Tuesday, 12 August 2014
Can the West learn to love militarism again? (And should it?)
We all love a parade...?
Having recently done the Kindle equivalent of bingeing on boxed sets with the complete works of Chesterton, the one thing about them that unsettled me most was the fierceness of some of his writings around the First World War. Work after work denounced the Germans and urged a war to defend civilization against them. I'm not sure what I conclude from that. That contra the 'Oh What a Lovely War!' and Wilfred Owen syndrome, the struggle against the Kaiser's Germany was as much a fight for light as the Second? That there is a danger of the Chestertonian sliding into a sentimental love of fighting? Frankly, I'm still not sure...
It does, however, represent a problem that the modern West -and particularly Christianity- needs to face up to more squarely. Watching the First World War commemoration on Sunday in Edinburgh, I struggled between the pathos of the occasion and the irritation at a dead ritualism. Time after time, the commentators explained in hushed terms the meaning of constructing a drumhead (a heap of drums) and the importance of the military standards (and, most important, on the need to distinguish Ensigns from Standards...) It was the arcane ritual of an armed service clumsily imagined for a modern TV audience: a construction needing the continual explanation of historical re-enactors. (When, for example, was the last period in which a heap of drums would be found conveniently in the front line of a British battalion on active service?) It jarred on me slightly, in part because I couldn't help wondering what would be the equivalent in an Independent 'progressive' Scotland: a parade of juggling drag queens on tricycles? It was well intentioned I'm sure, but it didn't emerge naturally from modern Scottish culture: it was clearly an artifice of heritage.
How a society strikes a balance between how to defend itself and how to pursue human flourishing is perhaps the central question of both Plato's Republic and Aristotle's Politics. In the former, the question is how to create a military caste whilst preventing them from running the country. In the latter, the question is how to create a process of formation for citizens that imitates the single minded effectiveness of Crete and Sparta without producing military thugs. The modern equivalent of this is perhaps how to finance and morally support an effective fighting force while civilian society continues to embrace a feminist, individualist suspicion of collectively planned and executed violence.
Christians are even in more of a bind. With a growing suspicion at the end of the twentieth century among theologians of both Christendom (the close linking of Christianity with society and the state) and the taking of life, the sort of ready acceptance of the military life found earlier in Western culture has become increasingly difficult.
Now, it is of course possible that all this simply represents progress: that an unwillingness to kill and be killed is the result of a growing moral sensitivity. That might be true whilst it is also true that it renders the West in fact incapable of sustained military action. (Unless you are a consequentialist, there is absolutely no guarantee that an improved morality will produce better -or even survivable- consequences.) It might also be true that there is an alternative model of military effectiveness which does not buy into the sort of Imperial Militarism that military parades in the UK generally try to represent. (I suspect this is what 'progressive' Nationalism would like a Scottish Defence Force to be. Whether such a thing could exist and whether it would ever be capable of projecting force against a long term enemy (say) in the Middle East strikes me as rather less clear.)
The remaining alternative is a return to the sort of acceptance and even celebration of the military that existed until comparatively recently in Western European (certainly British) life. Any child brought up on Walter Scott, for example, would have absolutely no sense of a clash between the military life and the life of a gentleman and Christian. Whilst that attitude certainly does still exist, particularly in families and schools which have a military tradition, it's certainly not one that is common in the media dominated by a 'progressive intelligentsia' let alone a Christianity which has gone a bit hippy over the years. As a result, you tend in Britain at least to get the distancing involved in Sunday's celebrations: the military life as heritage spectacle rather than as a celebration of a living necessity. (But looking at the Bastille Day picture above, I wonder if that is so true of the French?)
Anyway, has the West become militarily ineffectual in its culture? Is that a good thing? (It seems from current events especially in the Middle East that it may be a very painful thing.) And if it isn't, can it be remedied or are the habits which have undermined it too deeply embedded now to be extracted?