Socialist Appeal - British section of the International Marxist Tendency

Representatives of the British Army have now written young people off as apathetic time wasters, simply because they are not joining the Territorial Army and the Reserves and are instead surfing the internet. Vic Dale looks at conditions for the rank-and-file in the army, and highlights the demand for unionisation in the armed forces.

Representatives of the British Army have now written young people off as apathetic time wasters, simply because they are not joining the Territorial Army and the Reserves and are instead surfing the internet. Well, that is a really good recruiting line for a start!

Apathy or revulsion?

Young people, in general, are not interested in the army because they do not see the point of war: invading foreign countries; killing civilians; or losing a limb for "their" country. They see daily what military intervention means for hapless civilians, their lives and their communities, and the majority of youth have simply turned their backs on this. They can see how imperialist adventures in the Middle East have created one failed state after another, and they are utterly revolted by this charade. This revulsion has nothing to do with pacifism, but is everything to do with a lack of regard for an institution that recruits people to be shouted at and hounded by upstarts, with the added possibility they could get killed or maimed, and with little after care for themselves or their families.

The army presents a challenge, it is true, and many of those who do find a life in its ranks develop great character. But army life is seen to promote bullying and a sense of superiority amongst the less educated members, who may rise to positions of authority - "Lions led by donkeys", as the old phrase goes. Raw recruits are bellowed at and berated for finding it difficult to meet the army's very specific demands in the shortest possible time. The armed forces is an odd way of life, and those who do join often find difficulty in adjusting back to civilian life, especially those who perform long service.

The new recruit must be super-conditioned to become unquestioningly obedient, so that they can be put into the field and relied upon to automatically follow orders under fire. Such super-conditioning begins with intense focus on kit - tiny specks on the uniform or an uneven shine on their "bulled boots" can produce a screaming fit, even tears, from their superiors. Military training induces a sense of insecurity, inferiority and low self esteem, and it is the latter which will most surely induce the element of self sacrifice. It also conditions the individual to the notion of superiors and subordinates, and not necessarily because the position of superiority has been honestly won.

Our young people are not an under-educated mass from the slums that can be corralled and coerced into an unreasonable life - a life of marching with stiff limbs and stamping feet, rigidly saluting superiors. Many young people are looking to build a better society where wars are no longer needed and where society is equal, without the hierarchical structures of wealth and privilege. They are looking for the ideas of socialism.

Trade unions and the Army

Morale in the armed forces is very low at the present time, thanks to the Tory government's cuts, which have reduced numbers and restricted the expenditure on essential equipment, placing troops at an immediate disadvantage when in danger.

Army morale, is not a numbers game. For far too long the class distinction between officers and the lower ranks has been a source of irritation: they are "all in it together" in the field, but back in the barracks class takes over again. Notably, the lower ranks only salute officers, so the old class distinction still exists. The many bow to the few. Capitalism in microcosm. Pay and pensions must be improved, and care for veterans who need help after they have finished their time must be provided.

Service personnel also need a trade union, to ensure that they and their interests are fully represented. The army always says it is a family, but it can be a very lonely place for the individual who falls foul of the regulations, or who suffers injustice, as has been clearly demonstrated by the number of suicides amongst army personnel. A union could also provide guidance in the case of receiving immoral orders, which are deemed to be the individual's responsibility.

A union would provide guidance for those carrying responsibility for the lives of foreign nationals and even British civilians. Bloody Sunday – the Bogside Massacre on 30th January 1972 in Northern Ireland - might have been avoided, had the troops involved been fully aware of what was considered legally and morally expected; had a union been able to provide guidance in advance.

Service personnel are human beings, and most are from working class backgrounds. They are not brutes or insensitive killings machines, and the vast majority want to do - and be seen to do - the right thing; that is what drives many to join. Where events such as Bloody Sunday occur, they do so as a result of deliberate government policy, and from the highest ranks of the army. Then, when the deed is done, the officers withdraw and close ranks, leaving their troops exposed to public scrutiny and the courts. The troops must be armed with knowledge and legal representation.

In the event of a Corbyn-led Labour government being elected, there is even the possibility of an attempt at a military coup to dislodge him. High ranking army officers have made it clear that they would be ready to seize power "for Queen and Country". In 1974, there was preparation for just such a coup against the Labour government under Harold Wilson. There were tanks on the streets, and Heathrow and Gatwick Airports were surrounded by heavily-armed service personnel. Troops ordered to such actions would need to be well aware in advance of the implications of these orders, and the unionisation of the armed forces would serve to bring troops closer to the labour movement and the organised worker class, facilitating a split of the Army and the State along class lines.

The battle to overthrow capitalism

There is a strong possibility that some sort of conscription will be considered at a later date, perhaps an attempt to resurrect National Service, or compulsory time in the TA or Reserves for school leavers. If it comes about, it will generate immense anger, which would quickly feed into the armed forces themselves, as dedicated service personnel see their ranks diluted with short service, largely disinterested youth. There would also be enormous resentment among the conscripts themselves.

Mutinous troops can also be won to the side of the workers during an all-out and determined general strike, and we will need young workers who can speak the language of the soldier to present solidarity appeals and issue promises to defend troops against the retribution of their officers, and to arrest officers who threaten the troops under their command. In this respect, any form of conscription can play directly into the hands of the labour and trade union movement.

Far from being feckless and idle time wasters, who fritter away their time on the internet as the army tops maintain, our young people are turning in ever greater numbers to socialism as an answer to the decaying and corrosive capitalist system. They are joining in with the movements against austerity and capitalism, and many are looking towards Corbyn and revolutionary organisations such as the Marxist Student Federation. When the time comes, the young people that the Generals now denigrate will play a leading part in the battle to overthrow capitalism and bring about the socialist transformation of society.