Joining the killing machine
As is usual at this time of the year, we are called upon to remember the dead, the fallen of wars; not only two ‘World Wars’ but of recent continuing wars in far away places. Poppies sold, a festival of remembrance held and televised, boy-scouts, girl-guides, sea, air and army cadets, new and old soldiers march down to the local war memorial to repeat that yearly ritual, customary observance and practice.
The main event is held at the Cenotaph, the monument built to honour people whose remains are interred elsewhere or whose remains cannot be recovered and lie scattered across the fields and arable land of France; as was and still is the case for many casualties of that First Great War. The Cenotaph is in London’s Whitehall, a stones throw from Downing Street where all decisions of war have been taken and plotted particularly in the last and current century. This year’s remembrance falls in the year that marks the 70th anniversary and outbreak of the Second World War and as usual the Queen and her Royal Family dressed-up as Fleet Admirals, Air Marshals and Field Marshals with medals and self-awarded honours, will join our political leaders in honouring by this act of remembrance the war dead who, we are told time and again, gave their lives for the freedoms that we (supposedly) enjoy today.
During the summer with its cricket field, pubs and a centuries-old church Wootton Bassett became the focuses of international media attention, not unfortunately because of its idyllic picturesque village qualities; typical of an old English town in all respects but one: every corpse that returns from Britain’s wars abroad passes through it. In what has become a public show of respect? Wootton Bassett is near Royal Air Force Lyneham, the base to which the country’s war dead are returned. Commencing about two years ago, townspeople began gathering for the processions of each soldier as the body, in a flag-draped casket, was moved from Lyneham to a coroner’s office in Oxford. The inaugural processions were attended by just a dozen saluting war veterans at first. Crowds then swelled to the thousands when the repetition of these sad processions became commonplace as the convoy of coffins through Wootton Bassett turned from a trickle to a stream.
Newspapers carried front page coverage that included pictures of mothers, fathers, wives, children and in some cases distraught girlfriends of the fallen. Anyone who picks up a newspaper or owns a television set cannot have failed to miss the risks that are involved and taken by the young in the modern wars that are Afghanistan and Iraq and have proven to be oh so deadly.
Every now and again, Brown and Cameron, before the exchange of insults during questions to the Prime Minster, will pay a tribute of hollow words acknowledging deceased military personnel. But with the public witnessing the return of young military casualties the pendulum of public opinion began to stick and stay put on questioning or opposing the military mission. The government during the summer, sensing the public perception, gave support to the first ever armed forces’ day, the idea being that parades and ceremonies would be held in every community around the war memorial to honour the role and function of armed forces personnel past and present – to use government language – honouring their commitment. This year’s main national celebration was held at the Historic Dockyard in Chatham, Kent. The official party included Prime Minister Gordon Brown and his wife Sarah, the Duke and Duchess of Gloucester, and the Chief of the Defence Staff, Air Chief Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup.
Brown said: “The people that have come here today have shown the high esteem and regard in which they hold the Armed Forces of our country. The Armed Forces who do so much, the families who make such sacrifices. I don’t think we say thank you enough, today is our chance to say it and say it with one voice, thank you very much to our Armed Forces.”
Brown’s comments, were, if nothing else, very telling about government and military strategists’ concerns and about having public opinion on side. If opinion is off side, then one thing is for sure and that’s that it’s not directed against service personnel who are merely uniformed workers, working like any other workers under instructions. The British armed forces have some of the most difficult and far-flung commitments to maintain. Major commitments in Afghanistan and Iraq co-exist with others from peacekeeping in Cyprus to patrolling the Falkland Islands. To meet these commitments, an estimate is made of the required number of trained full-time personnel, known as the ‘trained requirement’. The actual number of trained personnel, known as the ‘trained strength’, is usually slightly less than requirement. The trained requirement in 2007 stood at 183,610; the trained strength stood at 177,760, of which 99,280 were in the army, 34,940 in the navy and 43,550 in the air force.
In terms of personnel, the UK regular armed forces are the third-largest in Europe after Germany and France. Britain is the world’s largest military spender after of course the US, and its armed forces being the most stretched in the world, over £2 billion is spent each year on recruiting and training 20,000 new personnel to replace those who either leave or are killed on active duty. The armed forces, as the statistics show, draw their non-officer recruits mainly from among young people with low educational accomplishment living in poor communities. A large proportion joining for disadvantaged reasons, including the lack of civilian career choices; a survey in the Cardiff area in 2004 found that 40 percent of army recruits were joining as a last resort and the army revealed in 2004 that while roughly 45 percent of all young people leave school with 5 GCSE subjects graded A-C only, 17 percent of all Army recruits in 2003–04 had English at A-C level, with the figure for Maths at about 10 percent. On average Army recruits have 0.9 of a GCSE at grade A-C. … Records also show that 24 percent of all Army applicants in 2003–04 were unemployed for a significant period before applying.
The killing locomotive that is the army always needs fuel to feed into its boiler, so tens of thousands of pounds are spent on newspapers and the media convincing youngsters to sign away (no apology) their lives. On the way back from visiting a friend, I found one of those free newspapers that are handed out every evening at tube stations in London and lying on the seat next to me on the train on which I was travelling, what caught my eye was a double-page spread advertisement placed in the London Metro by the army and, I assume, acting on instructions from the Ministry of Defence and the government. The advertisement carried the image of a beautiful young woman in combat fatigues. I have no reason to believe that this young person isn’t a serving member of the armed forces and with the looks of a model.
The advert had a personal testimony of army life given by Major Laura Blair, 31, (can you believe that name) who is a member of the Adjutant General’s Corps; they apparently specialise in HR Personnel. Laura, if she does exist, says wonderful things about army life and ends by advising anyone who may be interested in an army career to either pop into one of the Army Careers Offices dotted around London or visit the Army Show Rooms in Hounslow or Dalston to find out just what life in uniform could offer them.
Recruitment literature for army careers emphasises potential benefits: career interest and challenge, comradeship, the active lifestyle, travel and training opportunities. It omits to mention or obscures even blots out: the radical change from a civilian to a military lifestyle, ethical issues involved in killing, risks to physical and mental health, the legal obligations of enlistment, the state’s legal and moral obligations to its armed forces personnel, and the right of conscientious objection. By suggesting that soldiers are highly satisfied with army life, the literature also glosses over the ambivalent attitudes of the majority. The omissions conspire against the potential recruit’s right and responsibility to make an informed choice about whether to enlist. The literature also does little to enable parents to ask searching questions of their children and of recruiters in order to assure their children’s best interests.
One thing that remains the same about war is that workers fight it and die in it, and that’s best summed-up by the last surviving soldier to have fought in the trenches of the First World War who died earlier this year: Henry John “Harry” Patch (17 June 1898 – 25 July 2009) – known as ‘the Last Tommy’. Harry, apparently, hated war, and called it “organised murder, and nothing less.”