Defending the Defensible


For it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ “Chuck him out, the brute!”
But it’s “Saviour of ‘is country” when the guns begin to shoot.
Rudyard Kipling, Tommy (1890)

Never in the field of current affairs have there been so many unflattering headlines about the military as we have witnessed this weekend. Marines accused of murder. Retired top brass accused of corrupt-(ish) practices. The Territorials to be renamed the Reserve and made to fill the gaps in regular provision. Gaps brought on by a semi-bankrupt nation attempting still to play at being a world power to please empire loyalists in the shires.

It seems Britain’s establishment continues to crave ‘influence’ in the world largely because its upbringing inhibits it from respecting the autonomy of others (at home as much as abroad). Greed is good, according to Gordon Gekko in Wall Street. You want it? Grab it. Why ever not? After three decades of regulatory capture, of rules rewritten at the expense of social and environmental stability, the dividing line between enterprise and theft has become increasingly flexible. The self-interested men (and women) are our new heroes.

New Labour, inspired by American neo-cons and ably supported by the Opposition, took Gekko’s doctrine to a new level. Violence is good. Especially with the ending of the Cold War, the cold-blooded killing of people in other countries has become an acceptable and sometimes popular tool of normal politics. And so a part too of the cross-party consensus. Since 1945, the UK has been involved in more military operations than any other country, including the USA, and there is no sign of this belligerence diminishing.

We are all sucked up into the vortex and expected to play our scripted part, ‘celebrating’ ‘our’ armed forces even as they convert psychologically damaged raw recruits into long-term victims of PTSD, shooting to order in illegal wars that have no moral purpose, never did and never will. The armed forces have become in effect a cult: the disciplined use of rational means in pursuit of utterly irrational ends.

Back to 1945 then. Remember the four ‘D’s of the Potsdam Agreement? Opinions differ as to what exactly they were but de-militarisation, along with de-nazification, features in everyone’s list. The Germans were to be cleansed of their militarist past because it was a bad thing. Our own militarist past – and PRESENT – still require similar attention. Will it take a well-deserved, comprehensive defeat to bring that about? And then what? If we want a military we can possibly consider to be doing a worthwhile job then the best way to start may well be to abolish the whole lot of it and think it through again.

So, from the beginning, why do we need the armed forces at all? What good do they do? Several countries get by without having any. Iceland is one, yet it still won the Cod Wars of the early 70s, humiliating the Royal Navy by a combination of diplomatic pressure and fisheries protection vessels engaged in sea rage. Ideally, military spending everywhere would be nil. Spending directed towards military objectives is almost always waste (though research can lead to civilian applications that transform our lives for the better). If it leads to war, the waste is ghastly. If it doesn’t, it’s still money that could have been spent on better things. The challenge is to so organise our affairs as to minimise the need for military spending, especially as conventionally understood. The real need is for an emphasis on tension reduction, rather than on the received wisdom that violence is a necessary part of the human condition, let alone one to be glorified. No easy thing to do, but so much better than the alternative. And the key lesson remains that tension can be raised as surely by too much military spending as by too little: so don’t be the one who started it.

Looking ahead, conflict seems as likely to require military software as military hardware, as rival teams of hackers work to bring down each other’s critical national infrastructure. More brain, less brawn? Quite possibly. As defence blurs seamlessly into counter-terrorism, surveillance and interception, as movements, not states become the enemy, so the internal/external divide dissolves and questions of civil liberty arise to challenge what is being done, by whom, to whom, and for whose benefit. ‘National security’ is becoming an increasingly unconvincing reason for not discussing national security.

It may well be that the military mind of the future will be even more focused on systems and logistics. Valuable skills exist in dealing with crisis situations, in military aid to the civil authorities when circumstances overwhelm the response normally available. Natural disasters furnish the best example, as when the Army was asked to help out in Cheltenham and Gloucester during the floods of 2007. It’s not just about manpower, not just about soldiers filling sandbags. It’s also about the strategic thinking needed to put in place parallel systems, such as for distributing drinking water or back-up generators. And to do so on timescales that bureaucracies or businesses, for whom the unexpected is a rare event that usually cannot command instant resources, would find truly challenging. Amidst all the rhetoric about outsourcing and encouraging the public sector to take risks, it’s worth pondering the consequences for resilience when contractors fail or risks go too far. (Remember G4S.)

