The costs of modern war: where are the numbers?

Body-counts and other metrics about casualties aren’t everything by a long shot, but we need to find ways to think about the computable “costs of war”. That will contribute to an assessment of its moral dimensions. So far, I’m finding the numbers hard to find, let alone think about.

Charles Moore (as so often) has his finger on some of the important points. He writes in the Daily Telegraph (8 November 2009) that the war in Afghanistan has claimed very few dead compared with, say, the battles of the Second World War. He might have added Vietnam and plenty of others. (In a separate post I look at other dimensions of his remarks.)

We need to keep score whilst quite separately acknowledging the unquantifiable sacrifice of those who suffer. 

Of any conflict one needs to know the numbers of dead or injured compared with:
(1) the number of military “in theatre”;
(2) the number of frontline, fighting military “in theatre”;
(3) the total number in the armed forces.

Then these can be compared with other conflicts so that one can begin to calibrate the costliness of this or that conflict as against historic examples.

Of course comparisons are odious. Our society may not have the same attitude as previous generations to losses. It may take a different view of whether objectives are worthwhile. These are issues which are well worth discussing, but the numerical evidence would help.

I am not finding it very easy to find these numbers, but will go on trying and hope readers will help me tap into good sources.

I can readily find body-counts (at least for Western forces), but it is the comparisons which matter for this rather chilling exercise.

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Publication date

15 November 2009