Wednesday, 31 December 2008

What are the armed forces for, exactly?

Yesterday's news from the National Archive that Britain's ability to defend itself against an attack from the Soviet Union was so diminished in the late 1970s that the prime minister exclaimed: "Heaven help us if there is a war!" spurs me to write a post I've been mulling for a while on the armed forces.

The first thing to say is that we should be grateful to those who risk their lives for all our sakes; we should equip them properly; and we should grant them generous rights after their service is complete. The saga of the gurkhas does us no credit at all, for instance: no service person should have to live in penury after a career in the military.

Let us be clear, though, about what the armed forces are for. If necessary, they kill people. Of course we hope that the ability to do it makes actually doing it unnecessary. But sometimes those fond hopes are unjustified. So no one should join without an absolute unquestioning willingness to kill if ordered to do so. That is what the armed forces are for.

All power structures generate their own dynamics, their own justifications. Ones with a long history carry a lot of baggage, too. Thus we have the fiction that the armed forces are commanded by the Queen, when in fact they do the bidding of the government. We have traditions -- many Victorian inventions -- designed to emphasise the importance of the military. Good tourist-attracting heritage though some of these may be, but they also support some convenient myths. Perhaps if we remembered that the military are funded by taxes we might be a little less tolerant of their parades, their lavish messes, their Saville Row tailored uniforms, and their expeditions. State school teachers don't get junkets to the Antarctic: why do the Army?

It is the toys that really bother me though. The boats and the planes, the missiles and (especially) the nukes. Just as Wall Street had a whole industry dedicated to justifying unjustifiable executive compensation, so the `defence' (by which we often of course mean `attack') sector has a whole industry devoted to persuading governments to buy weapon systems they do not need. Admirals like shiny new boats, nukes enhance the virility of defence ministers. So we spend tens of billions without effective scrutiny yet keep universities in poverty, schools with leaky roofs, and nurses on indefensibly low salaries.

We can't afford to go on this way, especially in the present climate. Let's cancel the Trident replacement now. Let's stop spending money on high tech goodies for the top brass, and equip the men on the front line with the armour they need instead.

We also need to eliminate the culture that allowed bullying at Deepcut and Catterick. The armed forces are civil servants too. Let's treat them as what they are: valued public sector workers who are not above scrutiny. A pound spent on subsidising the port in the officer's mess is a pound not spent on education or health. Battle honours dating back hundreds of years are no excuse for a culture that destroys some people today. As Rahm Emanuel says, You never want a serious crisis to go to waste. Perhaps with shrinking tax revenues and an end to our presence in Iraq we can try to produce a military that is efficient, appropriately funded, fit for purpose and fit to be part of a modern democracy.

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