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?


  1. A very quick reply.

    I think you might be mixing some things up. You were welcome to the drumhead service, but it wasn't - at least it shouldn't be - for you, a civilian: it's for the soldiers themselves, whose drums and standards are part of their corporate identity, even today. You don't belong to "The Army": you belong to the 2nd Loamshires (or whatever).

    Similarly, military parades in the UK have nothing whatsoever to do with militarism: quite the opposite. They reflect the link between the citizenry at home and their young people who defend them and their country's interests. Except for two short periods, the UK Armed Forces have been made up of volunteers; the service ministries, and more lately the Ministry of Defence have never had as their Secretary of State a serving soldier. The military are under political control, not vice versa: there is no militarism in the UK.

    I think the problem comes from a much deeper level: the sanitisation of death in our culture. When death was part of everyday life, the relatively nastier forms of death in warfare were more easily assimilated into culture. (Compare at a simpler level the role of the butcher: when did you last see animal carcasses hanging up in rows in a butcher's shop?)

    We have a society in which life, the protection of life (except for unborn life), the prolongation of life and the avoidance of death have all become central; and at the same time we need people who will inflict death on others. (I am ignoring pacifism here as part of a different argument, rather than ignoring it as an adolescent.)

    It might work - except that we have TV cameras and journalists everywhere, sending us a highly nuanced and partial version of what is going on in theatres of conflict, mediatised by representatives of a culture who have no instinctive sympathy with what soldiers have to do. The simple and effective solution would be not to allow journalists anywhere near front lines, but that is impossible.

    There is no more unwillingness to kill and be killed (I believe) than there was in the 1930s: there is the same barmy belief that there will be no more war in Europe in our lifetimes; and the same (understandable) desire on the government's part not to spend money on soldiers and weapons which won't end up being used. We have the same distance of most members of society from any personal investment in the military (through our families' not supplying their children to be soldiers) as there was in the late 19th century, but we are no longer familiar with death, disease, and a basically cruel world.

  2. 1) On the ceremony itself, it was clearly 'marketed' for a civilian audience. (And a fortiori the commentary was.) You might have a point about other military celebrations (although I'd argue that quite a lot of them try to represent the military to a civilian audience and there is a growing tendency to do this through a filter of heritage) but not this one.

    2) I agree with your analysis of an unwillingness to face up to the realities of a cruel world.

    3) On 'militarism', I was deliberately using a provocative term. We don't like to think of British culture as being militaristic. However, I think it plausible that an older British culture did have a greater acceptance and enthusiasm for war and the armed services than 'we' do now. (As a vignette, think of the way in which former generations of boys were reared on stories of derring do and toy guns.) I think that it's helpful to realize that was a form of militarism -a shaping of culture that made it serve military purposes. And it's the absence of such a culture that makes me wonder if the foundations for the use of military force are crumbling. (As I've said above, it might be that such a crumbling is a morally good thing. But it might also be that it makes us less able to defend ourselves and others from evil.)

  3. When my Great Uncle's cousin "went for a soldier" in 1894, it was a disgrace to the family. Even poor families in the industrial slums of Manchester could look down on soldiers. It was the generalised belief in the justness of going to war in 1914, and the shared experience which came out of WWI, WWII and national service 1945-1960 which made being part of the military an integral part of ever man's experience, and by proxy, every family's. I think the experience of 1914 shows that it doesn't take long to turn an amilitary society into one onto which military values can be grafted.

    I might have a think about "greater acceptance and enthusiasm for war": the former, certainly, and it is calamitous that we seem to think in 2014 that "we" can somehow avoid what has been a commonplace of human society since the Fall. "Enthusiasm for war" hasn't been possible since the Boer War: "enthusiasm for victory" might be better, though I think I'd need to think this through a lot more. Perhaps while I rake the ground for the grass seed.

  4. I'd agree that it would be nonsense to claim that there has a) ever been an entirely wholehearted endorsement of military life (certainly in the UK, certainly among all classes/regions); and b) that whatever endorsement there has been has remained unchanged since time immemorial. (So what was the view among any particular group in say 1894 wouldn't necessarily have been the same in 1794 or 1914 etc.) There's plenty of detailed spadework here to be done by historians and sociologists.

    The question I'm raising is far simpler: On the whole, is modern Western (and particularly British (and particularly Scottish!)) culture less able to support the realities of fighting than (most) previous generations? My suspicion is that it is. (And I think you could point to various largescale changes which would support that view. Eg: as you pointed out, a lack of realism about the world; the mainstreaming of a feminist critique of male aggression; the availability of modern technology which uncovers the shabby reality of wars pursued even for good ends; a decline in hierarchical structures etc etc.) That view from the longue duree is entirely compatible with (eg) a suspicion of the industrial (Catholic?) working class of the trade of a soldier and particularly of the Boer War (echoed, BTW, by my father's handed down memories of his family's opposition to that war).

    The distinction you make in the final paragraph does indeed deserve more thought. My initial suspicion is that, now, although people are enthusiastic for victory, they are less enthusiastic for fighting. Again, there'd need to be a lot of detailed historical digging, but just to focus on my current obsession with Scott, there is a far greater joy in (some of) the realities of fighting (such as death and wounds) than I'd expect to find these days.

    And then there's the whole issue of violent computer games in modern culture which I simply don't know what to do with! (Can't help wondering if some of the Western jihadis in ISIS have developed a taste for highly striking, symbolic violence from these.)