Michael Kelly: School lessons in becoming cannon fodder
ALLOWING the army to teach children may boost recruitment but it won’t give them a true picture of war.
Labour Party position papers are rarely stunning. Boring, often. Welcome, sometimes. Game-changing, rarely. But the recent contribution to the party’s policy review from Stephen Twigg MP, shadow education secretary, and our own Jim Murphy MP, the shadow defence secretary, has left many party members outraged. Calling for a greater involvement of the armed forces in the education of our children is against all the principles and sentiment of the party.
The claim that the armed forces “are central to our national character” is vehemently rejected by the grass roots. And the suggestion that “the ethos and values of the services can be significant not just on the battlefield but across our society, including in schools” is seen as offensive and incorrect.
Many members have laughed cynically at the unsubstantiated assertion that our armed forces are the best in the world. A brief review of our forces’ history can challenge these politicians’ view that the so-called service ethos “emphasises… high ethical standards”.
Starting with the brutal suppression of India’s First War of Independence (dubbed by us the Indian Mutiny), running quickly through the questionable tactics of Bomber Command in targeting German city centres during the Second World War, the collusion between the security forces and loyalist paramilitaries, the sinking of the Belgrano as it headed away from the Falklands, and ending with the mortal beating of Iraqi prisoners, the British military has a lot of ethical questions to answer. These are the morality lessons to which children should be exposed. But they won’t be if the army is doing the teaching.
In particular, it should be emphasised that guilty soldiers are rarely brought to book. Cover-ups are an international military tactic. To take a current example, after 40 years of denial, still no-one has been convicted for the atrocities committed on Bloody Sunday. It is not that the British are more guilty than any other army. The Americans dropping a second atom bomb on Japan, having seen the effects of the first, was surely unpardonable. Bad things will happen in the heat of battle. But time and again, in the aftermath the balance always seems to be tilted in favour of the soldier rather than the victim.
Will the veterans who Twigg and Murphy claim “can be great role models” address these unpleasant facts? Can they convince us that the present-day soldier is better drilled in the ethics of war and understands that support from higher up will not be forthcoming if there is a blatant breach of principle?
Of course, as Twigg and Murphy say, the “values of responsibility, comradeship, hard work and a respect for public service are embodied in our armed forces”. But these qualities are also central to the beliefs of organisations such as the Scouts or the Boys’ Brigade, without the militaristic overtones.
The intention is to seek to introduce cadet schemes into public sector schools because some research has evidently shown that “cadets tend to have high levels of respect for authority”. While schoolchildren must be taught respect for society and the law, the core teaching, as far as authority is concerned, is that they learn to question it, to be wary of anybody – such as the military or the police or the banks or the government – who has powerful authority without necessarily the essential degree of responsibilty or accountability to work for democratic values, not against them.
But if respect for authority is what you seek, can it not better be achieved by encouraging the revitalisation of other youth movements? Much like “This beer makes you drunk quicker”, so “Join the army and learn to kill people” is not an advertising tagline that is likely to be permitted. In fact, in commercials for the army, no-one – friend nor enemy – is ever seen to kill or be killed. Yet the basic job of the forces is to train young people to do just that and to accept the possibility of being slaughtered as just part of another day at the office. Do we really want to highlight that after double maths?
In the souls of many Labour party members is a pacifist streak. Most, sensibly if reluctantly, reject that ideal because they know too well that a country that is not prepared to defend itself is one that invites invasion and subjugation. Armed forces are essential, and those willing to shoulder that burden for the community deserve to be well paid and well looked after. No-one is questioning the endurance, the courage and often the heroism of those who voluntarily put themselves on the front line. But they are not the ones who should be teaching the ethics of war.
To set up special service schools, as is proposed, which “employ ex-forces personnel as qualified teachers, offer mentoring support, have a cadet force on site and offer adventurous outdoor training” will not create the citizens to run the 21st-century multiracial, multicultural, internationally complex world we see developing.
It is tragic and misguided to think that the introduction of a military ethos “could help tackle disadvantage and even promote social mobility”. To expect service schools “to be particularly popular in communities with the greatest social and economic need” could well be true. Twigg and Murphy deny that their plans are about creating “boot camps” or about recruitment. What do they think will happen to recruitment in these areas if such links are established? It’s not going to fall, is it? Indeed, it is inevitable that the scheme will generate more cannon fodder from the poor.
The whole principle behind this confused thinking is anathema to the Labour Party – and one would hope to the country – which will surely reject these recommendations. It is bad enough that these plans come from a defence spokesman, but to be coming from a shadow education minister is a disgrace. Let any veterans who turn up to teach be those who have been cruelly disabled on active service. That will give our children a true insight into soldiering and the true costs of war.
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