A report from the Ministry of Defence this week suggests that military chiefs are worried because, they argue, the changing ethnic makeup of British society is negatively influencing the willingness of the electorate to approve of military action in various parts of the world. The Guardian reported this as follows:
“A growing reluctance in an increasingly multicultural Britain to see UK troops deployed on the ground in future operations abroad is influencing the next two strategic defence reviews, according to senior figures at the Ministry of Defence. As well as a general feeling of war weariness, sources say they have sensed a resistance in an increasingly diverse nation to see British troops deployed in countries from which UK citizens, or their families, once came.
The MoD is still taking stock of the surprise decision of the House of Commons last summer to reject military intervention to punish President Assad of Syria for the use of chemical weapons against rebel forces. Senior figures believe the rejection of that action was not just the by-product of a political battle between Labour and the government, but revealed deeper-seated long-term trends in British society.”
This report comes hard on the heels of the comments last week by Robert Gates the former US defence secretary who suggested that British military capability has been dangerously eroded because of government defence cuts, with the result that the UK was no longer in a position to be a “full-spectrum” defence partner of the United States.
As I thought about all this a number of things flashed briefly into my mind.
I thought first of a small incident in Canterbury Cathedral last week. As Pat and I walked around this majestic building that encompasses so much of our nation’s history I noticed a marble plaque on the wall. The plaque was a memorial to a long dead soldier from the Canterbury area. He had died in action in Afghanistan in the late nineteenth century. Only that morning I had watched the TV news and heard a report of more military casualties in that country and I muttered to Pat, as we stood in the Cathedral, “Nothing changes - over a century later and we are still fighting in that part of the world – haven’t we learned anything?” I assume that the soldier concerned was fighting a war that he felt was worth dying for – but I wonder if his views would have changed if he had known that over a century later his modern colleagues would still be giving their lives in that same region? And how would he feel – indeed, how do the parents of those killed in the present conflict feel - when they hear that the government is now talking of pulling out, the outcome of the war unresolved - because it is politically expedient, votes are at stake and the electorate is wearying of it. It leaves one to ask “What was all that all about then?” or “What were we doing there in the first place?” or, more pointedly, “What did my son die for when we can now walk away from it as easily as we walked into it?” It all seemed a good idea at the time to dance to George Bush’s tune and descend, gung-ho, into that far region – it no longer now seems to be so attractive.
The second thing that came into my mind as I read the report was simply to silently cheer. Just maybe, if the report is correct I thought, public opinion will limit the mindless sabre rattling of not only ours but the world’s leaders. Sadly, however, I don’t believe for one minute that that will be the end result for as I silently cheered I also heard the poignant and cutting Pete Seeger song “Where have all the flowers gone.....?” and its depressing refrain “When will they ever learn......?” We have never learned the lessons of war and there is no likelihood of it happening now. We cannot, for there at too many vested interests. But, having said that, if Robert Gates’ analysis and MOD report are correct then I, for one, am delighted.
It may well be that the ethnic composition of our population is indeed increasingly having an effect upon our actions as a nation – I certainly hope so. But I also hope that it is perhaps more widespread than that. Apart from my lifelong belief that I do not, nor does anyone else have, the moral authority to intentionally take another’s life I would be very reluctant to support any military action against another nation for one simple but compelling reason. Having visited many other nations in my time I find that the ordinary people of other nations are, on the whole, pretty much like those in this country. In writing this I am reminded of the comment by the French seventeenth century philosopher and mathematician Pascal: “Can anything be stupider than that a man has the right to kill me, or I him, because he lives on the other side of a river and his ruler has a quarrel with mine, though I have not quarrelled with him?”
It is politicians, big business and monarchs who make war, not ordinary people – they are too concerned with the everyday problem of ordinary life. Unlike, perhaps, previous generations we do not now, I believe, view “foreigners” as a threat, for they are not entirely unknown to us. In nineteenth century England Napoleon Bonaparte was used to frighten children as “the bogeyman”, in 1914 the ordinary man could be fed propaganda and posters depicting the German as a terrifying monster - for in those days the "evil Hun" was as much a mystery to the ordinary man as a Martian alien might be to us - it was unknown and to be feared. I do not believe that the same thing would work so easily today for today we have travelled, we have seen other countries and their peoples and we know that the Frenchman and the German, the Russian and the American, the Indian and the Chinese are just ordinary people as we are. Why on earth would I want to bomb India or France or America or Australia or Italy or Germany...........? All that I have received when I have visited these, and many other places, is kindness and the knowledge that their peoples have the same hopes, fears, aspirations, prejudices and ambitions as myself. So, if a more multicultural society and a society that is more aware because of foreign holidays, TV programmes and contact with people of other nations can rid our country of jingoistic tendencies and influence government action then “it’s a jolly good thing” say I.
