Encountering fierce resistance and taking unanticipated casualties in Afghanistan and Iraq, and wanting to expand operations rather than curtail them, the British army has a major problem: shortage of cannon fodder.
British working-class youth is refusing The Queen’s Shilling. The mean, desolate streets of the old industrial centres are no longer quite mean or desolate enough to make the risk of becoming a life-long cripple (or a corpse) attractive.
All British infantry regiments are already well under strength, and the cavalry is also limping along below target recruitment levels. Following the US’s example, Blair’s approach to dealing with this issue is to recruit from ‘the poor’ in ex-Commonwealth countries; and though exact statistics are unavailable, the best guesstimate is that at least 25 percent of those serving in the British army in Afghanistan are non-British born.
There are very real advantages to this for British imperialism. Young men from low per capita income countries are more content with the low wages offered, and they are tempted by the offer of acquiring British nationality. (The US is also offering American nationality to the poor of Latin America if they just sign on the dotted line.) However, more than just being able to get squaddies for next to nothing, the extra advantage in getting foreign-born recruits to join the British army is that when the foreign-born and bred are injured, crippled or killed, the political fallout in the UK is negligible.
The death of fourteen young(ish) Scots in the early September downing in Afghanistan of a Nimrod plane was greeted with much media wailing and gnashing of teeth. This coverage did actually reflect the general attitude of much of The Great British Public, which expects its military victories to be British casualty free. But while deaths seen as British may actually lead to some questioning of ‘the mission’, the deaths just a few days of later of some Fijians serving in the British army in Afghanistan were hardly noticed.
It’s this emotional disconnect between public and army that any imperialist spokesperson worth his salt wants to develop. Blair, a true and loyal servant of British imperialism, would be happy to have an all-foreign British army in much the same way as the Romans chose to have a non-Roman army (the legionnaires being granted Roman citizenship after twenty-five years’ active service (if they survived), just as soldiers in the present-day French Foreign Legion are given French citizenship after twenty-five years’ service).
Having a rootless army without ties to the official ‘homeland’ has decided advantages to all imperialist powers and it is hardly surprising that an imperialist flunky such as Blair is, together with his gang, surreptitiously pursuing such a course. Surreptitiously, because if Blair were more open about his agenda, there would be more open opposition to it on the part of the army ‘top brass’, which, by and large, even in the early 21st century, is still made up of the scions of the landed gentry, whose agenda and way of thinking are not always in harmony with the urban ruling class. (The bourgeoisie is not uniform, and within its divisions perhaps lies a promise.)
The army top brass thinking is a long way from the prevalent strain of imperialist politics (branded neo-conservatism in the popular press). Rather than recruiting more foreign/Commonwealth soldiers, their preference is for remaking the army attractive to the more impoverished and marginalised working class that has traditionally made up its numbers. The top brass have recently even submitted papers to Blair’s government with suggestions that some young men with mild criminal records or even prior histories of drug abuse could be enlisted (at present no-one with a criminal record can join up).
There are, however, problems in admitting recruits with ‘records’. ‘Respectable’ working-class young men have traditionally entered the army as a way of proving themselves of ‘good character’ before trying for the fire service or police, and a policy of taking on ex (mild) offenders could act as a disincentive for the type of recruit who wants to be able to use the army as an unimpeachable character reference (what is gained on the recruitment swings could be lost on the recruitment roundabouts).
Bearing this in mind, the army boffins have come up with a bunch of carrots to raise manning levels:
1. raise soldiers’ pay;
2. subsidise soldiers’ mortgages;
3. give a ‘golden handshake’ on entry.
Soldiers are amazingly badly paid (a private starts well below the minimum wage at about £11,000 a year), so, given this low base, it is likely that the increase in wages would have to be far more substantial than the Chancellor of the Exchequer would be willing to consider; while the attractions of an alternative supply of soldiers from the Commonwealth willing to enlist for less means that Blair’s government is unlikely to give the green light to a serious increase in soldiers’ pay.
The idea of subsidised mortgages might get an airing. In the increasing absence of council or other forms of social housing, getting a secure home is a major life problem for all working-class people, and the prospect of ‘help’ in buying a house could well entice many working-class young men into enlisting (especially as many choose to marry and have children early by middle-class standards). From the army top brass point of view, subsidised mortgages could only help retention (the mortgage would revert to normal interest rates if the soldier left the army, so many soldiers would be forced to remain in the army long after they might otherwise have chosen to leave).
In effect, the subsidised mortgage would be a contemporary version of the old tied cottage and just as pernicious. Even though he would prefer a foreign/Commonwealth army, it is possible that Blair would back a subsidised mortgage scheme, as
1. it would cost the government very little, and
2. it would help retention, since the army would keep the more experienced soldiers it is now losing through disillusionment.
The golden handshake could also be very attractive to many potential recruits. With the general loosening of credit checks, an increasing number of young people are finding themselves in serious debt and some feeling the pressure of being dunned could well enlist merely to pay off aggressive creditors rather than simply because they wanted a couple of thousand to spend. (But as this measure would be costly, it is almost as unlikely as raising soldiers’ general rates of pay.)
With other Nato countries refusing the hysterical demands of Anglo-American imperialism to ‘contribute’ more in Afghanistan, along with the pressures in Iraq (and who knows where else by the time this article is in print), Blair has offered to increase the British ‘contribution’ to make up the shortfall. It will be interesting in the light of this to see if the army top brass make progress with their ‘off-message’ agenda of seriously improving the pay and conditions of Ye Squaddies of Olde Englande, or whether Blair and his acolytes will continue silently and stealthily down the route they really want to go – of filling the ranks of the British army with inexpensive ‘third world’ cannon fodder.
It is not that British soldiers have some glorious history of siding with the working class they actually belong to. Far from it; they have put down innumerable strikes, broken up countless demonstrations with violence and murder, and at times even committed massacres against their own (Peterloo 1819). However, the mass employment of de facto foreign mercenaries rather than indigenous British troops in the British army will reduce (even end?) casualties among soldiers fighting the ‘war on terror’ who have friends, family and homes in the UK, and this lack of discernible British casualties will make fighting imperialist wars in distant countries “of which we know nothing” much easier for the British electorate to tolerate. (That’s the neo-con plan anyway.)
The growing anti-war sentiment among the families of British soldiers killed in the wars against Iraq and Afghanistan (which actually has a huge progressive potential) would be stopped in its tracks if the casualties start to be mercenaries from Fiji or somewhere similarly far away and unknown.
Used as we are to seeing the British army in its ordinary and manifestly reactionary role, it may seem far fetched (even deluded) to refer to anything connected to it as having a “hugely progressive potential”, and there are many on all shades of the left (up to and including the deepest red) who point out (quite rightly) that the army families never saw anything wrong with imperialism until it killed their own sons.
However, we must remember that all successful revolutions have been assisted by large numbers of the disaffected national army going over to the revolutionary cause. It was the National Guard joining with the Sans Culottes that crucially empowered the French Revolution, and it was the mass of angry and armed men returning in horror from the front who fought and made Russia Bolshevik.
One does not have to be a Maoist (only wide awake and alert) to understand that “political power grows out of the barrel of a gun” . The last thing the imperialists want is an indigenous army that feels aggrieved and angry. When the great conscript army of the second world war came home, its political anger was bought off with housing, the NHS, free education and unemployment pay. Since the collapse of communism in Europe, the bourgeoisie no longer feels the need to buy anyone off any more; the plan now is to out manoeuvre and deceive. (And at that, no one can say they are amateurs.)