What is the impact of war on the home front? Up in Arms will address the idea that Britain has been undergoing some complex processes of militarisation as a consequence of ‘Blair’s wars’.
The figure of the soldier occupies a volatile space at the heart of British domestic and foreign politics. After a decade of divisive and disastrous deployments, the changing fortunes of the armed forces at home can no longer cloak the hidden cost of sending the country to war and keeping it there.
This column will explore what this might mean for Britons in today’s securitised climate. It will also raise more general questions about the future of national armed forces everywhere as bastions of public service and national identity.
The British soldier just this week
October has already seen evidence of how fast perceptions of military prestige can shift within civil society. Just as five marines were charged with the murder of an insurgent in Afghanistan, the Ministry of Defence faced further allegations by a whistleblower that the inquiry set up to examine claims of abuse of Iraqi citizens by British servicemen (IHAT) was deeply flawed. According to human rights lawyer Louise Christian, ‘nearly half of those working for it are reported to have come from the private security firm G4S’.
During the same week, media investigations revealed the extent of complicity between the public defence sector and the private arms trade. A Sunday Times sting caught former military chiefs on film boasting of their lobbying skills. As a result, the head of the country’s leading ex-servicemen’s organisation resigned from his position. This was followed by a Guardian report on the ‘revolving door’ linking former military personnel, defence officials and arms companies eager to secure their services.
And all these revelations have threatened to drown out the noises from within the cabinet calling for the troops to be brought back from Afghanistan, immediately, on financial grounds alone. By March 2012, the war had cost taxpayers £17.3 billion on top of the core defence budget. Chancellor George Osborne was said to have questioned the purpose of delaying the final exit for another two years, while defence secretary Phillip Hammond had hinted earlier that the negotiations for withdrawal were ‘flexible’ and ‘evolving’.
But the deadly practice of warcraft is changing fast. With increasing reliance on armed drones, special operation forces and private security firms, it becomes crucial to monitor the twists and turns of military matters on the home front.
Within the last five years we have rarely heard any critical discussion of soldiering in the UK. Whether a job in the British Army is regarded as a service or a profession, it has been routinely mystified by the language of heroes and sacrifice, even as the organisation is targeted for restructuring along with the rest of the public sector.
One index of the unique position of soldiers as workers is the prohibition on forming trade unions or even on joining an anti-government protest. This was underlined when serving members of the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers announced that, despite the risk of court martial, they would join retired colleagues on a march to the House of Commons during a debate on defence cuts. In the event, the protest only made news after Andrew Robothan, an armed forces minister, demanded that the veterans be removed from the public gallery for ‘making too much noise’. The irony was not lost on the ex-servicemen who were threatened with ejection from the parliamentary debate for simply applauding those who spoke on behalf of their doomed regiment.
A striking image that encapsulates the current status of the British soldier in public is that of the khaki-clad security staff at the 2012 London Olympics, frisking members of the public as they entered the enclosure. In a piece in oD at the time I suggested that,’ 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’.
The high visibility of military personnel only makes sense as a complex reconfiguring of the place of defence institutions in Britain's public life. Rather than as a substantially new departure, the use of soldiers as security guards deserves to be seen as a culmination of a fractious process which must be analysed as part of the continuing aftermath of the Iraq War.
One strand of this concerns the long-running legal battles over the responsibility of the Ministry of Defence towards the troops themselves. Just this month, for example, the court of appeal decided to allow military personnel or their relatives to pursue claims that the government and armed services chiefs had a duty of care to troops during military operations. This particular battle had been raging since 2003 when soldiers began writing home from the front line about the inadequacy of basic equipment, let alone military hardware.
Numerous measures were set in place to limit the damaging scenario of a government failing to discharge its responsibility towards its armed forces. Many of these interventions were aimed at a war-weary public that seemed undecided whether to cast the soldier as a victim of hateful foreign policy or a perpetrator.
