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Disaster militarism

The country’s military institutions must not be seen as deserving of special consideration. Once the ethos of public service has been smashed and discredited by neoliberal restructuring, the danger is that it will take more than an army to bring it back.

For some time now, Up in Arms has been drawing attention to the process of militarisation taking place in the UK. This has meant tracking the changing profile of the armed forces in civil society, ears pricked for anything that suggests that military norms and values are inherently superior and therefore worthy of unquestioning support. It can be hard to distinguish the long term shifts from the immediate gear changes, and to know how seriously to take some of the ‘information’ that makes it into the public domain – particularly if it emanates from unnamed ‘senior’ officials in defence departments or cranky media pundits with an interest in military welfare. 

Take the use of soldiers in Britain’s recent flood disasters. Following their successful deployment as security guards for the London Olympics, the MoD could be more confident that the public would accept their role as a reserve body of odd-job men who by their physical strength and numbers alone could be put to work in a civil emergency. But after all those years in Iraq and Afghanistan, how does this latest form of unarmed yard work change public perceptions of the jobs that soldiers are actually trained to do, at great expense to the taxpayer? 

The army in front of a flooded house in Surrey The army securing properties in Surrey following torrential rain in Feb 2014. Demotix/Maja Smiejkowska. All rights reserved.

We might have got used to seeing uniformed soldiers in public spaces. But it’s still slightly jarring to watch troops of marines wading through floodwaters on the Somerset Levels, or to read BBC headlines like: ‘Military on the streets in Berkshire’. It’s not just sandbags at dawn either either - the MoD has offered the expertise of army engineers to rebuild train track in the South West. And while people are starting to wonder what soldiers will actually do when they are not dispatched to far-off wars, a recent Guardian editorial asked the question: ‘do we need to start thinking about our military establishment less in terms of firepower and more in terms of a fire brigade, with war somewhere in the middle, rather than right at the top, of the list of duties?’ 

Blurring the lines

It is important to demystify the conditions under which military labour is performed and to be reminded that it belongs to the wider realm of public service, along with other tasks such as policing, fire-fighting, teaching and nursing. But there is also a danger in blurring the lines between what is military and what is civilian, a development that is becoming increasingly common in the UK. 

The armed forces sit uneasily in the public sector, estranged from other public service organisations not least because their workers are trained to kill people and to smash things up. I’m not being funny – this is the basis of British Army doctrine as it has been defined in the late twentieth century. A key document issued by the army secretariat in 1996, entitled ‘The Extent to which the Army has a Right to be Different’, explains that: 

‘The fundamental and perhaps only difference of significance between military service and other legitimate professions and occupations is that servicemen and women must be prepared, at any time and in the service of others rather than themselves, to participate in protracted and sometimes wholesale destruction and violence, to kill and be killed for benign and politically justifiable purposes.’

 

This unchanging characteristic of warfare and the ‘profession of arms’ can be distinguished from other professions, such as the police and fire services – who also face death and injury – because ‘none face the potentially devastating experience of taking life as a normal part of their roles’. 

However, in the UK, as in many other countries they also occupy a disproportionate amount of space as a unique institution that symbolises the essence of the nation as a historical entity. As we are bound to be reminded in this World War 1 anniversary year, military service is often cast as a form of sacrifice that is drenched in the blood of those who have fallen in previous wars in defence of the nation.

But nowadays working in military organisations is also a job like many others, even though it might require a particular mindset and aptitude. It involves training, career development, promotion paths and other mundane issues such as pension schemes and work-related perks and benefits. Of course, this does not include the right to belong to a trade union. But for a lot of people, joining the army is regarded as an opportunity to gain qualifications, prestige, experience and physical prowess. For many officer types, a spell in the forces is a stepping stone to a lucrative career in the corporate world. However, the process of attracting new recruits can be a fraught process for military employers with their insatiable demand for mouldable minds and young, fit bodies. 

Blocked pipelines

One of the biggest problems faced by the armed forces in almost any country that has abolished conscription is keeping the pipeline of suitable young entrants flowing. While recruitment provides a focal point for examining public attitudes to military work, there is surprisingly little discussion about the factors that might entice or deter young people from applying. These are issues that can become more intriguing by comparison between national contexts.

In Taiwan, for example, where conscription is being replaced by an all-volunteer army, problems of recruitment have arisen because of the army’s reputation for brutalising new recruits. As a result, the government has been forced to reduce numbers of military personnel from 215,000 to 170,000 over the next five years. Up in Arms has reported before how some European countries have opted to keep conscription and, in the case of Norway, even make it gender neutral, rather than follow the trend to an all-volunteer professional army. 

Consider this list of reasons why Europe’s armed forces have struggled with recruitment over the last few decades. Kings War Studies professor Christopher Dandeker and his colleague David Mason recently summarised the problem of ‘how to secure an appropriate, consistent and sustained level of voluntary enlistment’: 

profound cultural changes, such as the decline of deference and the rise of individualism; shifts in relationships between social classes arising from the decline of the traditional working class and the rise of an aspiring middle class; the emergence of new economic sectors in the second half of the twentieth century, such as those based on knowledge, marketing and service provision; increasing levels of participation in higher education among members of the military recruitment age group; and social changes relating to population profiles and acceptable gender roles.

