War and the imagining of alternatives: some questions for politicians

By Jill Segger
November 20, 2019

Remembrance-tide is over. Arguments about the colour of poppies and conscience, the exchange of insult about patriotism and accusations of snowflakery will doubtless return next year. But for now, as a General Election looms, we have a space in which the consideration of our attitude towards the military arm of our foreign policy and what sustains it might be of benefit.

A few weeks ago, the Quaker Meeting of which I am a member hosted a showing of the documentary film ‘War School’ . We invited professionals in the fields of education, mental health and young people’s services to see the film and partake in discussion. Around 50 people attended.

The film is powerful and disturbing. There was a general consensus that it was in fact, two films, or at least, two interlinked theses and that these could have benefited from tighter editing for maximum clarity.

Nonetheless, the two strands: the projection of military force somewhere in the world as a permanent condition serving the geopolitical and economic interests of the UK, and the building up and maintaining of a public frame of mind necessary to make this possible, are clear.

The latter employs several strategies: Armed Forces Day as spectacle and entertainment; the increasing visibility of the military at sporting events: the Reserve Forces Wear Your Uniform to Work Day, Camo Day; the growth of cadet forces in state schools, the recruitment targetting of teenagers as young as 15, often living in economically depressed areas and under-achieving at school. (There are around 11,000 recruitment visits to schools every year.) The public are encouraged to have a slightly sentimentalised and romantic view of service personnel and by extension, to be uncritical and unquestioning of the operations to which they are ordered. An election is a good time to challenge the morality of this strategy.

The 'Clausewitzian Triangle' – the theory that war requires the will of the people, the will of the government and the will of the military – is relevant here. Closely bound up with the third side of this diagram is the manufacture and supply of armaments and military equipment. The UK may not have boots on the ground in Yemen, but it is morally complicit in the slaughter of civilians and the destruction of a country.

The armed forces – and particularly the infantry, which is having difficulty in meeting its recruitment targets – need a contstant stream of young people. The hyper-masculinity of military life, the perceived status and the pageantry associated with it, is very attractive to some young and insecure males. At the age of 16, when many boys are very vulnerable to this framing, the brutality of military training is particularly damaging. The levels of PTSD and poor mental health among infantrymen recruited at this age, even though they do not go to the front line until they are 18, are higher than among those recruited at 18 years of age or older. They also suffer a higher level of injury and death in combat.

Modern close combat of a highly mechanised and asymmetric type (the role particularly of the infantry and special forces) is unnatural, even to our species as hunting primates, and does immense damage to the human psyche. To train human beings to violate themselves in this way necessitates a brutal apprenticeship as is shown in the film. The kill-or-be-killed response has to be driven in until it becomes unquestioning. It is not possible to convene an ethics committee in a fire-fight.

The damage done is evident. The principal ‘talking heads’ in the film, who are members of the organisation Veterans for Peace, are its witnesses. They carry themselves tightly. They are troubled men. Across a forty year age range, we see them remembering not only the physical horrors they have seen, but the recollection of promises broken, of civilians traumatised and betrayed. Their own dawning awareness of the part they had been moulded to play is never going to leave them.

For me, the most harrowing among these was the youngest veteran. Wayne Sharrocks began his army training as a minor, joining up on his 17th birthday, and was later deployed to Afghanistan where he was injured in a bomb blast. His experiences, both of training and combat, were described with an anxious smile that came quickly and departed just as suddenly, bearing no relation to the context of his narrative, and accompanied by an occasional nervous laugh which was more a punctuation of distress than any expression of amusement or irony. The camera lingered on his damaged young face when he had run out of words. In most films, this kind of uncomfortable footage is discarded in the edit suite. Here, mercilessly, it revealed the return of an unforgettably haunted expression.

The harm done by war does not end with the cessation of hostilities. It continues over decades in suffering bodies and minds. It embitters the next generation. It destroys trust. It should never be seen as a solution to conflict. We need a foreign policy which does not put the acquiring and projection of military force at the top of its agenda. The American theologian Stanley Hauerwas has said: “As long as it is assumed that war is always an available option, we will not be forced to imagine any alternative to war.” The ditching of that assumption should lead us to making ethical demands of our politicians: to invest money, training and recruitment strategies to conflict resolution, to nation building, to peacemaking, to scrutiny of our arms exports and to the making of alliances which will strengthen and grow the ability to act imaginatively. We need to start by protecting some of our most vulnerable children from the deceit which is being practised on them.We need to ask what care will be taken of their injured minds and bodies.

Let’s look carefully at those asking for our votes over the next few weeks. The current virility test seems to be to ask party leaders about their willingness to launch nuclear weapons. The follow up question, as in all acts of armed conflict, should be: “What are your plans for the aftermath?”

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© Jill Segger is Associate Director of Ekklesia with particular involvement in editorial issues. She is a freelance writer who contributes to the Church Times, Catholic Herald, Tribune, Reform and The Friend, among other publications. She is the author of Words out of Silence published by Ekklesia in May 2019. The book is available here and here. Jill is an active Quaker. You can follow her on Twitter at: http://www.twitter.co/quakerpen

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.