(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