The British and their military

The British military tradition is real, but it is up for grabs. Here are some thoughts about modern trends.

The military is an important feature of Britain’s self-perception. As Philip Stephens remarked in the Financial Times, (29 October 2009), it is part of Britain’s confidence about itself that “it has armed forces willing to fight”.  I think that is code for the idea that they are prepared to accept lethality in both directions.

Up till now, it has been a matter of considerable national pride that this is so. This may well change. Here are some weak spots.

(1) Patriotism is changing
It is quite possible that neither God nor the Flag will be much invoked in the future. National pride is a strong force, but its style may change. Soldiers may die, and families accept pain, on the basis of almost mystical and transcendental understandings which simultaneously justify action and soften suffering. But some of that is changing. We are becoming more secular and sceptical, for a start.

(2) The military family is changing
Part of the intensity of warfare – of its potential cost – flows from a modern intimacy.  Patrick Mercer, a Conservative MP and a former commanding officer of The Worcestershire and Sherwood Foresters was quoted in The Times (“Britain’s frontline soldiers have 1 in 36 chance of dying on Afghan battlefields”, 13 August 2007):

“Battalions are now taking very serious casualties – where every man will know every single person that is killed. This is an experience that the Army as a whole hasn’t had since World War Two.”

Even if this acceptable to the military, it may weaken the resolve of families to allow young men to fight.

(3) The military is voluntary
The general populace may increasingly see the military as a group of fellow citizens who choose a certain way of life, and believe that they will have to accept the costs of that. It is possible that the military, and those who support them, and the families of the fallen, may often in the future have to justify and contain their suffering within much smaller and self-defining communities.

(4) Politicial trust is declining
It is becoming less likely that the public will endorse conflict: political trust is low and the missions are complex and multi-national.

Against these negatives, there are trends which suggest the military may well thrive and find public support. This may happen because the military is more trusted and admired than any other branch of society.

(1) The British military as a source of pride
The British like the vigour, dash, courage, intelligence, comaraderie and sacrifice of their military. Many in the populace like the idea that our young people are prepared to fight and die. At the level of theatre and narrative, this is a good tale.

(2) Some British young like the military
There seems to be a strong strand of thought that some young people need risk and will find life-threatening actvity somewhere, somehow. It might as as well be in uniform as in gangs, mountaineering, motorbiking or drugs. In short the military is a richer source of possibility even than sport, rock ‘n’ roll, crime, rap.

(3) Force has its own logic
The British are quite inclined to accept an argument which supposes that the world is replete in people who only understand force. Taking the war to the enemy quite appeals.

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Publication date

15 November 2009