After more than ten years of overstretch in Iraq, Afghanistan and more recently in Libya, the armed forces – the British Army in particular - finds itself looking for a new role not just as an adjunct of US military power, or with European partners, but in the domestic sphere as well. While the human costs of non-stop wars defies calculation, the institution has been subjected to significant cuts and restructuring as part of the coalition government’s efforts to slash the public sector.
As Londoners assimilate the fact that the city is under military occupation for the duration of the games, (and that a further 3,500 soldiers will be employed as bargain-basement security guards), it is clear that the relationship between the armed forces and civil society has changed beyond recognition over the last decade.
A recent indication is the news that Labour’s latest Policy Review is looking at how young people could gain from ‘the values and expertise’ of military institutions. Writing in the Telegraph, Stephen Twigg and Jim Murphy, shadow ministers for education and defence respectively, began with the now commonplace platitude that the armed forces ‘are central to our national character, just as they are to our national security. The ethos and values of the Services can be significant not just on the battlefield but across our society, including in schools.’
Their vague proposals for integrating military workers into civilian society include the suggestion that ‘a cadre of Armed Services mentors, mainly veterans and reservists …work closely with those in need of guidance and support. This gestures towards the vexed issue of resettling a militarised workforce likely to be heavily scarred by combat experience. ‘One concrete plan, however, is to increase the cadet force in state secondary schools, a long-running plan that has been previously backed by Gordon Brown and Michael Gove as a solution to improving the character and moral standards of the nation’s young people.
Miliband’s attempt to join the military choir is merely the latest proof that the status of the armed forces has changed significantly in the last decade. From 2003 onwards, the outpouring of public sympathy towards soldiers who were cast as victims of futile and unpopular wars has been part of a long drawn-out process during which British military institutions have been repositioned at the centre of national life. As soldiers prepare to carry out security checks and public order duties during the London Olympics - the biggest mobilisation of military and security forces seen in the UK since the second world war – the public is about to witness one dimension of these profound changes.
The games provide a tailor-made experiment to test the public’s reactions to army uniforms seen up close and, above all, worn by soldiers primed to engage with fellow citizens as opposed to foreign combatants. Despite the MoD’s initial reluctance to commit the overstretched forces to the operation, the haphazard co-operation between police, private contractors G4S and military personnel can be seen as a dry run for Britain’s developing state security arrangements.
While the news of thousands of redundancies and the scrapping of historic regiments has attracted most of the media attention, the revelation that the so-called Army 2020 will involve a greater proportion of logistical and other work farmed out to private contractors has passed without comment.
The fact that the future Army 2020 will rely on thousands of reserve, or part-time, soldiers, should be understood as another strategy to integrate military work into the civilian economy, enmeshing employers as well as recruits into a wider network of the nation’s security apparatus. As Twigg and Murphy point out, ‘Reservists use civilian skills to support the military and the reverse should also be true’.
These developments have had accumulated affects: the changing public view of soldiering as a particular form of labour; the deployment not just of military hardware but also uniformed soldiers in securitising the games; the cuts and restructuring of the defence sector as an index of the UK’s diminishing global influence; the mounting anxiety about the sheer numbers of ex-servicemen and women re-entering the workforce, a large proportion of whom are suffering mental and physical health issues as a result of combat experience.
And while the armed forces have been engaged in continuous deployment in far away countries the ‘homeland’ has been inexorably subjected to new technologies of surveillance and control. With the military otherwise occupied, the onus on devising policies to cope with emergencies, from floods to chemical warfare to what are known as ‘Mumbai-style’ attacks, has fallen largely on police and local authorities.
A recent document from Mark Phillips, based at the Royal United Services Institute, indicates that calculating a distinct role for the military in national security and ‘homeland resilience’ might be a fraught business. He notes that it not going to be straightforward integrating the armed forces with police and other security agencies who are not used to military modes of operating. Military planners are also aware that the institution’s relationship with the public is important as well.
