up.

One of the most striking manifestations of society’s estrangement from military values is the rise and rise of casualty-aversion. The military is today concerned, more than anything else, with the ability of the public to tolerate casualties. Casualty-aversion appears to have influenced the 1989 decision of the US Department of Defense to prohibit media coverage of deceased military personnel returning from Dover Air Force Base, and also their more recent decision to restrict photographs of American coffins arriving back from Iraq (6). The military funerals of British casualties from Afghanistan are still shown on TV – but they tend to take place in a political and cultural vacuum, as our political leaders fail to give any meaning to these losses in the Afghan War.

A clash of cultural attitudes

The significance that Western society now attaches to health and safety stands in sharp contrast to the values held by their opponents. This clash of cultural attitudes was clearly spelled out in an alleged al-Qaeda recording released on 14 March 2004, following the Madrid bombing massacre that killed almost 200 people. In the recorded message an individual describing himself as al-Qaeda’s military commander in Europe declared: ‘You love life and we love death.’

The same theme has been repeated time and again in numerous Islamist communiqués. For example, Ismail Haniya, a Hamas leader, informed an American journalist in 2003 that his people were prepared to die whereas ‘the Jews love life more than any other people, and they prefer not to die’ (7). Back in October 2001, Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, an alleged spokesman for Osama bin Laden, told a news conference that there were ‘thousands of young men’ eager for martyrdom, who ‘loved death as you love life’ (8).

In these statements, Islamist leaders are really arguing that while their side believes in something that is worth dying for, their opponents do not. More importantly, these messages are an attempt to highlight the differential cultural attitudes towards risk and loss that are held by the West and by contemporary Islamism. The point of these statements is to cause alarm in Western, risk-averse societies. The Islamists’ public embrace of death is designed to intimidate their opponents, by reminding them that ‘through sacrificing our lives we are prepared to take an incalculably greater risk than you can possibly imagine’. Such statements also attempt to convey the message that ‘unlike you we have nothing to lose in this conflict’.

Either consciously or unconsciously, Islamist communiqués target the sense of vulnerability that afflicts their opponents in the West. It is the expansive mood of vulnerability and risk-aversion in Western society that invites its cultural opposite today: a self-conscious flaunting of indifference to risk-taking and dying amongst the opponents of the West.

The almost casual and theatrical manner in which death is embraced by some Islamist groups seems incomprehensible to Western societies where the smallest health problem is treated as a major personal crisis. For a risk-averse, self-consciously vulnerable culture, the suicide bomber personifies invulnerability. The willingness of some individuals to adopt a 100 per cent risk perspective provokes confusion amongst many political observers. Consequently, such individuals are often described as ‘desperate’, as irrational yet powerful actors whose motives are apparently ‘beyond comprehension’.

Individuals and groups who appear so cavalier towards the ethos of health and safety are indeed formidable foes. Such super warriors, who seem indifferent to death or pain, enjoy a moral advantage over ordinary mortal souls for whom life is very important. The German sociologist Ulrich Beck has given voice to a widespread fear amongst Western commentators today – namely that the ‘suicide mass murderers’ have ‘revealed the vulnerability of Western civilisation’ (9). But why should small groups of suicide bombers constitute any kind of existential threat to Western civilisation?

It is clearly not because they are physically powerful. Even with the assistance of anxious Western fantasies about enemies who ‘fear nothing’, it is difficult to imagine how relatively small groups of zealots can threaten the entire Western way of life. Compared to the powerful foes of the Cold War, the threat posed by the fanatical suicide bomber pales into insignificance. And yet today Gordon Brown argues that British forces must remain in Afghanistan (for the time being at least) in order to protect Britain – and by extension Western civilisation – from the threat of Islamic terrorism.

If relatively small groups of suicidal bombers are able to reveal the ‘vulnerability’ of the West, it is mainly because, today, it takes very little to reveal this condition. Indeed, Western culture is all too ready to attest publicly to its weakness. And the constantly repeated concern about fanatics who fear nothing merely creates the incentive for militants to step up and adopt the role of zealous warriors who will stop at nothing to achieve their objectives.

Labelling terrorists as zealots and fanatics can lead to an underestimation, or at least a misunderstanding, of the problem. The threat posed by these individuals to our societies is determined less by what the individuals themselves do, and more by the way in which Western society responds to them. And one key factor that gives the terrorist threat such force today is the different cultural attitudes to risk-taking that exist in the Western camp and in their opponents’ camp. Today, the Western attitude to risk is influenced by a one-dimensional concern with loss, whereas those involved in terrorist action regard risk from the perspective of gain.

There is little doubt that casualty phobia has become a factor in the current conflict in Afghanistan, possibly even heightening the conflict between Western forces and the Taliban. Britain in particular has effectively advertised its casualty-aversion, allowing every soldier’s death in Afghanistan to give rise to widespread, tortured debate about risk, loss and whether the war is worth it. When every casualty suffered in Afghanistan is treated, not as a tragic but necessary part of some meaningful war effort, but as an incalculable loss that must force us to ask what the purpose of the British military is today, it sends a powerful message to the Taliban and other opponents of Britain: ‘You can provoke political and moral meltdown in Britain by killing one or two British soldiers.’ It implicitly strengthens Britain’s enemies on the battlefield.

Both the British and the American governments now believe that their room for manoeuvre is limited by their own society’s reluctance to accept casualties. Recently, US defense secretary Robert Gates warned that, although he did not think that the ‘war is slipping through’ his government’s fingers, there is clearly a ‘limited time’ to demonstrate success. Last Friday, British prime minister Gordon Brown echoed this sentiment, expressing his hope that the Afghan security forces might soon take over from the British. It appears that the West’s strategic thinking has become focused on reducing risk entirely, by heading for the exit.

Frank Furedi’s book, Invitation To Terror: The Expanding Empire of The Unknown, is published by Continuum Press. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).) Visit Furedi’s website here.

Previously on spiked

Mick Hume looked at what’s behind the sudden outburst of questions around Afghanistan. Brendan O’Neill stated that answers as to why British troops are in Afghanistan can be found at home rather than over there. David Chandler blamed the invading powers of the West for the weakening of the the Afghan state. He also talked about the theatrical nature of war. Or read more at spiked issue Afghanistan.

(1) ‘A police state, without any police’, The Times, 25 February 2004

(2) See the Daily Telegraph, 23 February 2004

(3) ‘J’Accuse! Top General lambasts “moral cowardice” of government and military chiefs’, the Daily Mail, 12 April 2007

(4) ‘The Casual-Aversion Myth’, by Richard A Lacquement Jr, in Naval War College Review, vol.57, no.1, p.41, 2004

(5) Multitude, by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Penguin Books : London p.47, 2005

(6) ‘The Casual-Aversion Myth’, by Richard A Lacquement Jr, in Naval War College Review, vol.57, no.1, p.41, 2004

(7) Cited in ‘You love life, we love death’, Asian Times, 23 March 2004

(8) Cited in ‘The Echo Effect’, Wall Street Journal, 19 October 2001

(9) ‘The Silence of Words: On Terror and War’, by Ulrich Beck, in Security Dialogue vol.34, no.3, p.262, 2003

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