In Opposition To National Service | Fernando de Carvalho
This article is in response to an article by Chris Winter advocating for the introduction of a form of national service for those between 18 and 30. The view that national service would simultaneously boost our malnourished armed forces whilst inculcating society with conservative values is not an uncommon one among conservatives today, and it’s one I have sympathy for. Our armed forces are naturally conservative institutions with traditions going back hundreds of years. Making society more like the army by getting everyone into the army makes sense, except I believe that unfortunately we would instead just make the army more like civilian society. This article will make the case that, if national service were to be introduced, the armed forces should be kept well away from it.
The story of the British army is the story of a small but highly trained and highly motivated group of young men defeating larger forces of men who were low-motivation and low discipline. The Crimean War was a prime example of this, where the stoic and professional “Thin Red Line” managed to defeat the large and powerful Russian Army on Russian soil. That war highlighted to the Russian people the illusion of Russian military power at the time: the Russians had large numbers of troops but these troops were mostly peasants kidnapped from their homes and pressed into service. The Russian war effort was disorganised and poorly executed even though the peasant soldiers themselves were often brave and patriotic. Allied British and French soldiers, on the other hand, were well drilled, well paid and highly motivated. 100,000 Brits, 300,000 Frenchmen and 160,000 Ottoman Turks defeated the almost 900,000 Russians on Russian turf.
I fear that if we chase large troop numbers through conscription we will achieve only a veneer of military power while, in reality, its foundation will be built on a reliance on the comparatively unmotivated and lazy masses. British servicemen of every service are the most highly trained and highly motivated men and women in the world and it is their discipline and expertise that, alongside Britain’s extensive diplomatic network, make us the 2nd most powerful country in the world.
There seems to be a view prevalent in society that soldiers are grunts, cannon fodder, and that anyone can pick up a rifle and shoot forward. Even the most basic training in our least technical service, the army, is both intensive and extensive. Many recruits fail – and these are recruits who have chosen to be there. A look at the training courses for specialisations such as sniper and one quickly begins to see that training for an established role in the armed forces can take years. Training in the armed forces isn’t like school or university – the unsuitable are weeded out while the rest are moulded into professional soldiers/sailors/airmen. This isn’t a job for laypeople, peasant armies like that of the Russians in 1855 are a thing of the past.
We don’t need soldiers for a summer – we need “lifers”. Instead of spreading army values thinly across the population by filling the armed forces with civilians we should instead try to reform the public’s relationship with the army.
However, something still needs to be done to reconcile the civilian world with the army, which is suffering in the midst of a recruiting crisis. At the same time, any respectable conservative is crying out for an injection of conservative values into the public consciousness, especially in this age of vacuous liberal hegemony. The answer, I believe, is twofold: tear up the army’s current recruitment strategy and introduce teenagers to the armed forces at a younger age. Expand the cadet forces and allow disillusioned ex-servicemen the chance to become mentors.
The army’s dismal recruiting strategy is well known at this point. The obsession of public services with “reflecting the communities they serve” has lead to the army abandoning its core demographic: white working class boys. The government ignoring white working class boys? Never! It’s true. The army’s recruiting adverts focus entirely on recruiting women and ethnic minorities while the Royal Navy trumpets it’s LGBT-friendliness from the decks of its brand new aircraft carrier. One of the army’s last recruiting campaigns, targeting ‘snowflakes’ and ‘selfie addicts’, was roundly mocked across social media for its ridiculousness. The Royal Marines, on the other hand, keep things simple. Royal Marine recruiting adverts show commandos operating stealthily across the globe, striking at pirates and terrorists from the shadows and then vanishing, stony faced, into the night. Guess who is struggling for recruits. The army is 10,000 men under strength and having to host “soldier development courses” to give failed recruits a second try while the Royal Marines confidently assert that “99.9% need not apply”. The difference is stark. Another reason the Royal Marines receive so many applications is their emphasis on exclusivity; on being the elite. The army needs to reconnect with reality, appeal to patriotism and the call to adventure, as well as reassert the idea that soldiers are the best of us. Only then will things start to change. The army also needs to desperately address its ability to retain soldiers who are leaving the services at record rates. This will be the key to filling the army with people who want to be there for the right reasons. People join the forces to travel the world and serve their country, not because a magazine said the Royal Navy was one of the country’s top 100 employers for “LGBT inclusivity”.
I propose, as an alternative, increased government support behind the country’s main Cadet forces and their recognition and re/integration into the armed forces structure. Bolstering the cadet forces would also provide purpose or even employment for the 100,000-200,000 unemployed veterans in the UK today. Such a drive would hopefully lead to a situation whereby ex-servicemen naturally look towards cadet forces after they leave in order to transfer their skills and values to the next generation. This would increase the presence of the armed forces in society while doing away with the image of the PTSD-riddled veteran, which doesn’t help recruitment in the slightest. Large numbers of servicemen interacting with boys could even alleviate some societal symptoms of our problem with fatherlessness today by providing tough, boisterous lads with father figures who they’ll respect.
Cadets provide young boys and girls with an outlet for energy and aggression as well as an opportunity to make friends for life. Good cadet units push cadets physically and mentally, beyond what they think possible, and in so doing provide them with an attitude that marks them as a cut above their peers. Values promoted either explicitly, by instructors, or implicitly, by the activities themselves, include organisation, courage, physical fitness, confidence and respect for genuine authority. You don’t elect your cadet sergeant, you trust him and do as you’re told. You must keep your kit sorted and have it ready for use at all times. These are values that produce productive and decent members of society; these are values that we desperately need.
An expansion of the cadet forces would have all of the positive effects of conscription but with none of the negative effects. No-one would be pressed into service for any length of time, instead the key tool of recruitment would be FOMO. Recruitment into the regular forces would undoubtedly increase and what’s more, new recruits would have spent the formative years of their lives in a military environment and so would make enthusiastic and devoted servicemen/women. Cadets would contrast greatly with school and so perhaps would even contribute to the development of the armed forces as an alternative to higher education for those who want camaraderie instead of clubbing. Soldiering/sailing instead of studying.
In conclusion I too was enamoured with the idea of national service where everyone in the country mucked in and took part in a patriotic rite of passage until I realised that such an endeavour would actually harm our country more than help it. We’ve never needed conscription to maintain a sense of community in the past and we shouldn’t need to resort to it now. Change society’s relationship with the armed forces instead of making a grotesque attempt to fuse the civilian world and armed forces world together.
While the armed forces of other countries may suit national service, our model of “Thin Red Line” does not. Our armed forces are specialised and elite, with British army soldiers often more capable than most of the world’s special forces. This formula is only going to increase in effectiveness into the future as the character of warfare places ever more emphasis on special forces and small-scale, unconventional operations. Our armed forces are ancient institutions and we, as conservatives, should be especially wary when it comes to advocating for reforms that would fundamentally change their composition.
Photo by Oxford77 on Flickr.