The poor die young

IssueApril 2010
News by David Gee

Official statistics of British forces fatalities in Afghanistan obscure the fact that it is younger people from poorer backgrounds who are suffering most from the increasing intensity of the fighting there.

Those facing the greatest risks in Afghanistan are in the infantry. In 2009, there were 107 British forces deaths, of which 71 (66%) were infantry personnel, despite the fact that the infantry account for only 13.3% of the armed forces as a whole. Infantry recruits tend to be younger and from more disadvantaged backgrounds than those joining most other branches of the armed forces.

It is perhaps unsurprising, therefore, that just under 1 in 6 infantry deaths have been aged 18 or 19 since the war began, compared with 1 in 40 deaths at that age in the rest of the armed forces.

The prospect of a rising infantry fatality rate is important for another reason: the number of fatalities are always accompanied by a larger number of incapacitating injuries and various psychological disorders resulting from exposure to warfare. For every British soldier, marine or airman killed in 2009 nearly five were wounded in action, of which around a third were seriously injured. Many more than this suffer psychological problems such as depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and problems associated with addiction – these problems often arise long after the fighting is over.

Fatalities are therefore the tip of a much larger iceberg of potentially long-lasting problems for many of the young people posted to Afghanistan.