|ISSUE 59 SPRING 2009
|militarisation of Britain
Poor old Ministry of Defence they can’t get anything right – least of all winning a war. Desperate for a bit of extra cash they are being criticised for wasting it. No not on an aircraft carrier of a nuclear warhead but toy soldiers.
‘I don’t think the military should be wasting resources on this when the boys need equipment’ said Rose Gentle.
The Mod is launching a new line of toys in a range imaginatively called ‘HM Armed Forces’ It’s not clear where the MoD logo will appear on these replicas of soldiers slogging it out with Iraqis and Afghanistans. Perhaps on the disintegrating boots or the guns that jam.
While it is sad to see this insidious assault on young minds perhaps we should allow ourselves a small amount of satisfaction from this desperate effort to persuade more young people to join this murderous trade.
Nearly 30 years ago the PPU ran what it called a ‘Campaign Against Militarism’, with countrywide leaflet distribution, meetings, a conference and a lot of fly-posting of recruiting offices. Its title called on people to campaign against militarism, but ‘isms’ are tricky things to grasp – as supporters of pacifism know only too well. They are also hard to campaign against. The campaign produced literature about what militarism might be and was taken up enthusiastically around the country. Nevertheless militarism has not gone away and is again on the march. But what is it?
In 1906 Karl Liebknecht, a German socialist, delivered a lecture on Militarism at a conference for young people in Germany, where Prussian militarism - the archetypal militarism - had its home. A year later, after the lecture had been published, copies of it were confiscated and Liebknecht was prosecuted for treason.
Much has changed since 1906, but Liebknecht’s outline provides a useful starting point for thinking about a concept which is both imprecise and politically charged.
The term ‘militarism’ was coined in the 19th century following the imposition of universal military conscription in Europe, the rise of large national armies, professional military command, and growing state control over people’s lives. Prussian and Japanese militarism were the archetypal examples. Today’s militarism (as we shall view it) is vastly different, and vastly more complex. The 52 states of the early 20th century have grown to 192, causing a dramatic change in international relationships – many of which are sealed by the exchange of military assistance and sale of weapons based on shared assumptions of warfighting. Nuclear weapons have further transformed military horizons (and were seen by some as making war redundant – how wrong they were). Militarism as we look at it does not simply or even primarily reside in hardware or technology but in our minds. The disappearance of Great Powers, decolonization, and the military rule of many former colonies have further complicated the military scene. Militarism today is a dynamic phenomenon whose social characteristics vary from place to place.
To grasp more fully what is at issue we should frequently remind ourselves of the intimate and incestuous relationship between war and the state. It was in war that European states, which later provided the model for other states, established their monopoly of organised violence within their territorial confines. They created an idea of the state as the organisation responsible for protecting borders against other states and for upholding a rule of law. The sharp distinction between the military and civilians is the product of this process. As Charles Tilly, the American sociologist, said: 'States made war and war made the state'.
The belief that a country should have a strong military force and be prepared to use it aggressively to promote its interests is at the heart of militarism in Britain today. Such belief of course is not new. Indeed it has been nurtured for generations, sometimes almost invisibly, at other times more openly and vigorously. Today the promotion of military values in Britain is in overdrive, with the Prime Minister leading the charge.
In the US, militarism emerged slowly out of the failure of Vietnam and had its flowering during the Bush administration. In Britain militarism is emerging as an antidote to the failures in Iraq and Afghanistan, and has Gordon Brown as a keen promoter. Today, as in the past, the heroic task of the soldier (and especially his or her death) is often raised to mythic heights, even if, as in the British case, close to 25% of soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan have died as a result of non-combat accidents and injuries.
Such deeply embedded values enable a government spokesman’s regret for the killing of two young soldiers in Belfast, who were about to leave for Afghanistan, to pass unremarked. The soldiers’ killers are ‘murderers’ and ‘terrorists’; the soldiers are heroes in the making for being about to do the same. Strange too is the support for ‘our boys’ by people who deeply oppose the war in Iraq and Afghanistan. This is understandable if they are politicians who prefer not to alienate the military; much less so for the rest of us. These young men and women, let us not forget, were not forced to enlist. Choosing not to make soldiering a career is something we have not done enough to encourage.
In what other circumstances would we disapprove of an action yet congratulate those performing it?
The symptoms of militarism are many and various. They range from the ridiculous (such as marching and standing to attention: a formal representation of subordination and absolute obedience to an officer) to the more serious: the practice of taking young men and women and stripping them of their civilian identities while systematically inculcating them with the ideas and patterns of militarism. (Basic training is a process akin to the kind of programming of impressionable young people which is carried out by some cults.) These young men and women are put in situations in which they are expected to kill other young people whom they do not know and with whom they have no quarrel. They are also at risk of being killed themselves – and what can that achieve?
Courage in the face of danger is one thing but calling on young men to kill others in combat is surely a perversion of courage. Murder is murder, and calling it by other names does not alter that fact.
Transporting men and women many miles to conflict areas and equipping them for armed conflict takes more than money and hardware. It takes a supportive population whose minds process events according to internalised attitudes. But even embedded values need reinforcing. Much of this happens from early childhood onward. We learn the supposed value of force and threats from comics, films, TV and now digital games. Such media offer narratives of problem-solving that frequently involve violence and make (albeit virtual) destruction ‘fun’. By their late teens, even if they have escaped the siren call of cadet forces or other military blandishments, most young people have an unquestioned belief that wars are often inevitable and sometimes necessary: there can, they believe, be ‘good’ wars. They may campaign vigorously against some wars, as many have done against Iraq (No blood for oil); but that is far from being against war. In such small ways militaristic values are transmitted from generation to generation.
The media is a major socializing force and transmitter of military values; it does precisely what Quentin Davies’s report to the Prime Minister called for: To encourage ‘greater understanding and appreciation of the Armed Forces by the British public’ Our screens and newsprint are full of jolly tales of princes directing bombers, of army cooks performing heroic culinary feats under fire and of gallant women recruits being every bit as tough as the men. The regular emergence from under the plough of yet more bones of First World War soldiers in Flanders are now media staple usually embellished with heartwarming tales of fortitude of heroism. Supportive institutions including the British Legion build war memorials; one such, the new Armed Forces Memorial has space for the names of thousands of dead soldiers yet unborn. BEA systems one of the world’s largest arms manufacturers and one of very few major companies to have just reported a massive profit and a full order book, has contribute a trifle to its erection.
This year’s forthcoming Armed Forces Day was yesterday’s Veterans Day. The change of name is surely a sign that the government is floundering, that care for the veterans or even present day soldiers is not what all this is about. We know that the government needs to get more young people to join the armed forces and for the public to remain enchanted by the military and be forgiving of their failure. The latter is proving more successful that the former, which is why there is now even greater focus on recruiting in schools. While the present promotion of military values is in response to a particular issue it is nevertheless part of a continuing indoctrination for war. Many people may see through the propaganda, but repeat something often enough and it becomes part of our language, part of our view of the world.
Today the PPU’s ‘campaign’ against militarism is more nuanced – no more plastering of recruiting offices. Slogans may have their place but anyone easily swayed by a slogan is as easily swayed some other way. Our wide range of educational resources in their different ways are designed to challenge the militarist mindset.