Rethinking the Military

By Mike Phipps

Since its inception 18 years ago in the aftermath of 9/11, I have been active in a small anti-war group in north London. At its height during the US-UK invasion of Iraq, we could attract well over a hundred people to our public meetings. Now in the years of austerity, activists have prioritised other campaigns, and our numbers and capacity have dwindled.

Yet our most recent meeting, entitled Wars; the effects on soldiers, was quite unique, as former soldiers, in a very matter-of-fact way, recounted their experiences in the army and the trauma they have incurred as a result of conflict. They were keen to point out that their own experiences and their lasting impact were by no means the worst suffered, but they provided a chilling insight nonetheless. Ben Griffin had to quit the job he took as an ambulance paramedic after leaving the army, because it triggered flashbacks of the night raids he had been on in Iraq.

The ex-soldiers at the meeting were from Veterans for Peace UK, which recently produced a report, The First Ambush? Effects of army training and employment. Drawing on veterans’ testimony and many earlier studies, it highlights how army recruiters, here and in the US, systematically target deprived neighbourhoods and underage kids, sanitising and romanticising war. It details how recruits are isolated, disorientated and indoctrinated, with humiliation and violence routinely used to instil unthinking obedience and aggressiveness. This dehumanisation is preparation for dehumanising the enemy.

At the start of his basic training for the paratroop regiment, Ben Griffin said, there were 35 recruits, with 35 reasons why they joined the military. At the end, those left – around 35% of infantry recruits are discharged during training – had just one motive: to go to war and kill the enemy. This is the function of training, he emphasised: to encourage loyalty and obedience and remove the barriers to killing.

The Q and A was refreshing for its frankness. What did he think of the new Labour leadership’s ideas about refocusing the army’s work onto disaster relief and nation-building, I asked. The answer was blunt: “If you want to do disaster relief, do it. Don’t train people to kill first.”

Some present had personal experience of members of their family suffering trauma from their time in the military. One woman later sent me documents relating to her great-uncle, a decorated tank commander in World War Two, whose terrible experiences may have contributed to his later suicide.

The report examines the traumatic effects of military service. Ironically, the military is often sold as a route out of social deprivation. Not only is this less true than ever, but the experience of combat is more likely to leave veterans unemployed, more violent and with mental health problems. Young veterans, aged 16-24, are more than twice as likely to kill themselves as non-veterans of the same age.

Reflecting on the attraction of the military to a younger member of her family, one audience member asked what could be done to counter the role of the military recruiting in schools? The speakers were pessimistic about the ability of the anti-war movement, with its limited resources, to match the impact of army propaganda.

“We can’t dissuade kids from joining the army,” Griffin said, “but we can win the broader defence argument.” This means withdrawing the troops from its military bases in 14 countries in the world and concentrating instead on defending Britain, which is currently not defended against where most modern-day attacks are likely to come from. This means restructuring and re-purposing the UK’s armed forces to focus on defence.

These arguments become all the more relevant in the context of Labour Party policy. As we step up the campaign against the immoral, pointless, fantastically expensive white elephant that is Trident, we need a clearer idea of what our ethical foreign policy should look like. Likewise, on the doorstep, we’ve got to get used to answering questions on defence, which may take us out of our comfort zone of economic and social policy. If we are to win big at the next general election, there can be no policy areas that we cede to our enemies.