Add to this the more immediate issue of mass redundancies after an extended period of wasteful, unpopular and exorbitant warfare, and the problems can only increase. 

The army is now given space in job centres to set up their own recruitment ‘clinics’ in an attempt to attract potential employees, both full time and reserves. Although the mechanics of the recruitment process have been handed over to Capita, in line with teachers and many other professions, catastrophic IT failures have meant that soldiers have been pulled back into ‘front line’ roles, appearing at jobs fairs all over the country. The crisis in recruitment, appearing at a time of substantial redundancies and cutbacks to the armed forces – the army in particular – has received massive coverage, particularly from supporters in high places.

One of the most recent and widely reported was former US defence secretary Robert Gates who promoted his new book in the UK with the argument that Britain would no long be able to be a full partner to the US because of the drastic cuts to its defence budget.

What he didn’t say was that the Department of Defense in his own country was also being forced to make stringent cuts and that comparable arguments about the feasibility of a large standing military continue to make headlines over there too. US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has recently outlined plans to shrink the United States Army to its smallest force since 1940. The new spending proposal was described by ‘officials’ as the first Pentagon budget aggressively to push the military off the war footing that was adopted after September 2001. This has been met by a predictably angry response, not just from certain Congress members who oppose substantial cuts to numbers as well as hardware but also from groups like the National Guard Association, an advocacy group for reservists, which fears that their members will be affected.

Flood fighters

Elsewhere the Telegraph has been waging a vociferous campaign against the MoD plan to supplement full time soldiers with part-time ones. A recent article highlighted the fact that Simon Weston, survivor of the Falklands War, explains why he wouldn’t join the army now if he was young. ‘Honestly, I wouldn’t sign up now. There have just been cuts after cuts after cuts, and the Army has been left a shadow of its former self.’

This coverage is in stark contrast with the fate of other public sector organizations undergoing cuts and restructuring. Firefighters, for example, perform a dangerous job which entails risking their own lives to protect and save members of the public. Yet their services are being cut back and their facilities sold off like there’s no tomorrow. January saw 10 fire stations closed in London, including the UK’s oldest station in Clerkenwell. A total of 552 jobs are also being slashed and the number of fire engines is being reduced by 14. In the north, the Tyne and Wear Fire Authority voted to close three fire stations, cut 131 firefighter jobs and axe six fire appliances (with two more being ‘stood down’ at night). Meanwhile members of the Fire Brigades Union have been staging strikes in protest at government proposals to increase pension contributions.

The absence of a public outcry over these cuts and closures reflects the relatively low profile of firefighters as a particular category of public servants. Guardian columnist Suzanne Moore was one of the few to spell out what these cuts mean, pouring scorn on ‘this brave new world where we can somehow have more health and safety with fewer people taking care of us.’ She pointed out that the ‘savings’ were all the more reckless since firefighters were also proving indispensible in current flooding emergencies. In such extreme and unpredictable weather it seemed utterly bizarre to reduce the services that are trained to respond.

The army securing a house in Surrey following the flooding The army outside a house in Surrey following the flooding. Demotix/Maja Smiejkowska. All rights reserved.

When the flood waters started to rise back in January, few expected that the regular emergency workers would be replaced or augmented by Marines and army engineers trained to build bridges in hostile environments. Perhaps the Guardian editorial was correct in predicting that soldiers would adopt the role of fire-fighters as their war duties appeared to diminish. That scenario is entirely in keeping with their extraordinary claim that Britain is about to enjoy ‘peace’ after 100 years of constant conflict. If only it was that simple. As Seumas Milne pointed out in response, ‘For the political and commercial elite, British warmaking under the wing of Washington is about state prestige, corporate profits and the protection of a system of global economic privilege’. 

Defending public service

A few weeks ago, armed forces chief General Nick Houghton publicly voiced his unease about the organisation being severely affected in the interests of saving money. He warned that Britain’s military would become a ‘hollow force’ with state-of-the-art equipment but no one to operate it unless manpower budgets increased:

‘Unattended our current course leads to a strategically incoherent force structure: exquisite equipment, but insufficient resources to man that equipment or train on it.’ 

Yet there’s a version of this ‘hollowing out’ that has been gradually destroying all the UK’s national institutions, whether they deal with education, healthcare, public safety or even broadcasting. It’s part of the process of gradual privatization which entails replacing the ideal of public service with a string of corporate values and vacuous mission statements, and reinforcing the associations between public, cheap but inferior, and private, costly but invariably better

One argument repeatedly used in connection with the armed forces is that, once an organization so steeped in tradition has been dismantled, it is impossible to grow it back. In the case of the army, the chipping away of the regimental system with its strong geographical and historical roots began decades ago. Countering Houghton’s lament, the same Guardian editorial asked: Is the twenty-first century, in general, so unpredictably dangerous that we need to maintain state of the art militaries on the basis that if we let the skills, traditions and supporting industries die it will be impossible to revive them? 

One response to this line of reasoning is that the country’s military institutions must not be seen as exceptional or deserving of special consideration. This is a logic that must be applied to all public institutions, not least the ones that deal with health, education and social welfare. Once the ethos of public service has been smashed and discredited by neoliberal restructuring, the danger is that it will take more than an army to bring it back.

About the author

Vron Ware is professor of sociology and gender studies at Kingston University and author of Military Migrants: Fighting for YOUR country.

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