The King's Centre for Military Health Research reports that that although 83 per cent of the public have ‘a high or very high opinion of the armed forces, almost 20 per cent of service personnel have faced hostility from members of the public on their return from Afghanistan and Iraq, and nearly 60 per cent of them felt people did not understand their experience during deployment.’
For these reasons alone the debates about the future of the armed forces require a politically engaged response. The official decision about Army 2020 was announced shortly after Armed Forces Day on 30 June, leaving the government open to charge that there was a delay so as to spare embarrassment in the MoD. But in addition to the controversial cuts and amalgamations to historic regiments there are other aspects of the restructuring that have not been widely discussed.
On the same Armed Forces Day - a new calendar event inaugurated by Brown’s government in 2009 - the Telegraph front page ran the headline, ‘Battalions with foreign bias face cuts in army axe’. The following day, 1 July, three more UK soldiers were killed in Afghanistan. One of these, Guardsman Apete Tuisovurua of the 1st Battalion Welsh Guards, was a citizen of Fiji. He represented one of several thousand Commonwealth citizens recruited since 1998, when New Labour dropped residency requirements for Commonwealth citizens in order to boost flagging manpower levels. Aged 28, he had only joined in November 2010 and had served in his regiment for less than a year.
The suggestion that ‘foreign bias’ was a problem needs serious attention. Without the presence of Commonwealth citizens, the armed forces – the British Army in particular – would not have been able to deploy so widely in Northern Ireland, Kosovo, Sierra Leone and more recently Iraq and Afghanistan. The 1998 SDR increased the size of the logistics section which recruited heavily not just from from Fiji, but also from Caribbean and African countries. In 2009 the RLC was one of the areas capped at 15% of non UK citizens in an attempt to maintain the ‘Britishness’ of the organization. Today it faces heavy cuts and the replacement of former in-house functions by private contractors. The Infantry regiment 3 Yorks, due to be scrapped, has also recruited heavily from Commonwealth citizens since the turn of the century.
Equally important is the fact that the presence of Commonwealth soldiers throughout the armed forces has meant that army, in particular, has been able to reach the requisite targets for minority ethnic personnel. The decision to axe those parts of the organisation that rely disproportionately on migrant labour presents a different kind of headache for military recruiters. As levels of UK-born BMEs remain stubbornly low, it is important that civilians track the attempts made to sustain a functioning multicultural army that is not disconnected from the diversity in UK society.
Paying attention to the politics of military work offers important ways of monitoring a country’s national security policy, as well as interrogating the substance of national identity. And there are many other aspects of the plan to reorganise Britain’s defence and security sector that should cause concern.
Britain’s foreign policy and its relationship with rest of world is rapidly shifting as a result of the seismic reconfiguration of global power. The move towards an increasing reliance on UAVs – what Tom Englehardt calls ‘the perfect American weapon’ – must be resisted at all costs. The weary silence of a British public that is tired of endless war must not be taken as compliance with this latest development in human-killing technology. Likewise the UK’s involvement in the global arms trade needs constant resistance and investigation.
But above all, if we are to pay attention to the new meanings of militarisation, it is crucial to connect the restructuring of the national armed forces to the workings of the security state within the UK. With the police now licensed and trained to use militarized control technologies, our cities are subject to what Stephen Graham has identified as the new military urbanism - the perfect scenario for the coming Olympics. We can’t say we haven’t been warned.
 Mark Phillips, ‘Army 2020: Roles, Capabilities and People,’ RUSI occasional paper, June 2012.
About this author: Vron Ware is a research fellow at the Centre for Citizenship, Identities and Governance (CCIG) and the ESRC Centre for research in socio-cultural change (CRESC) based at the Open University. Her new book Military Migrants: Fighting for YOUR country will be out in Sept. (Here's the link: http://www.palgrave.com/products/title.aspx?pid=579066
Get our weekly email