Friday, 7 September 2007

Our boys

There’s a phrase that I keep hearing in the news this week: The Military Covenant.

I understand what is meant – it’s basically a campaign to ensure that servicemen and women are treated right. And I’m totally behind it. However wrong the wars that this country fights are (and the current wars are very wrong), the poor sods that do the actual fighting, along with their families, should be treated with dignity, compassion and respect.

And at the moment the housing for military families, the medical provisions for wounded troops and their general working conditions are all a fucking disgrace.

But to talk about a Military Covenant mistakes the nature of the military in this country.

We don’t have a nation-in-arms or a people’s army. In fact in the 400 years of so of the British army, it has only been that kind of army for five very distinct and relatively brief episodes:

(i) The New Model Army in the 1640’s and 50’s - the most politicised army there has ever been in this country.
(ii) Kitchener’s ‘new armies’ of 1915 – the massive wave of volunteers that flooded into the army in a tide of patriotic fervour.
(iii) The conscript armies of 1916-18 – truly a nation-in-arms now united by a shared suffering in the horror of the western front rather than by patriotism.
(iv) The conscript armies of 1939-45 - with a shared vision of fighting a crusade for democratic values.
(v) Post war national service –a generation united by a shared experience of boredom and pointless authority.

At all other times, the British Army has been a professional one fighting for ‘national interests’ that in reality meant the defence of the empire abroad and in earlier times, the status quo at home.

In the course of this the army built a reputation for excellence out of all proportion to its size, and for a peculiarly British kind of understated bravery. In fact pretty much the exact opposite of the over-blown US military. And it has done this with ranks filled by the most under-privileged sections of society along with an the officer class provided by some of the most over- privileged. (Socially not very much has changed to this today).

Throughout this time the military has invariably been treated like shit by those governments whose dirty work it has done. Badly supplied, underpaid, poor medical provision are all nothing new – a posting to the West Indies in the eighteenth century was regarded as a death sentence from disease – in the nineteenth century the mismanagement of the Crimean War became a national scandal – and in the twentieth the 1914-18 war has become synonymous with military incompetence.

Whilst public sympathy for the ‘common soldier’ has come out at various times – the sentiment of ‘lions led by donkeys’ - we are on the whole, a pretty un-militaristic nation. Certainly in comparison with both the US and other European nations.

It is no accident that whilst the French have the Gendarmerie, the Spanish the Guardia Civil and the Italians the Caribinarri all paramilitary organisations partly controlled by the military we have an entirely civil police. When Robert Peel set up the police in the 1820’s he was at pains to design a uniform that was civilian (even including a top hat !) to distance the new organisation from the army in the public eye. He knew that the restless masses with memories of the yeomanry and the Peterloo massacre wouldn't stand for any anything that looked like the army.

So what’s the point of all this history?

Well the military are very strong on tradition so it is important to question how this marries up to historical truth.

But most importantly the lesson is that how soldiers are treated reflects what they are used for. And if they are cannon fodder for empire they will, sadly, be treated as such.

Possibly the French do it more honestly. Their military tradition may date back to the Revolution, Napoleon and Verdun; the nation in arms and the ‘patrie en danger’. But until recently their enormous conscript army stayed at home peeling spuds and doing parades. Meanwhile the actual fighting in various shitty campaigns is undertaken by the mercenary Foreign Legion. And when they hold out to the last man defending some far flung last outpost of empire nobody at home really gives a toss.

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