The Military Covenant revisited

I am keen to develop some lines of argument about the Military Covenant. I suspect that the relationship between society and the military is going to change fundamentally. It may get tougher for the military.

The Military Covenant: background
There is a fascinating modern debate about the relationship between soldiers, sailors and airmen and society. What do civilians and the military owe each other? I want to discuss the past, present and possible future of this Covenant. How is the military to know it has society’s backing? How is society to know the military really accepts its missions? How expendable is the fighting person? Can society and the military accept or mitigate the mental injuries caused by fighting? Will society accept paying the various costs of having a military?

The military may get a new Covenant, but also have to fight its corner at home as well as abroad.
Theme #1: The Mercenary Option
Let’s imagine a military three or four times the present strength, and available for rent. Who would legitimate it? Insure it? Employ it? How to develop (combine, separate)  its kinetic, policing and welfare roles?

More and more British soldiers work for Private Military Corporations and there has been a long tradition of the British military being loaned out in various guises to work for foreign governments. How far can we press this? A British force for UN use, etc? Can the state license force or must it “own” the forces it deploys?

It is interesting to speculate whether there is a bit of the military’s activity which can’t be privatised. Special Forces? Sharp-end infantry? Routine infantry? Policing? Hearts and minds engineering?

This is partly an exercise in imagination. Asking the privatising question encourages one to interrogate the issues of legitimacy and guarantee which bedevil military force.

I am intruiged to wonder whether the military is something the British can do so well that they have a comparative economic and cultural advantage they should exploit.
Theme #2:  The  thinking military
The modern democratic society expects everyone including the military to be able to, to want to, and to have to, explain themselves. This challenges the oldest ideas about our standing army and its covenant with us.

The military used to be politically silent, its men sent to war without opinion or option in the matter. Is that right now? Should we hear more from our military commanders and should the commanders hear more from their men?

One approach would be to separate the political policy behind a mission and the military’s professional ability to deliver it. Society would have to to legitimate a mission’s strategy (its purpose) but the military have to endorse its delivery (resources, riskiness, etc). On that basis, would the military have taken on its Iraq role? Its original Afghan role? Its current Afghan role?

Theme #3: The military and suffering
To a remarkable extent, the modern military seem to accept that suffering is their business. They impose and incur it. If society is increasingly squeamish, and produces increasingly squeamish people, that tendency has not seemed to dent the willingness of young men and women to come forward to face and endure the extremes of suffering. Indeed, arguably it is the feebleness of much modern discourse and behaviour which produces a fanclub for the military where people remain free to challenge themselves.

One question here is whether we are sufficiently brutal in warning young military personnel of the hazards they face. Another is whether we have developed the right approaches to the damage military life does to people and perhaps especially to the people who most like it.

Theme #4: The New Profession of Arms
I suspect society will become less interested in the military’s role as an arm of the state, or of patriotism. Something like the dis-establishment of the military may take place, as it will of the Church of England. A New Military Covenant may liberate the military to develop a new Profession of Arms, but also require that the military account for itself, and the damage warfare does to personnel, as a much more independent and responsible body.

Society may allow that the military gains a voice of its own and an increasingly interesting role around the world. But society may also insist that the New Profession of Arms has to justify what it does directly to civil society,not lea

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Publication date

05 November 2009