British Society and Armed Forces Day


The UK’s first Armed Forces Day provides the opportunity to celebrate the contribution of members of all three services. Donations to service charities and popular lobbies for armed forces issues underline the high public regard for British troops. However, in our celebration, we must not lose sight of the broader challenges to defence policy, or an unwillingness to match public expenditure to levels of admiration.

By Professor Hew Strachan for RUSI.org

The perception that the armed forces of the crown are under-valued and neglected by the public is just that – a perception. All opinion polls conducted since the ending of conscription in the early 1960s have shown that the public consistently places the armed forces at the top of the professional tree, alongside doctors and nurses, and well above politicians and journalists. The fact that they put themselves in harm’s way, that they submerge their own needs in the collective demands of the service, and that they accept forms of discipline long since absent from civilian life is not only widely acknowledged but also respected. Newspaper-driven scandals, particularly over issues like bullying in army training centres, as at Deepcut, create angst for the Adjutant General but do not significantly impact on any of the indices of public approbation. The worries about allowing members of the armed services into schools or the wearing of RAF uniforms in the streets of Bedford represent minority positions, however much hyped by the press, rather than the broad swathe of public opinion.

The service charity paradox

The success of Help for Heroes is therefore unsurprising, but it is also worrying at a number of levels. First of all, it must concern the 140 or so other pre-existing service charities, all of which were already fishing for donations in the same pool. Although each has a separately identifiable purpose, to the wider public they represent a single cause. The creation of the Confederation of British Service and Ex-Service Organisations (COBSEO) is a logical response to the need for a united service voice in the charitable sector but COBSEO is not a recognisable ‘brand’ as is (for example) the British Legion. It is, therefore, a source of relief that Armed Forces Day is lumping rather than splitting, addressing the need to recognise all three services, and all their members, whether still serving or not.

Second, the purpose of Help for Heroes is to assist those who have been wounded, an area of activity where the state is already sufficiently committed to suggest that at least some charitable effort is being duplicated. Wounds are incurred on active service, and so it might be logical to conclude that the popular response which Help for Heroes has triggered reflects public awareness of the purposes for which the armed forces exist. But that is exactly the problem. Help for Heroes, like the bulk of other charities working on behalf of the services, presents the recipients of its support as victims. It would be nice to imagine that donations to the armed forces’ charities say more about public awareness of the armed forces’ needs than do donations to the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals about animal welfare. But if they do, then the charities would be under pressure to address the wounds of war not just as issues for palliative care but also as matters for preventive action. Would money be better spent on improving the protection of vehicles against Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs), so that there would be fewer serious wounds to treat in the first place? And, following this line of thought, should the public organise sponsored marathons in order to buy more attack helicopters and (just as importantly) train their crews?

The answers to the last two questions are – presumably – no. And that of course reflects the unease felt by some in showing support for the armed forces, and also underpins the relatively isolated instances where there is resistance to acknowledging all that they do. Christian and liberal opinion is not opposed to curing the sick, but it is reluctant to do anything to glorify war. This too is hardly a new phenomenon in British society: from the wearing of white poppies on Remembrance Sunday in the 1930s to anti-Vietnam war riots in the US in the 1960s, critics of the military have directed their ire less towards the armed forces themselves than at the functions they are required to fulfil. Here the challenges remain as persistent as ever; indeed more so than for some considerable time. The armed forces are popular, but the wars in which they are engaged are not. Help for Heroes deepens this paradox, but does nothing to resolve it. Sadly, neither the Labour government nor the Conservative opposition has much appetite to do so either.

The ‘Military Covenant’

The campaign to honour the so-called ‘military covenant’ is symptomatic of a wider refusal to engage with the broader challenges of defence policy. By pushing the emotional and caring buttons, politicians avoid facing more intractable and more divisive issues. Instead they create new problems. The concessions made in response to Joanna Lumley’s tearful campaign on the part of the Gurkhas are a case in point. Specifically, will Nepal continue to permit recruitment if it no longer reaps the foreign exchange earnings which it derives from the military service of its nationals? More generally, why do we not have a coherent policy regarding the enlistment of all our foreign and commonwealth servicemen? Are they a solution to our recruitment and retention policies? Or are they yet another nail in the coffin of close relations between the armed forces and domestic British society? The Gurkhas, however distinguished their record and however much they are (rightly) admired and loved in Britain, are not an isolated case, but are part of a much wider set of issues.

