A more civilised – post-martial – Britain?

Is sadness at the killing of young people a sign of weakness – or of sanity?  

On Sunday General Sir David Richards, Head of the British Armed Forces deplored, “a lot of dwelling on death” as opposed to what those who died achieved in their brief lives. 

Input follows from the transcript of Radio 4’s recent Analysis programme, repeated on  07.11.10, presented by Dr Kenneth Payne, Kings College London, Defence Studies Department,  who believes that the values of British society, concern for human rights and sensitivity to killing and risk are undermining our ability to fight wars. 

Is he correct in thinking that in these post-modern wars, the ‘old certainties’ have been replaced with ambiguity and doubt?   

Or is there no ambiguity?  Do most British people believe that we should not intervene destructively in the affairs of other countries, that we should not incur heavy expenditure on aggressive military operations and above all that we should not waste the lives of soldiers and civilians in the invaded countries? 

Earlier this year the Com Res poll found that 77% of those polled wanted troops to be withdrawn from Afghanistan – that is the ‘new certainty’. 

Dr Payne ends:“In the military establishments where I teach some senior officers are talking about a ‘post-heroic’ age, where the traditional military virtues are no longer celebrated by wider society . . . We are post-modern and, perhaps, increasingly post-martial.” 

General Sir Richard Dannatt fears that over-emphasis on the fallen – the ‘Wootton Bassett’ factor – risks undermining the morale of the population at home and fuelling the ‘bring the boys home’ agenda. 

Lord Ashdown is worried about a growing trend to apply civilian [civilised?] norms and values to those in battle: “The point about war, about conflict is that you suspend the normal rules of behaviour, you suspend the normal values. You have to do so.” 

Historians observe and analyse 

Historian Dr Lucy Noakes of the University of Brighton, said that in 2003 when we were being asked to support the invasion of Iraq, we were told that “this was something that British people just did. British people fought for democracy, British people stood up against dictators, and not to invade Iraq in 2003 would be in some sense similar to appeasing Hitler in the 1930s . . . there are still attempts to mobilise this shared cultural memory of the Second World War as something which somehow embodies what it is to be British.” 

Hew Strachan, Professor of History of War at Oxford, notes another sign of civilisation: “it is now more acceptable to get a gallantry award for rescuing a wounded mate under fire than it is for killing twenty Taliban.” So defence is celebrated – slaughter is not. 

He thinks that the British have become more like the Germans who went through the trauma of defeat and other Europeans, who were bombed and occupied by invading forces, who all question whether war ‘works’, commenting “then the notion that war lacks political utility is axiomatic.”

An undemocratic decision-making process 

Professor Strachan points out that big decisions about the future of defence are being taken without the involvement of the nation, though ultimately both government and the armed forces exist to serve the people. 

A political commentary 

Simon Jenkins, in the Analysis programme*, rightly senses that public opinion is moving his way:

  • the British, like most Europeans, now do not believe they’re under an intrinsic national threat in any way. They’re pretty sceptical of theories that we’re going to war to defeat terrorism;  
  • they don’t recognise an enemy in so far as they recognised one in the past. It was Russia, but that’s no longer really plausible;  
  • people are very sceptical about why we need to maintain a huge army, navy and air force; 
  • supporting their troops is a sort of visceral response to people who’ve been put in harm’s way by politicians.  

Many support his argument for a radical reappraisal of how we think about defence. 



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