Friday, 1 August 2008

Apathy in the armed forces, a sign of maligned youth and politics

This is a guest post by Mr Simon Paul

Following the recent report by The Times into the historic absence of morale in the armed forces, an investigation is required into the cause of this unnerving phenomenon. The proximate cause is, of course, the strain of fighting two wars simultaneously, with a military ill equipped for such adventure. But it is also the specific nature of those conflicts that has engendered such an unprecedented disaffection amongst our fighting forces. Iraq demonstrated that the polity will no longer blithely follow their leaders into the abyss; competence de guerre is questioned on all fronts. But it is not just the polity at large that entertains this new spirit of moral enquiry. Statesmen would do well to acknowledge that the debate on when and whether the use of force is just needs to be had in the public domain, as well as in the chamber of the House of Commons. The dark forces of the twentieth century compelled man towards a new moral agenda, that could barely countenance the use of force, excepting the most grievous circumstances. But the UN model of self-defence ceded its authority to the warning sounds of human rights - and thus was born the doctrine of humanitarian intervention. It is crass to say that the use of force by British governments on behalf of a third party is some kind of post-imperial harbinger. Those who enter debates on warfare should do so with appropriate gravity, and leave such cynicism at the door of the chamber. Those who have the power to provide aid must see it as their duty to do so. But it is the murkiness of this sentiment that has confounded the British public. Tony Blair attempted to elucidate this new doctrine in his infamous Chicago speech. But, rather than obey his own strictures, his carefully articulated criteria of just intervention were inflated to accommodate virtually any Westminster fiat.

Now the seeds of doubt have crept into the nerve centre. The role of a soldier has historically been peculiar. It is rarely the duty of an individual soldier to weigh up the moral worth of his military actions , despite a regular imbibement of the basic premises of humanitarian law . But convention may be more of a potent force than duty. It is a fine tribute to the worth of our fighting forbears, that the gross suffering of the Great Wars has yielded a widespread pacifism. But soldiers are no longer respected; they are suffered as a curious sub-culture within the pacific polity; they are ostracised, and they must move in their own circles. This dichotomy is beginning to take its toll. Besides suffering from lack of funding, the soldier will suffer more greatly when he is starved of the 'soft support' that is so essential to his success as a professional, and his contentment as a human. This is just another symptom of how lost we are as a nation. In the strange consitutional welter that is modern Britain, all sectors balk at the use of words such as 'right and wrong' (excepting David Cameron, who has only recently appropriated that most worthy of niches). And this fear of moral judgement is no less prominent when directed at the use of force.

When I discuss the ethics of war with my young peers, the prevailing mood is that war can never be just. And if war can never be just, it can never be justified. The presumption against violence is almost universal. To phrase it in such terms elevates the sentiment - and it would certainly be a worthy and defeasible position were it arrived it by a useful measure of academic scepticism. But I fear that is not the case. It is cynicism that leads to this presumption; a cynicism that is the product of inadequate investigation. The facts have not been presented in a robust manner, and in so doing, the presumption against violence - worthy sentiment! - has concealed a much worthier and historically sympathetic presumption: that against injustice. The horrors of twentieth century warfare have exposed the use of force to be brutal and indiscriminate. But this should never detract from the fact that our moral judgements should always be couched in terms of justice and injustice. Indeed, to neglect this distinction, and to presume that violence can never have a noble end is to condemn our soldiers to the realm of irretrievable inhumanity. No wonder, then, that the support that a soldier cherishes is at present so cruelly withheld.

I would say this is a failure of education. Patriotism has become something of a dirty word. Current guidance on citizenship lessons requires students to focus on diversity, globalisation and the role of the United Nations and European Union. That is all very well and good. But we would do better to educate our students in the world as it is, not the world as the Labour Party thinks it should be. For whilst we live in a system of states, patriotism will remain a virtue. It is a virtue that does, though, require a redefinition, and careful separation from nationalism. It must be the first duty of an educational system to instruct its subjects in the history of their land. Now this is not because 'we used to have an Empire, you know, and Empires are jolly good things...'. To suggest that teaching the history of this country from the perspective of this country is an imperial action is worse than laughable. It is morally wrong. It is because we are afraid that people are not able to form the right moral judgments that history is presented in a furtive and roundabout manner. But this absence of trust has a price: moral judgments are made in a vacuum.

My proposals for the remedy of this problem are twofold: draft a constitution of the military of this country, reflecting its aspirations and intentions, and a renewed focus on British history in schools. We must all of us be aware that there are instances that require the use of force in the service of justice. To neglect this important point is to appease the darkness. We must all of us reflect upon the singular evil of Nazism, and the triumph of the Allies. We must also be aware of the excesses of that war: Dresden, the misplaced efforts of Bomber Command. But our engagement with this history must never cede truth to relativism. For there are moral truths; I will tell you one: Hitler was evil. And if you think that is a commonplace, then may I suggest that Hitler's status as evildoer is growing increasingly tenuous by the day. I was discussing this matter with a friend of mine. I had contemplated a military career. Her response was intriguing: "I don't think anything justifies the taking of a life". I responded that I think there are some things worth dying for. Had she not been a friend, and the conversation amiable, I would have pointed out what an insult that was to those who died protecting the liberties that we savoured in that very conversation. But then she said: the only worthwhile battles are those of ideas. And ideology never merits death. She was half correct. Today, more often than not, the only worthwhile battles are battles over ideas. Thus, to say they are not worth dying for is false , misconceived and demonstrates the ostracisation of modern youth from the true value of modern democracy. This being the ability to form and discuss ideas, openly, honestly and without restriction. I would venture to suggest that ideas are almost the only thing worth dying for. Perhaps, in these times, where are own moral and ideological values of the west are at risk, they are to be placed on parallel and integrated into the needs of foreign policy, and placed above short-term domestic political gain of the incumbent Government.

1 comment:

John Omani said...

Most interesting - these conclusions are useful