I have never held a gun, let alone fired one. I share this with the vast majority of British people, lucky to be born in the second half of the 20th Century when being sent to war in a mass army was a thing of the past. At the same time I am no idealistic dreamer and am fully aware that we live in a world full of dangers (albeit some of which we create!), appreciating that there are men and women who make sacrifices for our country. Because I have never been in the forces I cannot fully understand the life of a serviceman/woman, but I am quite capable of questioning the motives of a British establishment which commits them to action. In particular there is a serious issue with a royal family which treats the armed forces both as a mean of personal glorification and a job creation scheme.
One of the inspirational aspects of the past few months for me has been meeting members of the Veterans for Peace movement (I particularly valued their presence at Levellers Day and Gus Hales has written a personal account). A number of my recent blogs (here for example) have involved the way contemporary monarchy encourages many people in Britain to uncritically accept it as part of their identity. For servicemen and women the pressure must be overwhelming with the taking of the oath of loyalty and the justification of fighting for King/Queen and Country. To mentally reject that identity and question whether military power is in the interests of the British people themselves takes real will power.
While limiting the problem of the glorification of war to the monarchy risks missing a large part of the story, it is still a good place to start. The fact that for three or four hundred years following the Norman Conquest English monarchs were in reality successful warlords means that monarchy and militarism were interlinked from the start. Although by the eighteenth century the time was long past when a king personally led an army, monarchs lost none of their zeal for sending troops into battle for power and glory. For example in 1781 when it was patently clear to politicians that the war in North America was lost and British troops should be withdrawn, George III (pictured above) insisted on continuing with hostilities, With an increasingly rebellious House of Commons, Prime Minister Lord North was left with no option but to tell the King where to go! Today, George III’s ancestors show similar disdain for servicemen. At any state occasion members of the Royal family can be seen ridiculously strutting around in uniforms of high military rank bedecked with ribbons and medals.
As this Telegraph article makes clear, many of these are invented or handed out by the queen presumably with the intention of making an impression on us. There can be no other reason why you would give Prince Philip the Order of Merit when it is limited to 24 individuals and otherwise has been held by such luminaries as Bertrand Russell (himself a pacifist!). Look more closely and you will see almost all of these preening people displaying medals such as the Queens Silver Jubilee medal and Golden Jubilee medal given ‘for service’. Interestingly these very medals have frequently been denied or withheld from actual servicemen/women of long standing as this blog illustrates.
As mentioned earlier, the issue is not limited to the monarchy and militarism is embedded into the very fabric of the establishment. Back in 1651 Thomas Hobbes in his Leviathan analysed the derivation of the aristocratic titles, Baron, Earl, Count and so forth. His conclusion was that they were derived almost wholly derived from European military titles. So, for example, Duke was derived from the Latin for General, Duces; Count came from Comites or a general charged with holding a conquered territory.
The commemoration of the outbreak of World War I told us all we need to know about the glorification of war by the British monarchy and establishment. At a service at Glasgow Cathedral Prince Charles once again wore a high ranking naval uniform festooned with medals as can be seen here. Such a uniform clearly intends to impress his status on us and further encourages glorification of war. Now look at the commemoration in the cemetery at Cointe in Belgium on the same day (a picture can be seen further down The Guardian article). While Prince William had the good sense to wear a suit he still wore his medals. The speeches were also instructive. Prince William spoke of ‘gallantry’ and reconciliation (not unreasonable in itself) but no mention of the part played by Britain in the lead up to the conflict. By contrast German President Gauck (appointed and thus accountable, unlike William if he should become King) made an apology on behalf of the German people for their part in its outbreak. He did it in a straightforward and dignified manner dressed in a sombre business suit. Considering that NO major country is devoid of blame for the horrendous loss of life in the two World Wars an acknowledgement from our establishment would be most welcome rather than a show of pompous preening.
But the criticisms outlined in this post actually go back a very long way. In 1811 the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote a poem, the Poetical Essay which consisted in part of a searing attack on the militarism of the establishment. Shelley correctly took the media to task for promoting jingoism and the militaristic voices of government while marginalising opponents and critics. This has a direct parallel with today where criticism, often from returning troops with first hand experience of the British operation in the Afghan Helmand province have been largely suppressed.
I’ll finish this post with a final thought about Veterans for Peace. Following the Commons vote to bomb Syria the members of the organization threw away their medals in a show of disgust at the policy In this interview Ben Griffin makes some excellent points about the nature of modern attitudes to warfare. At the time I blogged about the rush to military action when politico-economic actions when unexplored. The reason once again was that the profits of war are privatised while the consequences are felt by us all. After a thousand years its high time we called out the establishment!