The Ambivalence of War

The wars of our day are long, messy, and marked by public ambivalence - and the lack of public debate about defence might just be a signal of an unthreatening strategic environment. 


Image: Flickr/Nina StossingerTHE ELEVENTH HOUR, of the eleventh day, of the eleventh month approaches. Alongside the moving "Wootton Bassett phenomenon" it is an enduring demonstration that the military covenant, the bond between society and its armed forces, remains strong. But it’s not proof that the relationship between society and armed force is in any sort of shape at all.

This last fortnight, I’ve been making a radio programme about precisely that relationship. We don’t live in Napoleonic times, and so happily we don’t need the sort of national passion that produces cohorts of young men prepared to walk suicidally into musket fire, or in later eras into the grim rattle of machine guns. But Clausewitz’s writing on the social passions of war is no less germane to understanding war in postmodern times as it was in pre-industrial.

The wars of our day are long, messy, and marked by public ambivalence. And why not be ambivalent? After all, they are discretionary, not existential. They involve remarkably few of us, and while they cost large sums, the austerities of modern Britain are altogether less severe than those of earlier eras. Additionally, the choice to fight them was murky and mired in controversy and deception - Britain was taken to war by a government that espoused an ethical foreign policy and delivered something else entirely. The strategically viable rationale of protecting and nurturing our key alliance with the US was not deemed sufficiently engaging to mobilise public support, and so this chief concern hid in the background behind a load of surface rhetoric about WMD, evil dictators and, latterly, human rights. The same rationale of course drives strategy on Afghanistan, rather more than constructing something from a “broken 13th century country” (Liam Fox). No wonder the public was cool on Iraq, and scarcely warmer on that “good war” in Afghanistan.

This public sentiment, though, overlays a deeper shifting dynamic in societal attitudes to war. Chris Coker has the story down well in his books - its core element a European project that has redefined security and the relationship of the individual to the state. The result is an odd tension - a complacent ambivalence about national security juxtaposed against a murmuring background anxiety about individual security.

All very philosophical, but, as the executive producer asked, how can you measure that? Not very easily, it turns out. It’s there in the polling on priority issues at election time, in the absence of much public discussion or sustained attention to the recent defence cuts that have bitten a substantial chunk out of the UK’s armed forces. It might also be detected in the stories we tell about war. If you’ve not read it yet, take a look at Peter Paret’s magnificent last book, The Cognitive Challenge of War, which covers similar territory in looking at the response of Prussian society to catastrophic defeat at the hands of Napoleonic France in the battle of Jena. What might an amateur anthropologist divine from the shared narratives of war today? Paintings, music and poetry, the cultural artefacts of Napoleonic times are still there, of course - but these days, less mainstream. In cinema though, in the modern news media, and even in computer games, there’s plenty of evidence of shifting societal mores on war.

There’s little sign of a diminished appetite for war films themselves - though the uncomplicated bloodthirsty Rambo has been supplanted by the ironic nostalgia of The Expendables. And the similarly Manichean propaganda films and the John Wayne-style heroism of the Second World War and Cold War eras has morphed into the lifesaving heroes of The Hurt Locker and Saving Private Ryan. In film and on television the fighting itself is usually saved for messages about the horror of war, alongside the political machinations of unscrupulous leaders who get us into these scrapes. Newspapers, meanwhile, serve up stories from the front about incredible escapes and plucky rescues. In the wholly unreal landscape of computer games, meanwhile, fighting age males can indulge in mindless wanton violence - harmless escapism perhaps, for those who need not worry about the realities it pastiches.

Might those cultural tags be indicators of wider societal moods? Possibly, though it’s hard to say conclusively. All I could conclude was that the military men I spoke to voiced concern about being seen as victims, more than as agents of their own destiny, pursuing a vocation and still deeply invested in the old martial values. At its simplest, as Patrick Hennessey told me, it’s the difference between a set of values that prizes every life equally - a sort of secular sacredness - and another that must sacrifice those on the left flank to allow the right to manoeuvre decisively. I suspect that many in society still recognise the difference, and the need for it. But so few are involved in warfare that the divide between contrasting ethical codes need not detain many, save for a periodic nod of support to the fallen - a cost free statement of sympathy, allied to a dig at the perfidious politicians who brought about their deaths.

This lack of public debate about defence might just be a signal of an unthreatening strategic environment. Nothing to worry about, perhaps. Perhaps. The problem is that threats can change faster than our capacity to meet them. You can’t magic up effective air-maritime integration out of nowhere if there’s suddenly a threat to your ability to slip the boomers safely out to sea, for example. But who really knows, or cares, about AMI, outside of a few geeky defence specialists?

If the public complacency on defence doesn’t keep politicians’ feet to the fire, can we really blame savvy politicians for listening to their electorate, especially in straightened times? The result is heavy cuts, and far reaching decisions, like the deepening strategic partnership with France. This latter interesting again for the relative lack of public debate that preceded it, or that will surely follow. The Conservative government promoting it makes eminently sensible arguments about economies of scale and the gains from interoperability attendant on it. But their insistence about the negligible impact on sovereignty do not convince. The defence secretary publishes an article about the deepening alliance, name-checking Morgenthau and Kissinger, when really he might have nodded to Monnet and Schuman. Pooled capabilities inevitably pools sovereignty if you need to use those capabilities in war. That’s a profound step that we have taken on the nod with the US and are now taking with France. For me, that’s not necessarily wrong - I don’t mind a bit of European jointery. But for many conservative (small ‘c’) Britons, it’s anathema. Or it would be if they understood or cared more about the defence debate.

The muted response, pro or anti, to a deeper French alliance is just one aspect of a wider public disengagement from warfare. We are rich, tranquil and complacent, a long way from the rougher neighbourhoods of the world. Long may that continue. But those seeking to understand war in future generations may look back in wonder at a time when the richest, most powerful societies on earth steadily denuded themselves of military power.