“Every man thinks meanly of himself for not having been a soldier”. Over two centuries after his death, Samuel Johnson's gender specific observation still speaks to our condition. Whatever means we may employ to offer our testimony against war and conflict, we will miss the mark if we do not take account of a certain truth in these words.
Young men are naturally drawn to aspects of action, experience and dress which are at the heart of military life. Adventure and excitement in a very male environment is attractive to many of them. The challenge of toughness, discipline and a consequent sense of superiority to their civilian peers, is a heady mix and the insecure and immature are particularly vulnerable to its intoxicating qualities.
Military dress is designed to enhance and display the young male form. Blazing with scarlet, gold and azure, decked with epaulettes, aiguillettes, spurs and sashes, dress uniforms fulfil the inner peacock and enhance a young man's allure in the eyes of many women. The more workaday garb of most regiments, squadrons and ships' companies have their own appeal. There is a strand of urban chic which has always drawn upon camouflage gear and desert boots.
Then there is the hardware. The opportunity to be part of the crew of a tank or a fast jet is a
dream come true for the little boy within. Civilian heavy plant does not really compete. And those of us who decline to buy toy guns for our children know that their imagination will turn a stick into a machine gun and a pointed finger into a pistol. Weapons confer power and status and it has been so since the first hominid learned to throw a stone.
For that reason, we must remember that to drive or carry technology which places one in a position of power is not necessarily indicative of a violent disposition. It is predominantly a response of the male primate to a society in which the pursuit of rank (and therefore of status) is not confined to military institutions. But it would be unfair to found an argument only on those elements of military culture which are less attractive to women and to those men who recognise the conflict between that which is inherent and that which conscience prompts us to acquire.
There are qualities of comradeship, courage and self-sacrifice which are as much part of the military ethos as are those characteristics that, as peacemakers, we may call into question. The British
army does not leave its dead and wounded on the battlefield. Whatever the risk posed to those who recover them, this commitment is unequivocal and is rooted in a deep charity.
This sense of solidarity, which grows amongst those who undergo danger together, may give rise to acts of courage which are beyond the imagining of most of us. Lance Corporal Matthew Croucher, serving in Helmand province, was awarded the George Cross for saving the lives of his comrades by throwing himself on a live grenade.
However much we may deplore the presence of our soldiers in Afghanistan; despite our denunciation of the collective international failures of vision and diplomacy which lead to young men and women putting their bodies in the way of lethal ordinance, this should be recognised as an act of heroic self-sacrifice which commands gratitude and respect. It also reminds us that amidst the evils of war, the divine gleam which is in every man and woman, may spark out in unexpected ways.
A great deal of our make-up is still under the sway of our primate nature. Grace and civilisation are evolutionary latecomers to the human psyche and if we are honest, we will acknowledge that there are occasions when most of us have been pulled off balance by the downdraught of what our 'better selves’ would prefer to repudiate. If we would be effective advocates of peace, we must look at those structures of our society - and at our own compliance with those structures – which feed the 'alpha male' strand on which military culture depends.
The obligation to look good in a society obsessed with sex takes a heavy toll on our young people. We should be ever alert to teach them, by word and by the example of our lives, that their essential, enduring dignity and value does not depend upon their appearance or 'bed-ability'. There is a need deep within us all for challenge and for solidarity in a common cause. We must find means to channel that instinct, with its testosterone inflected urge to explore and extend one's physical limits, towards areas of conflict resolution, nation-building, disaster relief and community service.
We should not dismiss the concept of esprit de corps, rather we must strive to show our young people that its potential for nobility does not require the bearing of arms nor a disdain for those outside its charmed circle.
If we will work with the grain of male nature wherever conscience permits and be honest in respecting its virtues, we will hold a better chance of being heard when we are compelled to stand against it.
© Jill Segger is a Quaker. She is a freelance writer who contributes to the Church Times, Catholic Herald, Tribune, and The Friend, among other publications. Jill is Ekklesia's assistant editor. She is also a composer. See: http://www.journalistdirectory.com/journalist/TQig/Jill-Segger
See also Ekklesia's resources for Armed Forces Day - http://ekklesia.co.uk/resources/armed_forces_day