All this should give me heart for the future. Sadly it doesn't and I reluctantly fear that Pascal’s comment from four centuries ago will still not have sunk into the consciousness of men and, more importantly, their leaders even if we wait another millennia.
In this centenary year for the outbreak of the Great War it is worth remembering that that conflict grew out of a multitude of factors – political alliances, national greed, the twisted minds and ambitions of various monarchs (many of them related!), the drum thumping of jingoistic politicians out to make a name for themselves, the opportunism of big business and capitalism and, most of all, the military minds of Europe. They all played their part to make war inevitable. The price, however, was paid not, by the the kings, queens, business leaders, generals and politicians but by the ordinary people of the warring nations. It was them that gave their lives in their millions and in the years after the war suffered the inevitable consequences of lost loved ones, life destroying injuries and economic hardship whilst monarchs, free wheeling business men, the swaggering generals and opportunist politicians enjoyed the parties, the glamour and the good life of the roaring twenties . Today is no different – conflict in the Middle East, in Afghanistan and in every other part of the world is still rooted in the actions of some or all of these groups but it is the ordinary soldier or civilian who suffers. We might dress it up to make it more palatable and sellable to the electorate by calling it a war for the nebulous notion of democracy but in reality, just as in 1914, it is about the desire for power, wealth and greed – be it for oil, land or simply influence – by the few at the top.
The MOD report records the disturbing suggestion from military that future conflicts may not involve troops on the ground – because, it hints, the electorate would find this an anathema. A greater use of “air and naval activity” is suggested. In other words, another, less controversial way will be found to kill people. We can already see this occurring as unmanned drones are used to target villages and personnel from thousands of miles away. This sterilisation of war is a frightening, unwelcome but inevitable development. It is a move to make war and killing acceptable to those at home since it seems targeted and has fewer emotional implications. It brings fewer moral repercussions since it is not face to face fighting with all that that brings. It can be easily forgotten about, it is largely hidden from the public gaze, someone else is doing it - it’s not it in my backyard! It makes war little more than a deadly video game – a modern equivalent of the attitude that permeated the military top brass in 1914 that it was all a game, an extension of the playing fields of Eton.
The military cannot refute war and all the machinery of conflict. Even if we reached the point of perfect world harmony they would still make a case for the military – just as in Orwell’s 1984” where perpetual war was the status quo and history re-written and a policy of “double think” enacted on the populace to justify it. So too, today, the lives and careers of the military depend upon conflict. A population that increasingly rejects it is not what they want. War is the raison d’être of the military. Without war there are no fine uniforms, jangling medals and silly hats to wear, there are no illustrious careers and fine statues erected to people like Bomber Harris, there is no reason for strutting about in glorious parades or for the officers’ parade ground bullying which is dressed up as the instilling of discipline. War, sadly, will continue as some technological game, unseen by the majority just as in 1984 it was fought on the arctic wastelands and deserts of the world. No soldiers will return in body bags from Afghanistan to upset the electorate, no soldiers will return, as in 1914, with their tales of horror. But generals, admirals and air commodores will play their games, justify their industry and tell us how a fine army is essential if we are to keep our place in the world. Men in deep hidden rooms will, without any moral compunction and over their cups of coffee, press buttons and guide drones that will obliterate people thousands of miles away. The terror of the battlefield may, increasingly, be a thing of the past but this sterile and deadly silent war will continue whilst on the side lines the hi-tec producers of armaments, the jingoistic politicians, the corporate businessmen, the royal families and the high ranking military, all of them anxious for a share of the spoils, will nod in approval as, just as in 1984 they tell us they are making the world “free”.
Much as I would like to believe that the Ministry of Defence report heralds the end to war I sadly conclude that we simply have a situation now that George Orwell would have recognised all too well when he used the slogan “War is Peace”. Just as in 1984 our leaders today cannot and will not allow there to be no war or for the military machinery to be dismantled for if they do then they are redundant - it would be like turkeys voting for Christmas.