Are Afghan lives worth just $2,500?

Compensation system speaks volumes about the skewed morality of our military campaigns.

On 10 February -- as 15,000 US and Nato troops prepared for Operation Moshtarak -- the Defence Secretary, Bob Ainsworth, announced what he called a "fair and just" revision to the UK's military compensation scheme. The BBC reports that, under the new rules:

One-off awards will increase by an average of 30 per cent, while the rule limiting payouts to the first three injuries per incident will be scrapped.

What this means in real terms is that a soldier who was seriously injured in a conflict situation would now receive up to £1.5m in financial support over a lifetime.

The reforms are likely to cost the MoD tens of millions of pounds, but the change is long overdue. They follow much-criticised attempts by the Labour government to reduce the payouts to two wounded soldiers in 2009 -- a move in sharp contrast to Gordon Brown's professed attitude to honouring our troops (his sentimental descriptions of Wootton Bassett as "a symbol for the whole nation's . . . remembrance", etc).

Ainsworth's timing was strategically sound. The first stage of Stanley McChrystal's campaign involved more than 1,000 UK troops; the stakes -- and risks -- were high. So far, 552 UK service personnel have been badly injured in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Hundreds more have died.

Although progress is being made in paying compensation to British soldiers, the same cannot be said of the frankly disrespectful sums being offered to bereaved families in the war zones.

In early 2004, Amnesty International organised a campaign urging its members to protest directly to Tony Blair about the killing of Baha Mousa, a 26-year-old hotel receptionist, at the hands of UK forces in Basra. Mousa -- who, it transpired, was the son of an Iraqi police colonel -- was reportedly restrained, hooded, and then kicked repeatedly, even as he begged his attackers to stop because he could not breathe. The British army later produced a death certificate stating that he had died of asphyxiation.

The MoD's initial response was to offer Mousa's relatives a paltry £4,500, with the proviso that its troops could not be held responsible for his death. After an inquiry, the then defence secretary, Des Browne, admitted to "substantial breaches" of the European Convention on Human Rights in Mousa's killing, and agreed to raise the payout to over £2.8m.

Today, civilian deaths are worryingly commonplace. On 22 February, 27 Afghan civilians were killed in a US and allied air strike that destroyed a convoy of vehicles heading towards Kandahar. The use of US air power has been curbed, yet the value placed on Afghan and Iraqi lives is clearly nominal.

In cynical efforts to mitigate the backlash surrounding such lethal attacks, the US army has devised a new compensation system that covers deaths, injuries and damage resulting from coalition operations. The Associated Press reports that the death of a child or adult is valued at just $2,500, and serious injuries (including loss of limbs) at $1,500.

That a damaged or destroyed vehicle would fetch $2,500 -- the same amount as a dead son or daughter -- speaks volumes about the skewed morality of our military campaigns.

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Yo Zushi is a sub-editor of the New Statesman. His work as a musician is released by Eidola Records.

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Why are boundary changes bad for Labour?

New boundaries, a smaller House of Commons and the shift to individual electoral registration all tilt the electoral battlefield further towards the Conservatives. Why?

The government has confirmed it will push ahead with plans to reduce the House of Commons to 600 seats from 650.  Why is that such bad news for the Labour Party? 

The damage is twofold. The switch to individual electoral registration will hurt Labour more than its rivals. . Constituency boundaries in Britain are drawn on registered electors, not by population - the average seat has around 70,000 voters but a population of 90,000, although there are significant variations within that. On the whole, at present, Labour MPs tend to have seats with fewer voters than their Conservative counterparts. These changes were halted by the Liberal Democrats in the coalition years but are now back on course.

The new, 600-member constituencies will all but eliminate those variations on mainland Britain, although the Isle of Wight, and the Scottish island constituencies will remain special cases. The net effect will be to reduce the number of Labour seats - and to make the remaining seats more marginal. (Of the 50 seats that would have been eradicated had the 2013 review taken place, 35 were held by Labour, including deputy leader Tom Watson's seat of West Bromwich East.)

Why will Labour seats become more marginal? For the most part, as seats expand, they will take on increasing numbers of suburban and rural voters, who tend to vote Conservative. The city of Leicester is a good example: currently the city sends three Labour MPs to Westminster, each with large majorities. Under boundary changes, all three could become more marginal as they take on more wards from the surrounding county. Liz Kendall's Leicester West seat is likely to have a particularly large influx of Tory voters, turning the seat - a Labour stronghold since 1945 - into a marginal. 

The pattern is fairly consistent throughout the United Kingdom - Labour safe seats either vanishing or becoming marginal or even Tory seats. On Merseyside, three seats - Frank Field's Birkenhead, a Labour seat since 1950, and two marginal Labour held seats, Wirral South and Wirral West - will become two: a safe Labour seat, and a safe Conservative seat on the Wirral. Lillian Greenwood, the Shadow Transport Secretary, would see her Nottingham seat take more of the Nottinghamshire countryside, becoming a Conservative-held marginal. 

The traffic - at least in the 2013 review - was not entirely one-way. Jane Ellison, the Tory MP for Battersea, would find herself fighting a seat with a notional Labour majority of just under 3,000, as opposed to her current majority of close to 8,000. 

But the net effect of the boundary review and the shrinking of the size of the House of Commons would be to the advantage of the Conservatives. If the 2015 election had been held using the 2013 boundaries, the Tories would have a majority of 22 – and Labour would have just 216 seats against 232 now.

It may be, however, that Labour dodges a bullet – because while the boundary changes would have given the Conservatives a bigger majority, they would have significantly fewer MPs – down to 311 from 330, a loss of 19 members of Parliament. Although the whips are attempting to steady the nerves of backbenchers about the potential loss of their seats, that the number of Conservative MPs who face involuntary retirement due to boundary changes is bigger than the party’s parliamentary majority may force a U-Turn.

That said, Labour’s relatively weak electoral showing may calm jittery Tory MPs. Two months into Ed Miliband’s leadership, Labour averaged 39 per cent in the polls. They got 31 per cent of the vote in 2015. Two months into Tony Blair’s leadership, Labour were on 53 per cent of the vote. They got 43 per cent of the vote. A month and a half into Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, Labour is on 31 per cent of the vote.  A Blair-style drop of ten points would see the Tories net 388 seats under the new boundaries, with Labour on 131. A smaller Miliband-style drop would give the Conservatives 364, and leave Labour with 153 MPs.  

On Labour’s current trajectory, Tory MPs who lose out due to boundary changes may feel comfortable in their chances of picking up a seat elsewhere. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.