The BBC’s six o’clock news on Friday (aired late due to the World Cup) featured a story about Muslim imams’ open letter discouraging young men from travelling to Syria or Iraq to fight. Reporter Frank Gardener explained that young men can easily become ‘radicalised’ (it’s been a while since Higher Chemistry, but I’m pretty sure this is when a young man’s valance shell becomes short of an electron). Foolhardy kids travelling across the world to fight for a questionable cause then coming back with all the associated psychological trauma and violent tendencies, it was frightening stuff…
The next story was about Britain’s new aircraft carrier! The young people who sail on her definitely won’t be daft kids who’ve been ‘radicalised’ by bullshit propaganda.
The tone of the coverage of the new military toy was, as you’d expect, one of quiet jingoism. Caroline Wyatt, ‘Defence’ Correspondent (is it still ‘defence’ when you send your fighter jets overseas on a big floating runway?) described it as ‘a potent symbol of a kingdom still united and still keen to remain a global force’. There were shots of brass bands and Union Flags, but this was a news report, not an advert for the Navy, so Wyatt explained that not everybody was thrilled about this new boat: ‘Critics say she’s too big and too ambitious‘. This seemed rather like that job interview ploy of describing one of your strengths when asked about your weaknesses. Perhaps some critics have described it as too big and too ambitious, but those are hardly the most stinging adjectives we can apply to spending £6billion on a fucking boat which will be useless (not that it could ever be described as ‘useful’) until 2020 when the planes it houses will arrive (£15billion for those, by the way). Wyatt’s critique seemed even more suspect when ‘First Sea Lord’ George Zambellas’ unbelievably inane braggadocio rebuttal followed. ‘When you’re a big nation, you do big things!’ .
The juxtaposing of militant Islam and militant Britain was no accident. Although aircraft carriers are no use whatsoever against home-grown terrorists returning from Syria, it never hurts to remind people how scary the world is when you’re trying to convince them that handing billions of pounds to arms manufacturers is a good idea. Earlier in the week we had stories about sophisticated plots to sneak undetectable bombs onto aircraft. Simon Jenkins seems to think there was a sinister motive behind that story. But don’t just take his word for it, this ‘independent’ government commission report states the following:
“a greater perceived existential threat to a nation raises support for the use of Reserves, and improves a society’s underlying tolerance for spending on such contingency forces. The attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001 renewed the Cold War perception of an existential threat to the US, and found resonance within its distinct ‘militia nation culture’. For Americans, and despite a $14 trillion national debt, this perception justifies greater than double the UK per capita spending on Defence”
The word ‘perception’ is crucial. The public calling for increased defence spending in response to an actual existential threat may or may not be productive, but it’s at least logical. But ‘perceptions’ are not reality. It’s striking that the authors of this report would prefer the government use irrational fears to as an excuse to spend money on weapons, rather than educate people about the fact that the threat isn’t really there. For them, defence spending must always increase, regardless of necessity, so the ‘perception’ of a threat must always be maintained. Andrew Bacevich talks about this in his book The New American Militarism: How Americans were seduced by War. Describing the fact that US military spending now greatly outstrips Cold War levels, he says; ‘The truth is that there no longer exists any meaningful context within which Americans might consider the question “How much is enough”’. The same forces that created such a disfunctional public discourse in American are at work- perhaps less successfully- in Britain. They want us to believe that there’s no upper limit to how much we should spend on the military. Nothing is too big, nothing is too ambitious.
This could phenomenon be seen on a wider scale in the immediate response to the Ukraine crisis: the likes of Fogh Rasmussen and John McCain said the situation should serve as a warning that NATO members should spend more on their militaries. Bacevich’s question; ‘How much is enough?’ didn’t seem to occur to them. NATO wasn’t powerless to act because it didn’t spend enough on defence; the US and its allies spend over 10 times what Russia does. They could spend 100 times as much and it wouldn’t change the fact that all-out war with Russia is suicide. The crisis should have exposed how utterly useless these massive defence budgets are, but instead it drove the media narrative in the opposite direction. We had our existential threat back.
But this is the politics of fear. The manufacturing of public support for military spending is done by a clever beast, and it knows how to smile when it needs to. Britain ‘celebrated’ Armed Forces Day on Saturday; a six-year-old tradition aimed at five-year-olds. This Ministry of Defence Document outlines the reasons for its existence:
“public understanding of the military determines the climate within which the Forces can recruit and train, and the willingness of the tax payer to finance them adequately.”
Armed Forces Day is said to be about supporting service men and women rather than war per-se. Policy makers know this is a false dichotomy; support for the former makes opposition to the latter very difficult to sustain. If you ‘support the troops’ you must want them to succeed in their endeavours, and that means hoping for victory on the battlefield. You may oppose a war before it starts, but once the troops are out there your support for their mission- no matter how indeterminate- is automatic. Support for greater spending on equipment and hardware capable of overwhelming the enemy inevitably follows. The soldiers we’re encouraged to laud on Armed Forces Day are the human faces used to lure us into support for an inhuman war machine.
But, as ever, our old friends Caroline Wyatt and the BBC were on hand to give an utterly skewed version of events last Saturday. Reporting on the relevance of the event to the looming independence referendum, she wrote:
“But most here wanted to keep politics out of a day that they say is here to remind the UK of the sacrifices of the UK’s armed forces in the past and the present”.
I’ll give her some credit; her inclusion of ‘they say’ at least reminds the viewer that this is but one explanation for why Armed Forces Day exists, however she doesn’t furnish us with the countervailing version. Her claim that people wanted to ‘keep politics out’ of Armed Forces day is absurd. The whole thing is a rally to garner support for an area of government policy, by its very nature it is necessarily political. As the Quakers succinctly put it:
“There would be an outcry if the Department of Transport or any other branch of government ran a scheme to make the public more willing to fund it, especially in the current climate of extreme public sector cuts. So why is there no concern when the Ministry of Defence does?”
That’s a rhetorical question, but I’m going to attempt to answer it nonetheless.
Britain’s national identity is irrevocably connected to its military power. It has an ingrained war fetish. It’s a phenomenon seen around the world, Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is an interesting example. His recent bellicosity isn’t particularly popular as a policy, but it has boosted his approval ratings because it appeals to a nationalist sentiment in the country. Putin’s intervention in Ukraine did the same, as did Hollande’s foray into Mali. Like Japan, Russia and France, Britain has a history of empire and nostalgically pines for its former might. This makes it politically expediant for leaders to cheerlead for the military, and helps create a public consensus that the armed forces are ‘heros’ no matter what they do. The British public are thus susceptible to the deception of those who would like to see greater spending on arms. As shown by the media’s largely unquestioning response to the showcasing of weaponry on Armed Forces Day and the pageantry surrounding the launch of The Queen Elizabeth, mainstream society hardly questions this militaristic narrative any more. Both events were used to rally people behind the idea that Britain is a ‘big country that does big things’, even if nobody wants to think about what those ‘big things’ might actually be.
Britain may be an old bitch gone in the teeth in global terms, but it still fuels its delusions of granduer by reveling in militarism. I doubt this will change any time soon. The only option is to get out while we can.