In March 2008, for instance, it emerged that servicemen at RAF Wittering had been ordered NOT to wear uniform in the nearby town after it was reported that some had been ‘taunted by people who opposed UK involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq’. Although this had allegedly happened some months earlier, the incident was used to promote Gordon Brown’s inquiry into ‘the national recognition of our armed forces.’ One outcome of this review was a push for greater military outreach into schools in an effort to engage with young people. Another was the designation of Armed Forces Day, sold to the public as an annual opportunity for the nation to say ‘thank you’.
Four years on, asked about the lasting impact of the Olympics on the military, Commander of Land Forces Nick Parker said that, for him, the contact with the public had been ‘invigorating’. He confirmed the fact that the exercise had been successful in ‘strengthening the bond’ between the armed forces and the British public, demonstrating not just that they had a role to play at home but also that the military offered attractive career opportunities.
‘The most significant act of recognition many of us have had is to be openly thanked in the street - not very British perhaps, and we may have looked embarrassed. But the public's unreserved support for the armed forces will have a lasting impact on us.’
In this column, however, the notion of ‘unreserved support’ will be placed under close examination, since this is where we can locate most clearly the ongoing momentum of militarization. Towards the end of the cold war, writer Michael Geyer memorably defined the concept as ‘the contradictory and tense social process in which civil society organizes itself for the production of violence’.
The figure of the soldier stands on the faultline between several contradictory but deeply-held social and cultural beliefs today. On the one hand, sympathy for servicemen and women can lead to greater public anger when they are sent off to die for dubious causes. On the other, the public are asked to obediently support the armed forces, whatever they are asked to do. Up in Arms will explore this faultline.
Because of Britain’s history as an aggressive imperial power, its military institutions play a critical role in making and reproducing official versions of Britishness. The organisations of serving and former servicemen and women are central to annual rituals of remembrance that bring the idea of a nation alive, as we shall be reminded on Armistice Day in a fortnight’s time. The connections between church, state, monarchy and military are pivotal in the UK.
Consider the importance of the two princes in supplying a new generation of modern, militarised, masculine and ‘muscular’ monarchism. Both the Royal Wedding and Prince Harry’s exploits have done wonders for the image of the Crown overseas as well as re-defining the role of the monarch as a military figurehead at home.
Against this alignment of such staunch political forces, when military workers are re-branded as heroes for doing a job for which they volunteered, the space of vocal opposition to military operations inevitably shrinks as a result. The repercussions for minorities or migrants living in the UK have been ominous.
So, as the success of the military’s involvement in the Olympics security operation was being celebrated, the Sun newspaper - which has played a prominent role in shaping the discourse of Our Boys – set itself the task of linking evident instances of hostility to soldiers to the question of immigration. Tory backbencher Julian Brazier was reported as saying: ‘What has only started to come out recently was a whole string of acts of violence by people living round the area against service personnel. We are now starting to collect some groups who don’t feel British.’ The Sun article was listed as part of the daily MoD media blog.
However, one incident in particular - a symptom of the new dimension of online censorship - best illustrates the reach of the surveillance state into social media networks to criminalise sentiments of this kind, regarded as unacceptable.
In March this year, Azhar Ahmed, a 19yr old from West Yorkshire, was arrested on a ‘racially aggravated public order charge’ after posting a comment on Facebook about the deaths of 6 British soldiers in Afghanistan. According to media reports he was charged after the mother of one of the soldiers called the police on seeing what he had written. The bizarre charge, which implied that soldiers constitute a racial group, was later amended to being grossly offensive under the Communications Act 2003. Ahmed was found guilty and sentenced to 240 hours community service as well as a fine. In sentencing Ahmed, the District Judge, Jane Goodwin, claimed she was not stopping legitimate political opinions being strongly voiced. ‘The test is whether what something which has been written or said is beyond the pale of what's tolerable in our society’.
It is important to remember that anti-war protestors have sometimes taken a stand in support of soldiers, notably in a provocative act that earlier revealed the extent of new security laws in 21st century Britain. In October 2005, activist Maya Evans was arrested at the London Cenotaph as she attempted to read out the names of British soldiers who had died in Iraq. Along with Milan Rai, who was reading names of killed Iraqi civilians, she was the first to be convicted under the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005 for taking part in an unauthorised demonstration within one km of Parliament Square. They each received a conditional discharge and a fine.
