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New hope for peace between the Government and my anti-war grandson?

by James Graham 

Posted: 22 October 2005
Word Count: 1065

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2005 has been an annus horribilis. Since last Boxing Day we have seen one disaster follow on the heels of another, and governments - especially those with really cool military technology - responding so inadequately at times that you would think, with some justification, that the wellbeing of citizens is no longer their primary concern.

In this same year I see my grandson nearing the time when he will choose a career. Options are already on the table. When he was four, he wanted to be a quarryman and a fire fighter. Now it's either a structural engineer or a physicist.

One option that has already been rejected is the army. Four generations of his family - our side of it at least, including his communist great-great-grandfather, and his great-grandfather who would never have chosen to be on the Arctic convoys, but was conscripted to be there - all of them have been, for close on a century, dead set against 'seeing any of our boys in uniform'. Tom himself has come to a similar conclusion independently of ancestral promptings, and by an interesting route. Having spent some of his out-of-school hours - though not an excessive time - playing computer war-games, he has firmly decided that he does not want to be a soldier. For him, war games are two things: hugely enjoyable, and (even if it’s America versus China) total make-believe. He understands the theory that virtual violence has a bad effect on the morals, values and behaviour of young people - and rejects it as absurd. As for real war, like the one in which his great-grandfather more than once witnessed a ship going down with few survivors, this disturbs him so much that for a time - until he got on top of it - whenever people were talking about war he used to change the subject or go to his room and play Command and Conquer.

All the same, I've been thinking. He's a very fit young man, he plays ice hockey, he'd much rather be active than passive. I could imagine him in the army. He'd look especially smart in the resplendent dress uniform of a Scottish regiment. So I'd be happy for him to change his mind and enlist. On one condition.

That the army renounces war.

The feasibility of the idea first came to me at the time of the tsunami, and more recently after Katrina and the South Asian earthquake. There’s a huge task here for the military. In all natural disasters, what are needed are rescue services, food, shelter, fuel, and medicines. But above all, what is needed is speed - a fast response, all the necessities on the ground, exactly where they're wanted, in next to no time. Even better, at least in the case of earthquakes, is to have a seismographic and satellite warning system so that mass evacuations can be organised before the disaster happens. As for hurricanes, nature gives ample warning - though not enough, apparently, for the current US administration.

Once again, in the October catastrophe in Pakistan and Kashmir the response has been too little, too late. The presence of hi-tech US and British forces in Afghanistan, and the proximity of US bases such as Diego Garcia: none of this seemed relevant to the urgent need to relieve pain and save lives. Two weeks after the Pakistan earthquake, John Reid assured us that the Government was sending as many as three ‘huge, huge’ helicopters. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that - lack of political will aside - the British and US military are not only fully engaged in occupying other people’s countries, but simply not logistically geared to deal with natural disasters. As things stand, to expect them to do rapid disaster response is almost like asking a social work department to do keyhole surgery.

If there's an Eastern European country to be bombed, or a Middle Eastern country to be invaded, the armed forces don't pussyfoot around. As soon as orders are received, they get into top gear. They're not perfect - soldiers sometimes have to steal bits of wrecked vehicles to use as body-armour - but by and large they do a fast and efficient job. So why can’t they hit the ground running when the enemy is cantankerous old Mother Nature?

In the wake of so many disasters, there have been voices raised that make this military reorientation seem less far-fetched. Tim Garden, in a recent Independent article, persuasively argues the case for change. Armies and defence ministries are simply - one might say self-evidently - geared towards fighting wars. But there is no good reason why ‘military capability’ should not extend into the realm of ‘natural disaster capability’. Since rapid response is of paramount importance, and since equipment - especially helicopters, which are probably the most vital aid and rescue equipment - cannot be shifted half way round the world in a short time, there should be forward bases, designed at least as much for disaster relief as for defence. Forces need more air transport, more specialist troops such as paramedics and engineers, and more reconstruction equipment.

Disasters which are arguably man-made will happen more frequently in future - supplementing those that have to be blamed on plate tectonics rather than governments and corporations. And for both varieties of catastrophe, we need the most technologically advanced, efficient, disciplined armed force - armed, that is, with rescue helicopters, fast amphibious vehicles, transport for thousands of prefabricated houses, water purification equipment, supplies of vaccines and nutritious food.

