Stoic British accept losses

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  • Published 25.03.03
Blair at 10 Downing Street on Sunday.(AFP)

London, March 24: The British do not suffer from the American equivalent of the “Blackhawk Down” syndrome, named after the helicopter misadventure in Mogadishu in 1993 when the deaths of 18 undeniably brave US soldiers caused Washington to pull out of Somalia.

Unlike the Americans, who have a horror of losing their men in conflict, the British, most military experts would say, have more stomach for battle. Although this war has divided public opinion, British casualties will have to climb to more than 200 — the number lost in the Falklands in 1982 — before British Prime Minister Tony Blair is forced to review his war strategy.

Britain is more like India, in that the country has a much greater willingness to accept the casualties of war. Military analysts point out that modern Americans would much rather defeat the enemy by using high precision weapons from afar.

British defence secretary Geoff Hoon today paid tribute to British and US servicemen killed or missing in Iraq. He played down expectations of a swift victory but added: “I recognise at some stage Baghdad will have to be taken.”

If there is one issue that is likely to cause problems between Britain and the US, it is the question of “friendly fire”. Both sides are working frantically to ensure there is no repetition of the incident in which two Raf crew members were killed when their Tornado GR4 was shot down by a US Patriot missile.

Although this is a deeply unpopular war, anyone who tries to use British casualties as a way of attacking Blair’s policy is on weak ground. This explains why the anti-war coalition is focussing partly on the more emotive issue of Iraqi civilian casualties. Today’s Mirror, for example, has a front page of a little Iraqi girl covered in blood.

Given this background, it is unusual that the family of one of the British casualties has been critical of the war. Mark Stratford was one of eight Royal Marines killed, along with four US soldiers, when their American Sea Knight helicopter crashed in Kuwait. It was an accident.

A note from 10 members of his family, left at the Royal Marine commando base at Stonehouse Barracks in Plymouth, read: “In memory of Mark Stratford, who gave his life for this senseless war. Sincere condolences to his beloved wife, from Lisa, Carole, Clark and family.”

Six more British servicemen were killed when two Sea King helicopters, one outgoing and another incoming off the aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal, collided in the dark.

Double Oscar-winning actress Glenda Jackson, who is now the (anti-war) Labour MP for Hampstead, in north London, was slapped down in the Commons when she suggested that the British servicemen had died “needlessly”. She was shot down by Hoon who told her he wanted to “resist” any such notion.

Now, it has been revealed that two British servicemen are missing in southern Iraq, though there are hopes they may be alive.

“Every effort is being made to find them,” said Hoon.

An insight into the British psychology was provided today by Major General Patrick Cordingley, who commanded the UK’s 7th Armoured Brigade during the 1991 Gulf War.

“After a lifetime as a soldier, I am still astonished at the courageous way in which British fighting men and women — and their families back home — accept the loss of friends and comrades on the field of battle. That is the logic of war and the price of victory,” he said.

He added: “Since the Vietnam War, the US authorities have been much more squeamish about avoiding deaths, and it has sometimes affected their ability to fight to the finish. Of course, we must strive to minimise casualties but, for the British soldier, death in combat remains an inevitable part of the grand plan.”

Every British war produces its own hero. The one who has captured the imagination of the country in this conflict is Lt Col. Tim Collins, who leads the battlegroup of the 1st Bn of the Royal Irish.

In the eve of battle address, he gave a speech which is now likely to enter the annals of British military history.

“It is my foremost intention to bring every single one of you out alive but there may be people among us who will not see the end of this campaign. We will put them in their sleeping bags and send them back. There will be no time for sorrow,” he said.