This month marks five years since the beginning of the land invasion stage of the US/British war against Iraq, which is now in its tenth year. Whilst there has been some talk of reducing British troop numbers, it is painfully obvious that the British commitment to the imperialist aggressions in Afghanistan and Iraq is of a long-term nature. The commitment of the United States, notwithstanding any possible change in Britain’s position, appears equally enduring. An absolutely essential component of the permanent aggression, the “Long War” envisaged by Washington, is the role of the modern professional army.
Those analysts who, prior to 2003, warned of a Vietnam-style catastrophe in Iraq, underestimated the scale of the disaster. For the conscripts who served in Vietnam were drawn from all sections of civil society. Integrated into the social life of the country, their disaffection eventually permeated US society and exerted a powerful motive force in the peace movement in that country. The demise of conscription, apparently motivated by decent liberal notions of voluntarism and respect for personal autonomy, has in actual fact been a very positive development from the point of view of imperialism.
The professional army, though drawn from civil society, stands aloof from it, not only in terms of its culture and psyche, but crucially in terms of the loyalty inspired by a sense of professional commitment. Put simply, there is a conflict of interests and approaches between the individual citizen, who from time to time participates, criticises, dissents, and the professional soldier, whose job it is to unquestioningly obey orders, and who faces ostracism and severe punishment if he should allow matters of conscience to impinge upon his roboticism.
By minimising the contact between ordinary civil life and the life of the soldier, the professional army allows for an imperialism in which the human capital of military aggression, the very soldiers without whose participation the whole project would be impossible, to be seen as a free-standing and abstract, independent force. The attempt to seal off the humanity of the soldiers is never, of course, 100% successful, and from time to time an soldier, as in the recent case of Ben Griffin, will break ranks on a point of political or conscientious principle.
On the whole, however, the general rule is that the bonds of professional service and contractual obligation supersede those of citizenship, and there is little opportunity for any crossover of ideas between two largely closed-off sections. The pervasive jingoism of the popular press only serves to consolidate this split in the public mind, implicitly accepting a clear distinction between “Us” on the one hand, and “Our Boys” on the other. Put simply, if the current “Long War” were staffed by soldiers conscripted for a set period from the ranks of ordinary working people, rather than by trained killing machines with careers and pensions to think about, the project would in all likelihood be fatally undermined by civilian dissent.
There is some degree of squeamishness about the idea of a compulsory national service. It is important to consider, however, that such voluntarism as is provided by the current system is largely fictive, as the overwhelming force of economic compulsion ensures a high quota of working class recruits to whom most alternative paths towards well-paid and secure employment have been cut off. A return to national service would confer some significant benefits, providing a positive educational function in matters of discipline and teamwork.
Conscription would also mitigate against excessive militarism in both the army and society as a whole by ensuring a regular change of personnel within the army, preventing overtly militaristic tendencies from setting in, by undermining careerist motivations and precluding longevity of service. So it is unlikely that conscription would necessarily entail a more militarised society – such militarism as would remain would in any event be far less unhealthy than the vicarious militarism, a sort of militarism by proxy, which currently pervades British political life by means of the jingoism of the national press. Among the greatest beneficiaries would be the individual soldiers currently staffing the professional armies, many of whom are, under the present arrangements, rendered brutalised and unfit for re-integration into normal civilian life, often with disastrous consequences.
The entire notion of the professional soldier is, fundamentally, a barbaric one, and ought to be repudiated by any country which considers itself civilised. Insofar as we accept that the modern state must have defensive military functions, it is far healthier for society to apportion those responsibilities to civilians. At present, the quagmire in Iraq is more akin to the Orwellian nightmare of an endless war than to the oft-cited Vietnam scenario. Two-party systems in Britain and the US have made it virtually impossible to stop the war by means of the ballot box; the fact that this “Long War” is being waged by professional armies only serves to exacerbate the democratic deficit.
Categorised in: Article
This post was written by Nathaniel Mehr