Our lives are militarised

The PR strategy of placing soldiers at civil society events is examined by Sam Walton in a new Quaker Peace & Social Witness briefing.
June 2014


(Photo: Crown Copyright)

You may have seen some symptoms of an increasingly militarised society over the past few years. Soldiers on a train in uniform. The change in tone of Remembrance Day, from ‘never again’ to ‘support out troops.’ Michael Gove’s determination to get the military into schools so ‘every child can benefit from the values of a military ethos.’

I had been noticing the trend for months when I met with Emma Sangster from Forces Watch, a tiny NGO focused on the issue of unethical military recruitment. She confirmed that there is a conscious strategy for a more militarised society, outlined in a 2008 report by Quentin Davies MP and senior defence officials Bill Clark and Martin Sharp.

In the ‘Report of Inquiry into National Recognition of our Armed Forces’, Quentin, Clark and Davies claim that the military has ‘become increasingly separated from civilian life and consciousness’.

They frame this as a problem, stating that ‘public understanding of the military … will always determine the climate within which the Forces can recruit, and the willingness of the taxpayer to finance them adequately.’ They suggest that the military reappraise the degree of attention it gives to public outreach – ‘and to relations with politicians and the media in particular’.

What these authors go on to suggest is more than a PR drive. It’s an overarching strategy, seeking to cover all elements of society. Among their 40 recommendations is a call for regular public display of uniforms and a systematic approach to homecoming parades and Armed Forces Day. They want to see the military make affiliations with local government bodies. MP visits to combat zones can be used to generate press coverage. The armed forces can become more prominent through a presence not only at national sports events, but also in schools. Related content can be inserted into the national curriculum.

Intended outcomes are making the public more willing to fund and join the military. But because supporting our troops makes a much more popular message, it is used as a headline under which the true aims can be achieved.

Hearts and minds

The report is not just a part, but a foundation stone of a strategy to militarise British society. There is complete political support for these measures from within the parliamentary mainstream. The report’s strategy, now adopted as policy, was created under a Labour government, and the coalition continues to follow it without question.

It seems for the majority of people, service personnel connote something unconditionally good, as uncontroversial as motherhood and apple pie. Politicians have utilised this. David Cameron, when asked when Britain was withdrawing from Afghanistan, began by saying: ‘I am absolutely full of support for our armed services and what they do and yes, we do ask them to do a lot on our behalf.’

The deliberate conflation between war and ‘our troops’ is worrying. It becomes inevitably difficult to criticise war if, in the minds of many, it is confused with criticism of the personnel.

It also glosses over massive problems of bullying, classism, sexism, homophobia and racism from within the armed forces. Society needs to be aware of these problems and able to address them openly.


Falling into line

My research also looked at Future Reserves 2020 – a commission that reported in 2011 on the future of UK reserve forces – and the recent Ministry of Defence Youth Engagement Review.

These documents follow a similar line: creating a society enamoured with the armed forces, ready to pay and willing to join. Future Reserves 2020 is focused on the operational capacity of the military, yet it still repeatedly considers ‘society’s understanding of the reasons for continuing to invest in defence’.

Publicly, the Ministry of Defence emphasises personal development in any talk on youth work. The Youth Engagement Review makes clear that youth development is a secondary goal but sees potential for raising awareness and driving recruitment among young people – if the armed forces can continue to publicly emphasise the development outcome. If we want youth work to be done, surely society would be better served by placing our children with organisations that make young people’s welfare and development their first priority.

Proposals for defence expenditures that explicitly aim to make the public more willing to fund defence appear in both the Youth Engagement Review and Future Reserves 2020. In the climate of extreme public sector cuts, we might expect outcry if any other branch of government was so openly operating in this way.

There also some very sinister ideas in parts of these reports. Future Reserves notes how ‘a greater perceived existential threat to a nation raises tolerance for the use of reserves’. It goes on to say: ‘In the absence of an existential threat, some nations have successfully synthesised this narrative as a means to galvanising a people in the event of strategic shock.’ Is the plan to militarise our society but the tip of an iceberg?

The vast majority of people are not aware this is even happening. There are those who share a suspicion, but few know there is a government strategy behind increased military presence, and fewer still are aware of the problems it poses. We need to tell people.

Sam Walton works for Quaker Peace & Social Witness. To learn more, view the recently published briefing, The New Tide of Militarism


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bukra phil mishmish 13 June 2014, 19.05

Britain has always been a militarized society. However, for a period from the late 70s until the end of the 90s, the Armed Forces didn’t wear uniform in public due the threat of Irish terrorism. That didin’t mean that they weren’t htere, and thehy armed forces have alweays participated fully in public life and civil community issues – including things like when military firefighters provided emergency cover during strikes by the regular fire service, to really unpleasant jobs like the culling of foot and mouth diseased cattle and pigs, to Search & Rescue services, or rescue and sandbagging during floods…I’ve even seen livestock trapped in mud being rescued by RAF helicopters.
British society is far from becoming increasingly militarised. In fact, the reverse is true – the Armed Forces have reduced in size hugely in the last couple of decades to just under one third of the Cold War level. While, at one stage, fighting two mediium-scale wars simultaneously, as well as providing continuing protection to the people of the Falkland Islands and Northern Ireland.
One of the three services (the RAF) is recognised and commended by Stonewall for its support for LGBTI service personnel – and Service men and women march at London Pride with er….pride.

The tone of this article suggests that the military are somehow inveigling their way into civil society – when the opposite is the case. There is massive popular support for Help for Heroes, and Freedom Parades, home based units are overwhelmed with requests for attendances at locally organised Armed Forces Days and Remembrance Sunday events, the crowds who turned out at Wooton Bassett were a populist and unofficially organised event. To be honest, sometimes these events are an inconvenience to overstretched service personnel (Armed Forces Day usually happens on a day off, so the troops lose a weekend in order to be recognised by the Great British Public who want them to parade.)

So while there are people who don’t support the Armed Forces – and in a democracy, that’s one of the freedoms servicemen & women fight to preserve – it’s not fair to imply that somehow the military are perniciously sneaking into mainstream consciousness in British society. We see our Armed Forces less, not more than before (simply because there are less serving personnel than ever before) and it is right that our military leaders show the nation exactly what our troops do for us.

If you want to see militarism – why not sign up to EAPPI as an Ecumenical Accompanier, and then you’ll see what a militarized society looks like. Because you aren’t seeing in in UK.

Ian Neal 17 June 2014, 09.03

I have to disagree Phil. Sure Britain has a long and occasionally ‘glorious’ but often dishonourable military past and I’m sure similar examples of military PR from the past can be found but since 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq there has undoubtedly been a very conscious effort of placing soldiers at public events. I have no difficulty in seeing this as part of a wider war propaganda effort. One of the most blatant examples is the sight of the military parading huge flags in advance of England football internationals at wembley. Prancing around with huge st georges flags, inventing and then getting kids involved in armed forces day, these are not examples of “our military leaders show[ing] the nation exactly what our troops do for us”.

Jane Chelliah 18 June 2014, 00.28

Along a similar vein I am alarmed at how G4S, whose motto is ‘Securing Your World’, has seemingly become part of the state’s enforcers.

Comments are now closed on this article.

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