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National security: the role of the armed forces


With the ever-growing fear of terrorism spreading, investments in national security are set to rise. Here, Martina Seppi reflects on her own experience with the Italian Coast Guard, and considers the importance of national security.

When it comes to talking about the armed forces, and all the world of the military, it is likely that we will encounter entrenched prejudices and common thoughts. Many of us regularly question the role of the military, it’s spending and even it’s training. However, the recent birth and growth of the Islamic State is becoming a more threatening reality both for the West and for Middle Eastern countries. This situation, as was more than apparent in the terrorist attack in Paris, does not allow European governments just to sit quietly, hoping for easy resolutions in the face of violence.

In July 2014, the David Cameron announced a possible investment of £1.1 billion in the reinforcement of national security. This was proposed as being divided between surveillance operations and radars to control and predict terrorist attacks in the future. However, despite this substantial amount of money invested in protecting the country, we have yet to come to terms with the people who have recently decided to travel to countries where extremism is prevalent to join terrorist organisations fighting against Western countries.

Recent attacks in Paris confirm the fact that the threats of terrorism are ever-present, and there’s always a huge risk that efforts put into dealing with it may be vain. Eventually, French police succeeded in tracking down the targets, but these episodes demonstrate the need for to be ready and equipped to defend its people. However, in my opinion, it’s not and need not be about how much is spent by the UK or by Western countries on security, but rather, it’s about what you do with the resources you can handle. In order to maximise the effectiveness of military investments, we should consider the chance of trusting people more than guns or sophisticated weapons. In other words, the armed forces, as well all other military resources, should put more effort into building relationships and treatises instead of simply destroying the target.

I come from Italy, therefore I can talk a little bit better about the system we have in my own country. I have never been directly involved in the army, but my father was. When he was eighteen he had to join the army for one year according to Italy’s previous law enforcing the defence of national territory. This period, called in Italian dialect ‘naja,’ consisted of the compulsory enrolment of eighteen year-old boys – only boys – for the period of one year to serve their country, and potentially fight for it should a war occur. The naja became crucial during the two World Wars and was suspended, although not abolished, in 2005 and converted into a system of voluntary enrolment.

My father, however, did not have this choice. He had to join the army and learn how to be a soldier. He had to learn how to throw hand grenades, shoot guns and how to greet and show respect to his own superiors through several compulsory exercises. He even learnt how to sing during training sessions. There are few Italian people who fully appreciated the naja experience, its discipline and its military features. In fact, the strict hierarchy of the military system forces people to obey, but seldom allows them to have a say in what is going on in the country. Often this results in certain problems that could otherwise have been avoided.

When I was seventeen I spent a week in the city of Trieste in the North-East part of my country to join the Coast Guard (CG) which is a branch of the Italian navy. During this week I learnt about the structure of the CG, its role in the security of the city and how to get to work in this kind of environment. Leaving the CG, I felt distinctly attracted by the navy and the career I could possibly embark upon in such a system. So, I began to research. I found out that the Italian navy and army are focused on protecting citizens rather that destroying the ‘Other.’ In my opinion, this is a model of military action that could serve the rest of the world well.

The military world should be more than just a training ground, teaching people to kill and fight. It should be in fact aiming to prevent conflict and preserve favourable conditions. This can only be truly achieved by offering opportunities to people who wish to prove that this form of armed force initiative is possible. Although it’s common to think that soldiers want to go to war because it’s something they have been training for, it is ultimately clear to most of us that there are few people who are actually enthusiastic about the idea of war, and that those enrolled in the army probably, like us would do anything to prevent conflict.

However, the role of the armed forces in Britain seems to be shifting increasingly in this humanitarian direction. A mark of similar changes in attitude could be found in the recent establishment of a transgender officer in the British army. This move clearly promotes welfare, equality and understanding. Now, in the UK, both gay and lesbian people can be part of the military world without any restrictions. The first transgender officer, Hannah Winterbourne, claims, “the army have been fantastic from start to finish.” “Nothing,” she says, “has changed with my job.” A new type of army is clearly possible, one that doesn’t mean that we will weaken the system simply by embracing modern attitudes alongside the ‘traditional’ ones.

The important thing is not how much money governments spend on the military, but how they implement the results of this spending. Hopefully, the future of the armed forces will continue to focus increasingly on using this investment and power to make encourage international dialogues of tolerance and involvement, aiming to grant peace rather than focusing on war.

Martina Seppi

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