But when the parents and partners of those who are killed or maimed question the value of the war, they frame the politicians who are ultimately responsible in a different light. Military families cannot be accused of not being patriotic. The success of the Military Wives Choir in November 2011 showed how easily this normally invisible section of the ‘service community’ was co-opted into an emotive support group for ‘Our Boys’ in Helmand.
Naming the dead
On October 7, 2012 a small group of people stood in Trafalgar Square to mark the eleventh anniversary of Britain’s war in Afghanistan. This was a very different marking of the anniversary from previous occasions. Having been notably absent from anti-war platforms for a while – with the exception of conscientious objector Joe Glenton - the figure of the British soldier had evidently re-emerged as a symbol worth fighting for.
Placards were on hand calling for ‘Troops Home’ with the distinctive blood spot in the word ‘home’, reminiscent of graphic artist David Gentleman’s iconic anti-war posters over the decade. The simple slogan, subtly different from the ‘Troops Out’ message of last year’s anniversary protest, reflected the demands of Military Families Against the War. After the reading they delivered a letter to Downing Street, calling on the David Cameron to ‘bring the troops home by Christmas’.
The speeches from campaigners, politicians and members of military families were brief, punctuated by reading out the names of some of the Afghan civilians and British soldiers who had been killed during the course of the decade.
Some read moving poems, including Hamja Ahsan, brother of Talha Ahsan who had been extradited to the US only two days earlier after being held in detention without trial since 2006. Seasoned speakers like MPs Jeremy Corbin and Paul Flynn aimed their scorn at fellow politicians for their failure to come clean and withdraw the troops immediately rather than wait until a nominal date in 2014.
The crowd was reminded that Flynn had recently been banished from Parliament for his stance against the war. Specifically he had accused Philip Hammond, the defence minister, of using British soldiers as human shields for ministers' reputations by sending them to die in vain.
As well as the 400 or so servicemen and women who had died out there, he said, there were at least two thousand soldiers who returned, broken in body and spirit. ‘The Canadians and Dutch had debates and brought their troops home, but in this country we can’t even get a debate.’
As each speaker read from a list of names of the dead with details of their ages, home towns and the circumstances of death, words like Khost, Merseyside, Kabul and Keighley alternated with each other in strange juxtaposition. The effect was to place each untimely death on a level footing with the rest, regardless of status as occupier or inhabitant, military or civilian.
When Caroline Munday spoke about her soldier-son who had been killed in Afghanistan, age 21, four years earlier almost to the day, the full force of each loss was more evident. ‘I am speaking as a mum’, she said. ‘And all those mums in Afghanistan, wherever, I know how it feels and I don’t want anyone else to have to feel like that.’
Joan Humphreys, a long-time, vocal, member of MFAW, began by reading the names of the dead, explaining how and where each death took place. When she finished she told us, ‘Now you never hear about that sort of thing.’ She then spoke of her own grandson, Kevin Elliott, who had been killed in August 2009 while he was serving with the Black Watch. She said, ‘I didn’t like him being in the army, and I hated what he had to do, but he chose it.’
Humphreys’ loyalty to her grandson, despite her opposition to the wars, accentuated the fact that thousands of young women and men are drawn to military service for a host of reasons. For all armed forces operating on a voluntary basis, the interface between military employers and civil society is crucial in terms of sustaining a flow of fit, trainable recruits.
Although the British military has been the subject of several documentary and reality-style tv programmes within the last three years, there are few opportunities for public scrutiny of the conditions of working in and for the armed forces. Considering the fact that they play such a pivotal role in representing the nation, it is surprising there is only sporadic interest in the degree of diversity among the officer class or rank and file in terms of ethnic and faith-based background as well as gender.
In my new book, Military Migrants, I have tried to document the transformation of the British Army by modern employment and human rights legislation. Although the army has reached the required targets for ethnic minorities, at least two thirds of these are not UK citizens while the level of UK-born recruits has failed to rise significantly. The position of these postcolonial soldiers as both heroes and unwanted outsiders – one more of the themes I will be exploring in Up in Arms - brings the contradictions of militarization roundly into view.