Friday, 8 February 2013

Surrounded by a Culture of War

Did you read much as a child? If so, what did you enjoy reading?                            

I used to love books about war and soldiers; Romans, Vikings, Anglo-Saxons, King Arthur, King Alfred, books by Rosemary Sutcliffe, Geoffrey Trease, Henry Treece and many others. I enjoyed books about criminals like Robin Hood and Hereward the Wake, too! If they lived today that's what we'd call them.

What I'm not normally interested in are books about modern warfare, perhaps because it's too close to reality, perhaps also because the boundaries are blurred and for me there is no more idealism, no clear right and wrong. Although some years ago I did read about the peninsular war in the Sharpe novels by Bernard Cornwell.

As a child I was always on the side of the underling Celts and Anglo-Saxons, but most of all I was on the side of what I perceived to be 'good' and 'right'. It all seemed so straightforward then. Even reading 'Kidnapped' by Robert Louis Stevenson I was on the side of the Highland hero, not the wicked English, but then my parentage did leave me somewhat ambiguous about 'the English'.

It was my father who taught me in no uncertain terms that war is not glorious, and perhaps that was because he hadn't been on the winning side, but I think it had a lot more to do with him being a person who thought deeply about things and who had seen what war can do. He'd seen the results of war from many sides: the starving French at the fence of his prisoner of war camp begging the German POWs for food, his own family bombed out and emaciated when he returned home after the war, and as well as his comrades dying around him at the front, his best friend from school days didn't return. Hamburg, the town he was born in was practically flattened.

Yet inspite of the experiences of my parents' generation, so many of whom came face to face with the consequences of war, we continue to feed our children the myth of the glorious soldiers and, it seems, we adults lap it up ourselves. We must have close on 400 books about war in my local library, yet a handful or so books on peaceful living, and novels about war prove very popular, too.

I consider myself to have lived through a time of peace, yet I was surprised to learn that Britain has been at war for most of the half century or so I have been alive. I've been vaguely aware I suppose, but unless you live in a town with a strong military presence, it's easy to put these things to the back of your mind.

Our young men may not be practising with long bows on the village green in our full sight, but we are still surrounded by a culture that promotes war, it's just more subtle than before. As a result of which, people like me who have no time for war, can pretend it isn't really happening, if we choose to, some of the time at least.

I'm lucky to live in a prosperous part of Britain and that conscription is a thing of the past. As things stand it seems very unlikely that either of my children will need to go to war and neither find the prospect attractive, but in some parts of the country it is very different. I recently came across this video by ex-soldier, Joe Glenton, that is quite an eye-opener into the practices of the modern day recruiting officers. It seems the Ministry of Defence is targeting our children and persuading 16-year-olds to join the army. While they cannot be sent into conflict zones at that tender age, they can be trained and their young minds can be moulded to prepare them to become the killing machines the army needs so much. Yet we all get indignant about African war lords etc using child soldiers.

You may think all this doesn't matter too much at present as British soldiers are out of Iraq and troops in Afghanistan are due to be withdrawn next year, but recently our government sent soldiers, i.e. young men and possibly women, to Libya, Britain is also involved in the conflict in Syria and just recently our government has sent British troops to Mali.

John Pilger wrote an article recently that suggests our government's motives for the war in Mali may have less to do with fighting terrorists than it is letting on and it seems a fairly widespread view that Britain's involvement in wars in the Middle East has been about oil as much as anything else.

It seems our armed forces' are constantly at war, whether to justify there own existence or to bolster government interests I don't know. Meanwhile young British men, and sometimes young women, are being killed and maimed and traumatised. If it were happening here amongst us I'm sure we'd all be up in arms, but the unheroic corpses and broken people return quietly to be seen by  few of us other than their families and friends.

This recent article in the Independent, also by Joe Glenton, tells how there are likely to be far more cases of combat post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) than the MoD recognises and that this may account for the high number of soldiers who have taken their lives since the Falklands War, more than the number who died fighting in it. He thinks, not unreasonably, that we could be sitting on a time bomb where those who have fought in Iraq and Afghanistan are concerned.

It's not just suicides we have to worry about, but men already brutalised by training for war can be dangerous to their families and the people around them. I'm not suggesting for a minute that we need to worry about hoards of soldiers around the country going on mad rampages, but some people suffering from combat PTSD do turn to drink and that alone can have very negative effects on families. There doesn't even need to be physical violence, it could be verbal abuse or just a cloud of depression hanging over the house, all of these things can have an effect on children growing up with them and partners often suffer, too. In some areas this sort of thing may affect a large number of families and so the whole community may well feel the repercussions.

The kind of training soldiers receive, described in the second part of Joe Glenton's documentary, 'The Soldier Myth', can cause soldiers a problem settling back into civilian life at the best of times. If you google 'soldiers in prison' you'll see that there is a high number of ex-soldiers in prison. This article in the Independent suggests that as many as one in ten prisoners could be military veterans.

War is a waste of so many precious lives and so much human potential.

So what should we do? What can we do? You might have your own ideas, and I should be pleased to hear what they are if you wish to post a comment. As for me, I think the most important thing we can do might be to challenge the culture of war whenever we come across it. When people say war is a good thing, ask them why they think that. An outright argument might not get us very far, but if we can ask probing questions, some people might start to rethink their own position. Arguing with someone who has swallowed all the propaganda about the need for war is more likely to have their views entrenched by simple argument.

If you know someone who is thinking of joining the army, especially a young person who may not be acquainted with all the facts, then unless you know a better resource the first part of Joe Glenton's documentary, 'The Soldier Myth' should help them to make a more informed choice.

You might want to support an organisation such as the Peace Pledge Union or the Stop the War Coalition. Then again you might want to donate to a charity that helps soldiers damaged by war, such as PTSD Resolution that tries to breach the gap left by the lack of help given to sufferers by the MoD.

If you have further suggestions, feel free to use the comments box to make them.

Here is another website, which helps to inform people considering a career in the armed forces, Before You Sign Up.


  1. A v thoughtful piece. i plan to look at the video links when next on pc. nicola

  2. If it makes other people think, I'll be glad.

  3. You raise a crucial issue. 'Disarmament' is so much more than putting down the weapons. I'm wrestling with a major disagreement between Christian leaders at the moment, where ill-feeling draws energy from deeply ingrained adversarial thinking. How do we unlearn this culture of violence distorts even basic communication? It's a lifelong discipline.


All relevant comments to this post are welcome, so feel free to have your say.