The Pageant of Death

“I have said that we must base our future thinking on the acceptance that nation states, individual, independent nations, can no longer really seriously influence the way in which the world develops. There is nothing that we or, I believe, any other single country can do on its own to affect these great trends of history and of the future… It seems to me that the accepted Clausewitzian doctrine of the military arm as an extension of national political power is dead and ought to be dead, and that we ought to be re-thinking, soldiers and politicians, the whole new interrelation between the political and the military establishment… I hope I may have stimulated the thought in some minds that some of the problems that occupy so much of our time and energy today are in fact false problems… We commit the familiar heresy, the Manichean heresy of creating enemies where none really exist in order to satisfy some irrational psychological need.”
Lord Chalfont, 1969

Yesterday was Remembrance Sunday. Across Wessex, and across the world, it was a time to reflect. To remember bad things that have happened to us in our collective past is meaningful, at least in part, for the opportunity it provides to learn from our experience. Yet learn we do not. The war to end all wars is still being fought and the Nobel Prize has been awarded to the Commander-in-Chief. War is peace.

One of the least forgivable actions of the Blair/Brown regime was to taint remembrance with controversy. The casualties of illegal and irrelevant wars now join those of just ones in thoughts and prayers. All those who take up arms against the Queen’s enemies are equally honoured, as custom dictates. Those who prefer to reject the crimes committed in our name may well ask, who is this bellicose woman, who makes enemies so easily?

Mainstream politicians have been very quick to wipe their bloody hands on the rest of us, in a brazen attempt to make us their accomplices. It began with cross-party talk about the ‘military covenant’, the supposed duty supposedly owed by society to those who supposedly defend the realm against the supposed forces of darkness. The phrase came from nowhere in 2000 when it was first codified in Army doctrine. It went unchallenged and now looks to be made binding upon members of the public. Under cover of concern that resources are inadequate to the military’s current mission and its aftermath, a sinister agenda is now fast infiltrating the civilian world. The spotlight is turned on military equipment, housing and healthcare. A better deal for those injured or bereaved. Those who dissent from the mission, those who would rather prevent injury and bereavement happening at all, are to be first sidelined and then persecuted for their conscientious opinions.

Gordon Brown commissioned the Davies report of 2008. Note carefully that this report was commissioned by a Labour government, a government determined to make the world a better place. Through ceaseless struggle and the glorification of violence. One of its key recommendations, soon acted upon, was Armed Forces Day, the brand new annual opportunity for the nation to express its gratitude to the services. MoD money was chucked at local councils willing to organise parades, to show off the glamorous hardware of war and permit recruiters to point yet more fools the way to dusty death.

Britain, like all the imperial powers of a past age, struggles to pull itself together. War is the unifying factor its politicians need. The Falklands War flowed from the incompetence of Mrs Thatcher’s government yet it ended up securing her a second term. Many of those Parliamentarians who in 2003 voted to wage aggressive war in the name of the British people have now retained their seats through two general elections. Brown, obsessed with ‘Britishness’, could have asked for no stronger symbol of it than ‘our boys and girls’ doing their bit for Queen and Country. Or at least for U.S. oil. It remains true, in F.D. Roosevelt’s words, that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself. But fear, along with hate and arrogance, are tools that politicians and the media know how to wield. And will if we let them.

Can Wessex transcend its violent past and present? It will not be easy, for we have become to a high degree economically dependent on the manufacture or maintenance of weaponry and the training of service personnel. It all goes back a very long way. Even if scholars doubt that Alfred founded the Navy, it is a matter of record that Portsmouth Dockyard existed in the reign of Richard I, Devonport following in that of William III. The Army’s roots are shallower. It took up residence on Dartmoor in the early 1800s, at Aldershot in 1854, on Salisbury Plain in 1897. The RAF’s roots are necessarily shallower still, though it was here at the outset, and even before, His Majesty’s Balloon Factory at Farnborough dating from 1908. The MoD Procurement Executive came to Abbey Wood at Bristol in 1995.

Wessex has moved on before. The merchants of Bristol fought long and hard to save the centuries-old slave trade and with it the wealth that benefited not only them but indirectly much of Wessex society. Yet Bristol had its abolitionists too. Stroud has the one contemporary monument to abolition, the ‘Anti-Slavery Arch’. Wessex today can make a similar stand for peace. It can reclaim the land from beneath the tank tracks and the soldiers’ boots. For ours is an occupied region, doomed to re-enact the war preparations of Europe’s unhappy centuries until saner counsel prevails. The MoD owns, leases or holds on licence over 100,000 acres of Wiltshire (12% of the county), 32,000 acres of Devon (14% of the Dartmoor National Park), 10,000 acres of Hampshire and 8,000 acres of Dorset. That it protects some of our finest landscapes, archæology and biodiversity from the rapacious grasp of agronomic and development interests is beside the point. Less bad is not the same as good and the money it all costs could be doing much more of the latter. Of course, there will be those who argue that Wessex Regionalists should back the cosy status quo in our part of the world but that is a low aspiration for a transformative party.

The recent Strategic Defence and Security Review marks a step towards the necessary rethinking but it remains an excuse for inertia while the assumptions of an ex-empire predominate. The UK continues to support the fourth largest military budget in the world, yet there is no reason to believe that it is any more vulnerable to attack than those countries whose budgets are smaller. Si vis pacem, para bellum – if you wish for peace, prepare for war – has been the universal advice of generals throughout the ages. It would be, wouldn’t it? We flatter ourselves that we are an intelligent species but the Campaign Against The Arms Trade has estimated that every minute the world will spend £1 million on arms while in the same time 15 children will die of poverty, famine or disease. The UK has become the world’s second largest arms exporter while lecturing others on peace and stability.

The real challenge of security is to be tough on violence and tough on the causes of violence. It is not, and must not become, what the London parties seek to make it, a smokescreen for the remilitarisation of society, for renewing the backbone of centralism. It is said that where there’s a will there’s a way. In the case of defence, there’s a way sure enough. For now, the popular and political will, at home and abroad, is what’s sadly lacking.

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