It has been six months since there has been a British fatality in Afghanistan. On October 15 it was announced that a soldier from 4 Signals Regiment (Electronic Warfare), attached to the Task Force Helmand Brigade Reconnaissance Force, was the 445th British service member to die there since 2001.
While there have been few headlines about the British Army in Afghanistan over the past few months, there has been a constant stream of information about the plight of the armed forces at home. For anyone seeking to understand the privatisation of modern warfare that proceeds out of sight and behind our backs, this is too important to leave to old soldiers or defence analysts.
The good news is that there is a growing network of campaigners and academics who are not just focused on preventing more wars but also on understanding the longer term effects of war on the way we live.
Carl Fredrik Reutersward, Non-Violence. Lund, Sweden.
A losing battle
Barely a week goes by without a leaked report or memo revealing low morale or low recruitment figures. In the same week that the House of Commons voted against military intervention in Syria, Col Richard Kemp, a former commander of British forces in Afghanistan, accused the MoD of hollowing out the institution. He said that many soldiers now viewed the army as a declining industry: ‘People who had hoped to serve out full careers and have the expected career path and progression are seeing it shattered as the Army is cut to pieces’.
And while the polls declared that the British public rejected the use of military force in Syria and were not bothered by the effect this might have on the Special Relationship, a recent survey conducted in the UK by YouGov found that only 54 per cent of young people aged 18 to 24 regarded the Army as important to Britain’s national interests, compared with between 82 per cent and 93 per cent of older people.
Attitudes towards part-time military service were even more negative. Last year the MoD renamed the Territorial Army the ‘Army Reserve’ as part of a radical restructuring of the British Army. Fewer than half of young people considered it to be important compared with between 72 per cent and 87 per cent of adults.
These opinions are reflected in recruitment rates which have shown a marked decrease. One leaked memo revealed that the number of people enlisting in the Army Reserve from April to June was 367, barely a quarter of the target (1,432).
Just this week the Telegraph ran another article on the failure to attract reservists under the heading, ‘Fighting a losing battle over the Armed Forces’. The piece, authored by ‘Telegraph View’ announced that ‘the most ambitious overhaul of our Armed Forces for more than a generation’ had ‘all the hallmarks of a disaster in the making’.
This wasn’t the result of another leak either. Twenty Conservative and Liberal Democrat rebels have since joined Labour MPs in support of a successful House of Commons motion proposed by Tory MP John Baron. The motion called on the government to delay the disbandment of regular units until the Army Reserve Plan was considered to be both ‘viable and cost-effective’.
Legacy army systems
The emerging recruitment crisis has clearly been compounded by problems involved in the process of privatisation. In March the Ministry of Defence awarded Capita a £440 million contract to take over the army’s recruitment process, purportedly with the aim of releasing 1000 soldiers for other duties. Now technical issues have meant that the same number have been called back into army recruitment offices to deal with the ensuing chaos.
It turns out that Capita was using the MoD IT system which had slowed down their operations and left many would-be recruits in limbo. Capita’s response was that, ‘The new operation has been affected by a delay in the MoD-provided IT hosting environment and therefore is currently relying on legacy Army systems.’
The difficulty in keeping track of the stealthy privatization of a national institution is not helped by the fact that the process is becoming all too familiar and therefore it’s hard to raise the alarm. But as the seasonal poppy cloud descends on us, it’s hard to forget that the armed forces are a unique public body, deeply symbolic of the nation as an idea. In his book, Imagined Communities, Benedict Anderson described the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier as material evidence that death in service signified the ultimate sacrifice on behalf of the nation.
There are other reasons why it’s important to understand the gap between what the county’s military institutions represent and what they do. It remains one of the great paradoxes of Britain’s post-2001 wars that, despite massive opposition to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the armed forces have emerged as both heroes and victims at home. The ‘men’ have been separated from the ‘mission’ in a prolonged battle to control the message about what was supposed to be the point of all that sacrifice.