The campaign for the ‘military covenant’ rests its case on principle, but Britain’s attitude to its service personnel has always been pragmatic. Historically, there has been no contract between the soldier and the state of the sort which is now suggested. If there had been, there would have been no need for the plethora of service charities, as the state would have done the right thing by its veterans and its wounded, as well as their widows and orphans. Except for a few long-service veterans, most received little if anything until the charitable sector kicked in after the Crimean War. The ‘military covenant’ was invented as part of the ‘moral component’ in army doctrine in the late 1990s, not least to address the growing divide between army and society as the legacies of compulsory military service faded. Like so many invented traditions, it now has a life and pedigree of its own.

That is no bad thing. The situation did get badly out of kilter after the end of the Cold War, as the operational tempo went up and the market-driven revolution in the delivery of public services kicked in. The armed forces contracted out a great deal that had previously been done within house. Servicemen and women found themselves excluded from the benefits available to civilians, not because they were not as entitled to them as other citizens, but because they moved more often, and they did so at unpredictable times of the year and often at short notice. They could not get their families onto doctors’ waiting lists, they could not get their children into local schools, they found themselves marooned in army camps without effective public transport, and their quarters were neglected and badly maintained (and often ill adapted to all but traditional nuclear families). Moreover, their capacity to complain could be limited both by the operation of the chain of command, and by the desire of the militarily ambitious not to be seen as complaining. The ‘can do’ mentality of the services militated against effective action early enough.

This was a failure of government. Above all, the Ministry of Defence had not managed to get other government departments to respond to the specific needs of the services and their families. In 2008, many of the inter-departmental issues were addressed by the Service Personnel Command Paper. Full delivery of all its aspirations will take time, but the effect has been to create both an awareness of the key areas of concern and to make clear that there is no lack of will to put things right in the other government departments or in the devolved assemblies (with the major exception of Northern Ireland).

Civic Rights

The efforts to give servicemen and women the same rights and privileges as all other citizens do however highlight the impossibility of pleasing all of the people all of the time. Concerns about accessing the best health care and securing the right education for children are not confined to the services, but are common across society as a whole. Given the lack of equality in society, how can it be possible to measure when the armed forces have reached a point where they are on a par with that society? The standard governmental response to this dilemma is to set key performance indicators, but unless these are used with sensitivity and discrimination they will tend to record failure rather than success. For example, the armed forces are expected to recruit from the United Kingdom’s ethnic minorities in proportion to their profile in the community. Once the services remove foreign and commonwealth recruits from their calculations, they show themselves to be failing in this regard. This may be a reflection of an underlying and persistent racism in the forces, but it could also be reflective of class expectations among ambitious and upwardly mobile immigrant communities. After all, British society as a whole may hold the armed forces in high regard, but it does not convert that respect into high rates of enlistment. Related points can be made about the so-called ‘harmony’ guidelines, designed to regulate the operational tempo for individuals and to boost retention by ensuring adequate amounts of time at home. If the armed forces are at war, an argument that the government disputes but which the public – at least in its response to Help for Heroes – seems to embrace, then ‘harmony’ guidelines are inherently difficult (if not impossible) to observe without increased establishments.

Measuring equality of provision is hard but the challenges go further. The armed forces’ contract is one of unlimited liability: service personnel may be called upon to die (and to kill, a point we conveniently forget) in the course of their duties. The expectation generated by Help for Heroes and by the campaign for the ‘military covenant’ carries an implicit aspiration that the services and their families should get not just equality of treatment with civilians, but more than that, at the very least the best that the state can provide. This is a far cry from the position of the soldier of the eighteenth or early nineteenth centuries, Wellington’s ‘scum of the earth’, banned from public parks and consigned to paupers’ graves. It is also the legacy of a state which has only a limited conception of civic obligations as well as civic rights. For all that it had recourse to conscription in the two world wars, Britain has never really associated citizenship with military service, unlike France after its Revolution or even the United States after its. If military service were no more than an obligation on all citizens, even if not always exercised, we might be less concerned about how to reward it adequately. As it is, our own preoccupation with rights rather than obligations, combined with the comparatively easy, comfortable and even decadent lives which most of us enjoy, enhances our admiration for those who forego such privileges. That is until our government has to convert admiration into expenditure.

Hew Strachan is Chichele Professor of the History of War, All Souls College, Oxford and Director of the Oxford Leverhulme Programme on the Changing Character of War.

The views expressed above are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.


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