Over and Over Again: As at Gallipoli so in Afghanistan

Critics may charge that following this course would meet the definition of insanity—which, as that old adage has it, is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.

So write Kosh Sadat and retired US Army General Stan McChrystal about America’s persisting strategy of train & assist and limited engagement in Afghanistan. For them, there are no better alternatives.

America’s longest war drags on

Perhaps this almost inevitable status quo – unchanged by the small additional deployment of troops authorised by President Trump – is why Afghanistan fails to ignite passions in the same way as it used to amongst Western publics?

Indeed the same could almost be said of the civil war in Syria, which no longer dominates the headlines as in years past. When President Bashar al-Assad seemed on the verge of defeat, or when he turned the tables and subjected his countrymen to savage military reprisals, or when the Islamic State overran vast swathes of the battered nation…then you couldn’t pick up a newspaper without seeing the word ‘Syria’ on the front page.

Now, with Assad pretty much back in control, the rebels subdued if not eradicated, and IS on the run from a motley coalition of Syrian, Iranian and Russian troops – perversely backed by American air power – the same air of inevitability as with Afghanistan has set in. Whereas America’s longest war looks set to continue in perpetuity, Syria almost certainly looks set to be rebuilt in Assad’s image, whatever Western leaders may desire.

The Assad regime’s destruction of Aleppo drew worldwide attention only a couple of years ago. Now the city is firmly back in his grasp

This selective war fatigue, for lack of a better term, is not unique. Citizens, and the journalists who thrive off their reaction, need to be shocked to allow events to remain at the forefronts of their minds. Donald Trump’s ascendancy to the presidency has therefore contributed to ‘bigger issues’ being increasingly overlooked.

Car bombings in Baghdad or drone strikes in Syria just doesn’t register with people in the same way that a mass shooting or a lorry ramming into civilians on home soil does.

Even global war cannot alter this fickle public temperament, the extremities of the time forming unfathomable perceptions about what constitutes a noteworthy event.

Take the First World War and, as an example, the comparison between British public reaction to happenings on the Western Front and during the Dardanelles Campaign.

On the charge during the Battle of Verdun

For the British, the Turks were not the real enemy; that dishonour belonged to the Germans and the tragedy of the Western Front consumed everyone back at home.

Even General Charles Monro, who had replaced Ian Hamilton has commander of the Allied forces at Gallipoli in October 1915, had no time for this Levantine Front. He wanted to kill Germans in France and Belgium and he wanted his soldiers to have the opportunity to do likewise.

Similar parallels can be drawn with today, with the likes of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda now viewed as little more than a distant menace rather than the fear-inspiring terrorists of post-9/11. IS and the ‘lone wolf’ or ‘deranged gunman’ have taken their place in the public consciousness.

Al-Qaeda was seared into the public consciousness by inspiring images such as this

Like Sadat and McChrystal’s assessment of the ongoing war in Afghanistan, Allied tactics during WWI involved doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. This was as true of the Dardanelles Campaign as it was of the Western Front, with trench warfare, and the incessant shelling that accompanied it, favoured over more adventurous strategies.

There were calls for Naval action in Turkey and, of course, this was how the campaign had begun, with the Royal Navy very narrowly failing to force through the Ottoman defences and minefields to gain a run on Constantinople. Pleas for a repeat performance were rejected by Monro; he wanted to kill Germans and he wanted the peninsula evacuated. End of.

An Allied shanty town at Gallipoli: the endless waiting, the lack of progress and the public detachment have erased the campaign from many memories

Whereas the Dardanelles received relatively little press coverage or public attention back in Britain, however, the Western Front was a never-ending topic for conversation and commiseration. Equally monotonous as Gallipoli may the tactics have been, yet the casualties and the carnage were simply monstrous. What’s more, they were visible.

Soldiers returning wounded or on leave from the French and Belgian battlefields told their stories with an uncompromising forthrightness. Those injured fighting the Turks were usually evacuated to the Greek islands under British military control. Nobody back home saw them.

Soldiers wounded on the Western Front engage in a spot of croquet

Today the number of American casualties in Afghanistan is minimal, whilst the British have as good as left. As with Gallipoli in the Winter of 1915/16 they left defeated, whatever spin the Government tried to put on the 2014 withdrawal.

Helmand province, a territory that claimed scores of British lives at the height of public awareness in the late 2000s, is now back under Taliban control. Death and humiliation; perhaps that is why memories fade so fast.

As the number of American troops in Afghanistan has significantly declined, so have casualties and, simultaneously, public attention

The British and their Allies won the war against the Ottomans in the end and the Dardanelles Campaign almost single-handedly created an ANZAC identity. Yet how many British schoolchildren could tell you anything about Gallipoli? Of Suvla Bay? Of Winston Churchill’s pivotal role? Of Mustafa Kemal and the beginning of a Turkish legend?

Suvla Bay just before the evacuation of the Gallipoli peninsula

Probably too few…the Western Front, on the other hand, lives on, commemorated and venerated a century later in as forceful a manner as it was reported on at the time.