Military planning is at the other extreme from financial whizz-kiddery: what matters, what has to be argued for, is what needs to be done, where, how and when, not what the price tag says. It’s about physical realities, not made-up money, which in the Mad Max scenario of the future isn’t worth a thing. When the Soviet Union collapsed after 1990, legal ownership, bureaucratic regulation and money were all bent to the will of those who had physical control over the material resources. What mattered wasn’t who had jurisdiction over the factory but who controlled the machinery, the energy sources to run it, and either the co-operation of those who could work it or access to enough violence to take it over anyway. Another parallel could be the fall of Rome, when the senatorial landowners merged with the barbarian chiefs to lay the foundations of feudalism. If we would avoid rule by diversifying drugs barons, local warlords and ruthless opportunists generally, then collective security needs to move up the agenda, sharpish.

During the decades either side of 1980, computer consultant and Welsh nationalist writer Derrick Hearne set down his political philosophy in three books: The Rise of the Welsh Republic, The Joy of Freedom and The ABC of the Welsh Revolution. Today more than ever they deserve detailed study, not least because Hearne’s aim was to map a route to survival in what he predicted was the forthcoming Age of Scarcity, looming larger now than then. Equally rejecting big monopoly capitalism and big bureaucratic socialism for the alternative of a ‘community-benefit state’, Hearne visualised a Wales in which markets and interventions therein were led to support rather than destroy communities. It was a no-nonsense vision with universal youth conscription for public works, including the building of a new rail network, a focused exports policy modelled on the Japanese zaibatsu, and utter contempt for Labour’s legacy of cowed colonial cronyism. Not all of this programme is transferable: the English have a deep distrust of large standing armies, and hence of conscription, and are, on balance, quite right to feel that way. That said, there are thought-provoking arguments all round.

In building his ‘model’ of a free Wales, Hearne the computer consultant was keen to set up some creative tensions and feedback loops. The institutions he described were designed to balance short-term economic thinking with long-term strategic thinking. The latter role he assigned to the Army of the Republic as ideological guardian. It’s a role often played by the military elite in countries struggling to escape from a past world. Atatürk’s Turkey is perhaps the best-known example. Outside Switzerland, it’s not a role that sits easily with democracy, but in Hearne’s not unrealistic future, democracy would have to work hard for its survival. His suggestions were intended to assist, not hinder, that goal. Indeed, the primary purpose of his proposed army was not to wield weaponry at all, but willpower.

The Army’s job was to identify, create and maintain the facilities and stocks required for survival, including survival of an economic blockade. There is, Hearne pointed out, a difference between an economic planning consideration, based on investment returns, and a survival consideration, based on the worst-case scenario. One concrete example he gave was that “the Army would insist upon a reserve stock of steam locomotives and their attendant servicing facilities, which [economic] planners might find somewhat quaint”. In Wessex, a comparable example might be the battle to protect farmland, as the source of our future food supply, against those ‘economists’ who consider its short-term residential development value to outweigh any need to think ahead. Food security. Energy security. Environmental security. There are more threats out there than we might care to think.

There are many terms used to describe the kind of strategic thinking needed. ‘Horizon scanning’ is one. And there are many ways of applying that thinking. One is to think simply about the future of everyone, as in really caring about posterity. Another is to look back as far as forward in the life of a specific community, as in the Seven Generations concept. What is lacking is any mechanism for turning such thoughts into action. Think-tanks often appear disconnected from the day-to-day policy measures that really need to start to be turned around now. The military are much more used to grasping the connection between objectives and resources and both the opportunities and the threats presented by change.

We condemn the misuse of taxpayers’ money to fund needless wars, to subsidise the arms trade and to keep some of the most beautiful countryside in Wessex out of bounds. (Nor should we belittle the political consequences: the occupying forces in the Devizes constituency number 11,000, plus their families, easily more than the Tory MP’s majority.) But we also need clear perception and resolute action to build a viable future for Wessex in uncertain times, when many military skills could prove their worth in a mixture of crisis management service and survival think-tank. Time for some creative tensions of our own?

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