What a Great War!
The anniversary of the First World War is a time to rethink our society’s infatuation with the military, argues Jill Segger
“Every man thinks meanly of himself for not having been a soldier, or not having been at sea.” Samuel Johnson’s words reflect a particular idea of masculinity. It is understandable; the martial trades call upon those virtues of courage, resourcefulness and comradeship which are often considered to be defining male qualities. Put dashing uniforms and state-of-the-art technology into the mix and it is not difficult to see why young men (for most recruits are still male, though numbers of women have increased) may be attracted to a life in the armed forces.
Since the Second World War, Britain has been involved in armed conflict somewhere in the world during every year except 1968. For the past 50 years, the military personnel concerned have not been conscripts and the armed forces have been marketed as an invitation to “be the best”. There does not appear to be a shortage of takers. However, the most intensive recruitment drives, particularly for the infantry, are carried out in areas where unemployment is high and educational attainment poor – a recent report from the Commons defence select committee revealed 40% of army recruits to have a reading age of 11 or lower.
It suits governments to encourage an uncritically admiring stance in relation to all matters concerned with the military. Armed Forces Day – now in its fifth year – has been unashamedly conflated with patriotism and good citizenship by the prime minister of a government which sells arms to oppressive regimes and which, in the cause of austerity, is making service personnel redundant just days ahead of qualification for their optimum pension entitlement.
David Cameron has also spoken of plans to “celebrate” this year’s centenary of the beginning of the First World War. It is important that we should remember this appalling slaughter, its transformation of the political and social map of Europe and its role as seedbed of the 1939-45 conflict. But if the celebration is to draw heavily on the pageantry and spectacle which our armed forces do with great style, we will, to the detriment of truth, be colluding with that aspect of memorialising which Harry Patch, the “last Tommy” condemned as “just showbusiness”.
It is hard to imagine politicians being willing to mark the centenary by acknowledging Tony Benn’s description of war as “the failure of diplomacy”. That would mean shared repentance and sorrow for generations of destructive blindness. Regiments, squadrons and ships’ companies would march in uniforms devoid of rank badges, medals and battle honours. Politicians would place ashes on their heads and keep silence. The families of the “enemy” would be embraced and comforted. The farmers and villagers of northern France and Flanders whose green lands were, in Edmund Blunden’s strangely haunting words, “knocked silly with guns and mines” would be given the opportunity to express their grief at what was taken from them and their posterity. None of this is possible even to imagine, because power requires the people to be diverted into acquiescence by sentiment deformed into sentimentality, by the easy emotion of spectacle and tendentious rhetoric.
If this is to continue, each new generation must be recruited into complicity and we have an education secretary who is well aware of this. Michael Gove is eager for our state schools to have a “military ethos”. This includes a £10.85m expansion of school-based cadets, plans for a chain of state-funded free schools which boast an armed-forces ethos in line with similar plans in the United States, and the introduction of former military personnel into schools through the Troops to Teachers retraining scheme. The Department for Education declares: “Our ambition is for pupils to use the benefits of a military ethos, such as self-discipline and teamwork, to achieve an excellent education which will help them shape their own futures. Promoting [a] military ethos in schools helps foster confidence, self-discipline and self-esteem whilst developing teamwork and leadership skills.”
These are admirable qualities. The problem lies in the assumption that they cannot be found outside the armed forces nor be inculcated without their influence. There is also an unexamined belief that military leadership training is readily transferable to the flatter and more collaborative structures of civilian society. If even a small part of the proposed budget for military-style schools were directed towards dissemination of the work and ethos of the “unarmed forces”, a significant step would have been taken towards giving our young people the skills of conflict resolution, cooperation, restorative justice, creative nonviolence and peacemaking which a volatile and diverse world needs so much. And let it not be thought that active participation in these fields demands less courage and self-discipline than the profession of arms – ask any ecumenical accompanier who has placed their unarmed body between an Israeli army bulldozer and a Palestinian home.
Do we have sufficient moral imagination to detach ourselves from the infatuation with all the tackle and trim of war into which our rulers are so eager to seduce us? The primary business of the armed forces is killing. If we permit politicians to divert us away from thinking about this, by their appeals to admiration for the undoubted courage and skill of service personnel, or by the promotion of military displays as entertainment, we will lose sight of alternative approaches to international policy.
Tertullian wrote that when Jesus disarmed Peter in the Garden of Gethsemane, he disarmed all Christians. It seems that the next couple of years will present us will plenty of opportunities to test the truth of that.
Jill Segger is a Quaker and associate director of the religion and society thinktank, Ekklesia
This article was published in the February 2014 edition of Reform.