Yes, it’s the type of patriotic statement which octogenarians like to rant about after one too many sherries at Christmas dinner: ‘Joining the army’s the only worthwhile job a man can have’. I remember the accusation being launched by my arthritic grandfather – who has never so much as touched a khaki uniform – against my wide-eyed six-year-old cousin. This is a boy who was still struggling to handle his Brussels sprouts, let alone the idea of weaponry.
There’s something about the very word, ‘military’, which, especially at this time of year, inspires a nationalistic sense of nostalgia. For many people, the word is rooted in the lyrical days of yore, rubbing shoulders with Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, and firmly lodged in the graveyards which litter such areas as Ypres, Normandy and Dunkirk. Indeed, for many, that’s where the word should be left to rot, paving the way for more diplomatic solutions in which external intervention is limited solely to administrative bodies. Certainly, this jingoistic assertion of military supremacy is all too often grossly naïve, demonstrating a crass disregard for the trauma undergone by both victims of war and members of the armed forces themselves. Nonetheless, in regards to instigating sustainable long-term change, the armed forces – in co-operation with adequate political support – are as instrumental a resource as they’ve ever been. They’re a physical manifestation of the political ideology they so hope to initiate.
the armed forces are as instrumental a resource as they’ve ever been
The military’s role as a political instrument is one which both leaders and the general population are all too conscious of. In many cases, motives behind military usage say as much, if not more so, about political intentions as the policies which governments administer. Indeed, many criticisms surrounding military usage do not so much underpin the army itself but the political regime of which it is a corporeal representation. Certainly the reasons for this are clear: Hitler, Stalin and Pinochet are all twentieth-century examples of dictatorships who have extensively used the military to uphold their authoritarian rule. Even contemporary tyrants such as Kim Jong Un still recognise the value of the armed forces, if not as a weapon, then certainly as a symbol of patriotic might. Yet, the army’s political connotations can offer as much hope as they do threat; armed interventions have, in the past, acted to support budding political movements, such as the development of democracy in authoritarian cultures.
International armed support, both within Iraq and Libya, enhanced rebel strength against the dictatorial regimes of Saddam Hussein (murdered in 2006) and Muammar Gaddafi (killed in 2011). Although – particularly in Iraq – the actions of extremist groups have created uncertainty regarding democratic sustainability, the current presidential model in both countries is one which relies on autonomous election: a system which is now being advocated by national forces in the face of threats such as Islamic State. Although, undoubtedly, a controversial political symbol, the level of support for the armed forces can only be gauged when intrinsically linked with the moral standing of a governmental system. In many cases, criticisms are not so bound with military corruption, but venality at the core of the political system.
Indeed, the political undertones of the military system are closely linked to its influence as a tool for sustainability. When bound to a powerful administrative body, the army can be integral in administering the necessary support to develop a sustainable political and economic structure. Although a particularly controversial period in modern history, the war in Afghanistan (2001-2014) has since allowed for significant developments in the Afghan economic and educational sectors. By 2011, GDP per capita had doubled, lifting 5 million people from extreme poverty. Likewise, this year, it was confirmed that there has been a 7.4 million increase in the number of children in education since 2001 of whom 39% are girls – a seemingly minor statistic yet a significant gain for women’s rights. Indeed, following the Second World War, allied action against the Nazis was integral in preventing the development of Fascism in other European countries – a phenomenon which is still upheld by the majority of governments today. Although their influence is only ever as powerful as administrative adequacy, the military are an essential resource in instigating long-term change in the face of instability.
Nonetheless, the calls for pacifism among numerous sectors are such which certainly possess gravitas, especially given recent history. To patriotically advocate military excellence would be to crassly overlook such human rights abuses as those committed by Rwandan soldiers during the 1994 Genocide, the American army at Abu Ghraib (2003) and the Egyptian military during the Arab Spring (2011) to name but a few examples of the sadistic violence which is rife in armed conflict. Indeed, Western intervention in the Middle East during the 2000s has been notoriously condemned, acting only to exacerbate cultural divisions rather than heal them. Yet, within recent years, it is the threat posed by extremist groups which are considered among the most critical to international security with the UK raising the terrorist threat level from ‘substantial’ to ‘severe’ in 2014. Groups such as Boko Haram and Islamic State are among the most renowned international threats, responsible for over 200,000 deaths since 2013. Although both groups have violently seized areas of Nigeria, Iraq and Syria, their legitimacy as a political power is starkly limited.
Although bodies such as the United Nations and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation have demonstrated their influence in dealing with international political crises, their diplomatic powers are far more restricted in the face of these insurgencies: groups which rely on brute force rather than political authority. For such examples, pacifism is rarely a sustainable option; when violence is the principal weapon, the hope that these threats can be tackled without armed force is almost naïve. Indeed, far from demonstrating that military service is a tool which remains lodged in the days of bayonets and chlorine gas, the necessity for the army is as relevant now as it has ever been; these terrorists are not searching for treaties and political acclaim, but a domineering, international ideology which can only be waged through bloodshed and oppression.
pacifism is rarely a sustainable option
It seems that for too long our understanding of the army has been rooted in the simplified stereotypes of 1920s propaganda and Dad’s Army. Military expectations are often either linked to a blind patriotic pride or a revulsion for the corruption and brutality which has been witnessed in conflicts time and time again. However, with the nature of international threat constantly developing, the importance of the armed forces cannot be underestimated, not only as a political symbol but as a trigger for long-term change. Thus, this November, when I wear my poppy or see the faded names upon Northernhay memorial, it won’t be out of jingoistic arrogance, but out of a quiet dignity for the millions of soldiers in conflicts past and present who made, what we may consider even the most atrocious of decisions, from an unyielding, perhaps almost naive desire to make a difference.