1960s >> 1969 >> no-776-april-1969

The Other Militants

Car stickers are one of capitalism’s latest growth industries. No protest campaign, whether it is against the Concorde, or road tax, or the breathalyser, is complete without them. This method of obstructing the rear view of a driver includes one which urges us to “Save the Argylls”. These stickers are not, of course, a charity appeal for the famous Argyll family who, since they are among the great landowners of Scotland, can survive without any declarations of loyalty from grubby little Anglias and Minis.

The Argylls in question are the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, a regiment in the British army which, unless present policy is reversed, will be disbanded early next year. The end of the Argylls will not mean the frustration of anyone who wants to join the military defence of British capitalism; there will still be an army. The protests arise because the Argylls, for reasons we shall shortly discuss, have a place in many working-class hearts.

The regiment originated in 1794, which was some time after Pitt the Elder had made his boast about turning the Highlands into a reservoir of blood to serve the British crown in every part of the world. The Argylls have lived up to that; apart from the two world wars they have done their bit for the British ruling class in the Peninsular Wars, in South Africa, the Indian Mutiny, and the Crimea. At the battle of Balaclava they alone among the British infantry stood up to the attacks of the Russian cavalry, which reckless act earned them the famous name of the Thin Red Line. Since 1945 they have fought in Palestine, Korea, Cyprus, Borneo, and South Arabia. Now, as the tentacles of British capitalism have withdrawn from these places, the Argylls are taking their reputation off to another area of sensitive dispute—Berlin.

Just the boys

Perhaps the climax of the regiment’s recent activities came just before the British withdrawal from Aden. The Argylls re-entered the Crater district in a lightning operation which, it was leaked, was not approved by the policy-makers. The man in command of the Argylls—Colin Mitchell—resigned from the army soon after the incident and so from Mad Mitch became deified into Mitch the Martyr. The latest news of him is that he will be on the platform at Duncan Sandys’s May Day meeting in Trafalgar Square.

The petition to save the Argylls attracted a million signatures and many of them were undoubtedly inspired by indignation at the fate of Mitchell. Another factor was admiration for the Argylls as a tough lot, united by bonds of manliness and militancy. Just the boys, in other words, to send in against a lot of jabbering foreigners who have the temerity to say that they would rather live without the presence of the Argylls or of any other British occupation force.

Probably none of those workers who thought the best method of dealing with independence movements in the colonies was to send in the Argylls to crush them stopped to think that there are other units who would do an equally efficient job. The NKVD, for one, should have some highly trained detachments just suited for it. And there must be plenty of ex-SS men who would welcome the chance to renew old comradeships and re-apply their racism.

Mess of delusion

Is this taking it too far? Mitchell thought that when the troops left Aden it was taken over by a bunch of “third-rate, fly-blown chaps”. The television film about the Argylls included statements like: “It is a pity that guts to use a bayonet are not enough; you must have someone else’s guts to stick a bayonet in”. The simple fact is that the Argylls have won their reputation by their ruthless defence of the interests of British capitalism, wherever and whenever it has needed them. The campaign to save them is based upon respect for that.

This brings us to the matter of militancy — using the word in the strict sense of a readiness to engage in warfare. Militancy is part of the mess of delusion and prejudice which keeps the capitalist system in being. The discipline, uniformity, and harshness which are an essential part of the military machine are widely admired; few workers really question the usefulness of teaching men to kill each other and to look unfeelingly upon lifeless and mutilated bodies. A few years ago Joseph Heller attacked this attitude in his novel Catch 22, which exposed the absurdities — and the deadly purpose — of military discipline. A lot of people laughed at Heller’s satire but behind the laughs is this reality:

“In the last twelve months, thank goodness, we have lost the best of recruiting sergeants because in the last twelve months for the first time this century no British soldier, sailor, or airman has been killed or wounded in action anywhere in the world.”
Whether one liked it or not, he was afraid that a nice little war going on somewhere was good for recruiting.

(Daily Telegraph, March 6, 1969, reporting Gerry Reynolds, Minister of Defence Administration, in the House of Commons debate on defence.)
This is the kind of statement calculated to make any reasonable person doubt either his own sanity or that of the rest of the people. If anyone is foolish enough to join the armed forces the obvious time to do it is when the chances of getting killed or wounded are at their lowest. The fact that the opposite is true only reflects the popular opinion in favour of military organisation.

In other words, the working class accept the need for a vast, socially organised killing machine. They mix this up with the usual bigotries of patriotism — that in wartime their side are always the goodies, that their occupation forces are in another country to bring all the benefits of civilisation and to stop the inhabitants tearing each other to pieces.

The futility of this has been exposed again and again. It was exposed when the British ruling class stubbornly hung on to India, ignoring the fact that in the end they would have to leave. It was the same in many other colonies—Borneo, Cyprus (which one Tory Colonial Secretary said would “never” be independent )and Aden, where the much-admired Argylls rattled their sabres. This policy has not been followed by only the British ruling class. The French followed it in Indo-China and Algeria; the Russians in Hungary and Czechoslovakia; the Americans are following it now in Vietnam.

Each of these military efforts has been supported by the working class in the country concerned thinking that militancy is a virtue. This same attitude has excused all the excesses of war — the destruction of Dresden and Hiroshima, the wholesale slaughter in Vietnam and Biafra. It also justified the genocide of the concentration camps. The Nazis knew how to appeal to the militant pretensions of a frustrated and confused working class and constantly diverted attention from the real issues in pre-war Germany with their massed, raucous, uniformed ranks marching, shouting, drumming, and saluting in one discipline. Under the influence of this hysteria, only the soft-headed ones were worried about what was going on in the chambers and ovens and laboratories behind the barbed wire. Just like fat, asthmatic, unattractive Piggy in William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, worrying about keeping the fire going and behaving like human beings while the other boys were intoxicated with the lust of hunting.

If this is what militancy has helped to bring in the past, the next important question is what lies in the future. What, excesses and bestialities will be justified on both sides, if the revolt of the Negroes gathers strength? What will not be possible if the great powers seriously commence the job of trying to eliminate each other?

The world is in desperate peril and what is needed now is not an uncritical acceptance of the qualities which capitalism needs and honours but a penetrating questioning of the social system and its morality. That Guardsman stamping outside Buckingham Palace, for example. Is he an admirable example of disciplined, hardened manhood or just another sadly misled member of the working class? Is he glamorous or ludicrous? What does he represent, in terms of how capitalist society conducts itself?

It will not take many questions to lead us to the conclusion that capitalism glorifies violence and that it could hardly exist without consistent support for blind discipline and militancy. The sad fact is that it is the workers who suffer under capitalism, who so ardently stand up for the system. They it is who thrill to the marching soldiers, who respect manliness and violence, who respond to wars as to a recruiting sergeant. From all this follows their respect for military tradition and for the brutal nonsense that goes with it.

So let the petitioners not despair. If they don’t save the Argylls capitalism will organise its workers into other regiments.