Center for Strategic Communication

by Steven R. Corman

A colleague in the UK military recently sent an e-mail remarking on the brewing controversy in the UK about casualties from the war in Afghanistan.  Growing numbers of citizens are witnessing “repatriations” of dead soldiers, and Prime Minister Brown is under fire for botched communication with a grieving mother.

Brits are crowding the route between the Lynham Air Base and the Oxford Coroners Court.  Here is a YouTube video of one of the processions, not unlike Canada’s Highway of Heroes.  The spectacle hasn’t escaped the attention of those responsible for the deaths, the Taliban, who use the image on their web site as evidence of the pain they are inflicting on their enemies (see inset screenshot).

UK Repatriation on Taliban Site

UK Repatriation on Taliban Site

PM Brown is also in the midst of a controversy over his communication with a grieving mother, Jaqui Janes.  Her son, Guardsman Jamie Janes, bled to death while awaiting evacuation by helicopter, which Ms. Janes is blaming on substandard equipment levels for British troops in the theater.   Brown sent her a handwritten note of condolence in which she claims he misspelled the name of her son.  Learning of the controversy, he telephoned her to straighten things out by claiming the perceived slight was a matter of bad handwriting.  For more details see this story in The Sun.

Note to Mr. Brown:  Though a handwritten note is more folksy, that only works if the recipient can read what you write.  You really do have atrocious handwriting, so a typewritten note would more reliably prevent miscommunication.  Also once a miscommunication has developed, listening is a better choice than defensiveness when dealing with an angry, grieving mother.

Says my colleague: “These are incredibly tense times – not sure even the meltdown of Major or Thatcher compares.”  The tense times also come as President Obama weighs additional troop commitments in Afghanistan, for which he would like to see comparable support from allies.

As this colleague points out, there is a strategic communication issue here for the UK government.  What started out as a few people paying their respects to fallen soldiers has self-organized into gatherings of thousands of people, at times shutting down one of the major routes into Oxford. The traction the Janes controversy is getting is further evidence of growing public discontent with the UK’s participation in the war. For me it is hard to avoid a comparison to the Vietnam, when nightly scenes of returning American dead at Dover Air Force Base fueled growing public opposition to the war effort.

David Betz has recently complained that in the West “we do not focus enough effort on winning and maintaining the hearts and minds of the most critical and accessible population: our own.” Bud Goodall concurs in an earlier post (also drawing a Vietnam comparison), saying that there is no coherent narrative about what we are doing in Afghanistan.  Until one is developed it will be hard to convince Brits to tolerate lengthening processions of coffins toward Oxford–or Americans to send tens of thousands of additional troops.