America’s involvement in its longest war will end, as Britain’s understated hand in Afghanistan already has. How it will be remembered remains to be seen, though one doubts it will trouble the annals in the same way as Vietnam, as Verdun and Ypres or Normandy, maybe even as Iraq.

It is a pity because for so many the commitment hasn’t died and never will. There is a cause to fight for, be it with drones, small arms or simply compromise. Stated in the most basic of terms, the war in Afghanistan can be won but the need for political capital and will is wanting. With a disinterested public, that will remain the case.

And so we drift, as at Gallipoli, waiting for a new Front to fight on, to capture the public’s attention, to spur the politicians into action, to do something new…before it all slowly fades away into dust.

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Barrel Bombs Rein Down on Syria: 100 years of indiscriminate bombing

As the Syrian Civil War enters its fifth year one of the host horrific practices – in a conflict notable for its levels of barbarity – is the use of barrel bombs by President Bashar al-Assad’s air force. These improvised devices are being used on an increasingly regular basis, leading to devastating casualties amongst the civilian population.

The deployment of barrel bombs is yet another sinister tactic by the Assad regime
The deployment of barrel bombs is yet another sinister tactic by the Assad regime

A recent article by the Action on Armed Violence group compared the use of barrel bombs with the First World War Zeppelin raids carried out by the Germans on the UK. ‘Have Things Really Changed?’ the article asked. It is certainly a question worth considering.

Indiscriminate Targeting

Barrel bombs comprise rudimentary containers – such as oil drums – filled with explosives and various items of shrapnel. They are simply pushed out of planes and helicopters and left to fall in an unspecified area deemed troublesome by the attacking force, where they are activated by an impact fuze. This attacking force is usually directed by a national government, which tends to have a monopoly on air space within its given territory.

Source: Stratfor
Source: Stratfor

Zeppelin raids, which began in 1915, were also marked by their lack of accuracy. Incendiary bombs, grenades, and even some high explosive bombs were chucked overboard with the aim of hitting a general area.

Whilst the Zeppelin attacks understandably terrified the British population, they were not designed simply to devastate civilian areas. Rather, they had strategic objectives and whilst the haphazard nature of this early form of aerial warfare must be acknowledged, the Zeppelins were targeting British industry and supply routes within their range. The concentration of First World War bombing on London and the coastal port towns highlights this.

Barrel bombs, however, have been used as an indiscriminate weapon to inflict maximum pain on civilian populations deemed non-compliant by the government. This has certainly been the case in Syria, as it has previously been in Sudan, where the government in Khartoum pioneered this tactic to terrify its restive provinces.

Level of Damage

Barrel bombs cause huge amounts of damage because of their high explosive capacity and the secondary effects of shrapnel and metal blast. Images of the devastation caused by these weapons in Aleppo, for instance, testify to their monstrous capabilities.

Many of the munitions dropped from Zeppelins caused little significant material damage. Early high explosive bombs were not particularly destructive on their own, whilst incendiary bombs were designed to start fires and the damage caused by dropping grenades was negligible.

That said, Zeppelins had large payloads which, when used in one go, could inflict considerable damage on an urban area. Given in the inherent bombing inaccuracies of the time, this often led to the destruction of residential properties and civilian fatalities.

Housing damaged by a Zeppelin raid on Ramsgate in 1915
Housing damaged by a Zeppelin raid on Ramsgate in 1915

History

The use of barrel bombs is inexcusable, not to mention illegal. Furthermore, those using this dreadful method of aerial warfare are fully aware of the consequences of their actions. Not only have barrel bombs been used in Sudan, Iraq and Syria in recent years, but the USA used canisters of herbicides and defoliants in Vietnam, both the RAF and Luftwaffe used barrels of explosive incendiary devices during the Second World War and, of course, there were the earlier Zeppelin raids.

Therefore, precedents can be found for the type of indiscriminate warfare being perpetrated by the Assad regime, its destructive effects to civilian areas are well-known and therefore its use is morally reprehensible.

Whilst the Zeppelin raids can hardly be judged as ethically acceptable, they were a new type of warfare, the effects of which were largely unknown. The Italians had undertaken some early bombing raids in Libya prior to the First World War but nobody knew the potentially devastating impact of aerial bombardment.

Taking aim during WWI Source: IWM
Taking aim during WWI
Source: IWM

Furthermore, press coverage during the days of the Zeppelin is incomparable with today’s 24-hour media and this, coupled with wartime censorship, means the full effects of the German raids were not quantified until after the war.

Have Things Really Changed?

No. Indiscriminate bombing is the same today as it was a century ago. The circumstances in which it is being undertaken, however, have greatly altered.

The Germans were at war with the UK when the Zeppelins launched their raids in a bid to gain an advantage over their adversary, their capacity for destruction was largely unknown and, despite rudimentary aiming, targets were strategic in nature, not civilian.

This is a significant difference from bombing and maiming your own citizens, incapable of self-defence, simply because they live in the wrong area or had the audacity to protest against an unrepresentative and undemocratic government.