For these reasons alone, the mechanics of recruiting new soldiers – to say nothing of the politics – raise some important questions about our society. Recruitment into national military forces is a live issue throughout most Nato countries, many of which have only recently abolished conscription. However, others see powerful arguments for making military service, or its equivalent, part of the duties of a citizen.
In Norway, for example, parliament recently voted overwhelmingly to conscript women as well as men, becoming the first European and first Nato country to make military service compulsory for both genders. And in his latest book Breach of Trust: How Americans Failed their Soldiers and their Country, US writer and veteran Andrew Bacevich argues that, in the interests of democracy, the country should return to a conscription model to counter the alarming gap between the civilian population and its armed forces.
We used to be there
Last July the MoD re-instated the five-year residency requirement for Commonwealth citizens seeking to join the armed forces. The era of ‘military migrants’ is drawing to a close. Whether this is because the policy made the MoD vulnerable to charges of hiring migrants to ‘take British jobs’, or because they were confident of filling the deplete ranks with home-grown kids, was not made clear.
Closing the door to unskilled migrants from Commonwealth countries may well bring the armed forces into line with employment regulations in other sectors. But the change in policy also reflects a profound shift in the requirements that institutions observe equality and diversity legislation. The increased recruitment of minorities in 1998 allowed the army, in particular, to conform to the obligation that public sector organizations reflect the diversity of society. The proportion of non-white soldiers rose from 2% in 1999 to today’s respectable level of roughly 10%. Only one third of these have UK passports.
One result is that the phenomenon of Britain’s multinational, postcolonial army will soon be consigned to history, to be remembered later under the heading: We Were There, chapter 736. The fate of the three thousand plus Gurkhas, recruited from Nepal since 1815 under an altogether different arrangement, is currently unaffected as they are recruited and trained as a separate entity. However, ever since the 1940s, governments have periodically debated plans to reduce their numbers or terminate their contract altogether.
Commonwealth applicants accounted for 45% of those recruited in London shortly before Capita took over. Difficulties in recruiting in the UK will inexorably lead to new advertising campaigns and a greater attention to young people who can be targeted through schools, community groups, cadet forces and even video games - many other reasons why we should be paying attention to the intrusion of military ideas, values and tactics into everyday life.
The organisation, Forces Watch, which challenges the ethics of military recruitment and questions the climate of uncritical national pride in the armed forces, has been active in provoking some new debates on the theme of militarisation. On Saturday October 19, the group will host a national conference to explore the idea that there has been a growing involvement and/or visibility of the military over recent years - from ‘increasing military approaches in schools to a greater presence and privileging of the military in local communities.’
Supported by Quaker Peace and Social Witness and The Andrew Wainwright Reform Trust, the event will bring together academics, peace groups and activists from a broad range of campaigning organisations to listen to each other and share information and analyses. The first half of the day will consider ‘militarisation and the individual’, looking at military involvement in young people’s lives; being in the military and life afterwards; military values and diversity, representations of the military; masculinity and women in the military; the militarised body.
The second half will examine ‘militarisation and the community’, listening to presentations and group discussions on military/civilians partnerships and covenants; militarised localities and communities; military involvement in civil society; ‘militainment’, culture and ceremony; and political and social responses to veterans. Up in Arms will be reflecting on the outcomes in due course.
Polish Army Museum, Warsaw.
One reason why this initiative is so important today is that the phrase ‘war-weariness’ has established itself as a keyword in the British government’s phrasebook of public management. The fact that, by and large, the population is reluctant to support prolonged warfare has implications for Britain’s foreign policy as well as the size and composition of the country’s military institutions.
But ‘war-weariness’ is a vacuous term. It obscures the insidious ways in which the struggle for hearts and minds extends into domestic politics. It doesn’t begin to capture the complexity of response to the relentless portrayal of soldiers as heroes, victims and celebrities.
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