The night of the 9th and 10th of May, twenty elite French soldiers from the Hubert Commando conducted an operation in Burkina Faso to free two French nationals that were detained by an Islamic organisation operating in the Sahel Region. Considerable resources were mobilized, and aside from the 20 commandos, several drones, helicopters, as well as logistical and medical means were deployed in order to conduct the operation. The United States also provided intelligence to support the French operation. The professionalism and bravery shown by the commandos was exemplary, and despite the unknown presence of two other hostages, one from the United States and another from South Korea, all the four hostages were safely rescued without causing them any harm. However, two French commandos were killed in action. On Tuesday morning a national tribute was paid in honour of the two French soldiers that died during the operation. The ceremony, broadcast live on France’s main TV channel, was held at Les Invalides, and both commandos Cédric de Pierrepont and Alain Bertoncello were posthumously awarded the Legion d’Honneur by French President Emmanuel Macron.
It is clear that the heroism of the two French Naval commandos is not in questioned. They rescued tourists that went to an unstable region, despite the recommendations of the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Since 2011, ceremonies that have been held at Les Invalides complex, ensuing the loss of French soldiers in different theatres, like Afghanistan, are seen amongst different experts as an illustration of increasing casualty-aversion amongst both the public and policy-makers. In some instances, this approach can be counter-productive in regard to a country’s objectives. The Vietnam War marked a turning point by producing new attitudes towards military casualties in the Western World. This event has not been without consequences, and other conflicts such as the ones in Somalia (1993), Rwanda (1995), and Kosovo (1999) for example, have in one way or another been impacted by the experience in Vietnam, in what is sometimes coined as the ‘Vietnam Syndrome’, which refers to the “American public’s unwillingness to continue to support U.S foreign military efforts, particularly as casualties rise” (Lacquement, p.41).
The loss of 18 U.S soldiers in the Battle of Mogadishu, combined with the images of an American fallen soldier’s body dragged through the streets of Mogadishu in 1993 brought back unpleasant memories in a peculiarly violent manner. This affected the American opinion, and consequently led the Clinton administration to withdraw from Somalia. This had a strong impact on the future of Somalia. The death of UN peacekeepers and the failure of the humanitarian mission added to the withdrawal of the US from Somalia, and left the country with an unresolved civil war which is still ongoing. The outcome of the Battle of Mogadishu only reinforced the Vietnam Syndrome, affecting the U.S propensity to further intervene on the African Continent, while it also tarnished the UN’s credibility. The relinquishment of the international community’s willingness to intervene in Rwanda in 1994 has notably been associated with these different events. This in fact indicates that casualty-aversion can have significant side effects which can either hinder reaching national objectives or result in the deaths of a more people, as it was in the case of the Rwandese genocide.
A casualty-averse society can have a strong impact on the political calculus to intervene or not, and might also influence the choice concerning the use of force in regard to the objectives to be fulfilled. The strong emphasis on air assets during NATO operations in Yugoslavia and the US-led coalition against ISIS reflects this matter. Although airpower has been successful in campaigns like the Kosovo War, and recently against ISIS, the fact of not having used conventional ground forces at the beginning of the conflict may have increased their length – specifically in ISIS’ case – and has allowed these actors to either continue ethnic cleansing and other atrocities on the ground. Moreover, winning a conflict by just using airpower is often a façade. Counter-insurgency (COIN) requires putting boots on the ground, and this is the reason why, for example, the U.S supported the Kurds in Syria. In fact, the Kurds were used as a ‘substitution force’. Furthermore, this risk aversion can also be used by one’s enemies, as they could think that the loss of very few American, French, or British soldiers might lead their subsequent policy-makers and high-ranked officers, to withdraw or settle an agreement with them in order to avoid soldiers losses and a possible political fiasco.
A country displaying a high casualty aversion can also undermine its strategic posturing. Indeed, a high-risk aversion can bring decision-makers to only consider military means that can ensure the lowest casualty-ratio possible. As a result, the armed forces of a country can be deprived of the opportunity to use all the resources at their disposal to successfully achieve operational and strategic objectives, as well as keeping a credible deterrence. This is specifically true when a superior conventional force is confronted by irregular armed groups, which might use this risk sensitivity to defeat an opponent that disposes of conventional armies with superior resources.
Some countries have considered outsourcing certain military tasks to private actors in order to resolve the dilemma between soldiers casualties and the pursuit of National interests. Functions such as logistics, static security and combat missions, have been increasingly contracted to private military companies (PMCs) in certain countries. Nonetheless, some scandals have been attributed to these companies, for example the Nisour Square massacre in Iraq, in which innocent Iraqi civilians were shot down by Blackwater contractors. Furthermore, the use of PMCs raises different concerns in regard to democratic checks and balances related to the use of state force, accountability and control issues, and military efficiency. Therefore, outsourcing historically military attributed tasks to private military companies does not seem to be a credible solution to tackle the risk aversion syndrome from both a political, as well as an ethical perspective.
As Clausewitz said, “war is merely the continuation of policy by other means”. War, by nature, entails risks and costs. When planning to defend the interests of their country, civilian decision-makers should neither take unnecessary risks that might outweigh the benefits of a determined goal nor overemphasising the casualty-aversion factor as it could supersede the objectives of a particular mission, thus undermine the country’s strategic posture. The balance lies in finding a compromise between costs and benefits as well as in reconciling ends and means. Let us not forget that the military is a means to an end, and not the opposite.
This document gives an initial reflection on the theme. The content is not reflecting the positions of the member states, but consists of elements that can initiate and feed the discussion and analyses in the domain of the theme.
Written by Victor Mahieu, European Researcher at Finabel – European Army Interoperability Centre.