There has never been a better moment for the military to begin replacing permanent war with permanent readiness to save lives. It’s unlikely that the world’s greatest military power will initiate this revolution, unless Americans can rid themselves of the current administration. But conceivably, Britain could lead the way.

And then I woke up and realised it had all been a dream. To hope that the military will have done with war is utopian; even to look for a major shift towards disaster preparedness seems only a little less so. Until the army comes out with a new mission statement - and until we can believe they mean it (no good Blair or Straw just telling us they mean it, that doesn't count) - my anti-war grandson will have to stick to Plan A - structural engineer or physicist.

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Comments by other Members

di2 at 08:37 on 24 October 2005  Report this post
Brilliant. What a great idea. I think it must be an "original thought". It has never occurred to me. Definitely lateral thinking. Will you be submitting your article to a publication. I definitely think that your idea should be communicated to some of the large humanitarian organisations like the Red Cross or the UN. Seriously, I think you are onto something there. Many great ideas have been implemented after someone had a dream.

It may not get implemented for your grandson but it may happen for his children. "The pen is mighter than the sword." Power on.


Richard Brown at 08:57 on 24 October 2005  Report this post
Good dream, James, elegantly expressed as ever. And now future King Willy has elected to beconme a warrior. Wow,that makes me feel safe in my bed. What a role model.

Maybe send a copy of your article to his dad?


Account Closed at 14:33 on 24 October 2005  Report this post
James, what a great idea and you make it seem so obvious.

Although I liked your first few paragraphs, i felt it took some time to get to the heart of the matter. Para 3 in particular was long with some lengthy sentences.

As a comparative study, you could maybe use some specific statistics (budget, response time, number of soldiers deployed).

If there are many more natural disasters, govnts will have to renounce war, they won't have the time or the budgets (and maybe the will will disappear as well).

I hope your grandson will make the right decision. If he becomes an engineer he can always participate in the rebuilding of the war/disaster striken zones.


Beadle at 10:20 on 26 October 2005  Report this post
Hi James

I liked the point you were making with this piece, and thought it very valid, but I found it difficult to actually get to the core of your argument.

Putting aside a major stumbling block of the argument that you yourself point to, which is that armies are designed for war and defence, I actually think this should be addressing governments and holding them to task rather than the military.

As you rightly say, armies are great at preparing for war, even when woefully under supported by their government department pay masters. Whether one supports the war in Iraq or not - I don't - one has to feel for the military personnel who sign up for this job and then get sent out on to the frontline essentially as political pawns with equipment held together with string and sealing wax.

I absolutely agree that the military would make an excellent rapid response force to help out with natural disasters - but this is not at the control of the military itself, but again the governments that control them. Perhaps what is needed is some kind of UN sponsored or EU sponsored rapid response team that includes the military and civil services such as fire fighters and paramedics, that can be mobilsed quickly to be sent to these areas.

If that's your point, and as Elspeth said you can support that with facts, figures and comment, then I feel that would make a great story.

Yet I feel this was more of a think piece, a meditation on the nature of war, questioning why we still need armies and whether that will change.

For me the most interesting element of this piece was the family history of an anti-military stance and how that may or may not have impacted on your grandson's view of war and the army. Your grandson, I would guess, probably has enough freedom and support to make those career choices. For other young men and women, where there is not so much freedom and support, joining the army, navy or airforce might be the best option to get out of the pit they are in.

In that situation I am sure they would much prefer to be helping the victims of disasters rather than being shot at or bombed. But when they join up they don't have that choice and their training is geared towards knocking out any sense of choice and freedom and doing instead what they are ordered to do.

That's the difference between being in the military and playing army games on Playstation. When you die during a computer game, you press re-boot and start again.

As I say, I think there are some really important and valid points made in this article, but I think it's a bit wishy-washy. I also found that some of your sentence structures took me out of the narrative sometimes:

Since last Boxing Day we have seen one disaster follow on the heels of another, and governments - especially those with really cool military technology - responding so inadequately at times that you would think, with some justification, that the wellbeing of citizens is no longer their primary concern

and this
Four generations of his family - our side of it at least, including his communist great-great-grandfather, and his great-grandfather who would never have chosen to be on the Arctic convoys, but was conscripted to be there - all of them have been, for close on a century, dead set against 'seeing any of our boys in uniform'
in particular.

Of course, this all depends on what sort of publication you are aiming for (if that's your end goal) as perhaps they would like this kind of style and approach. For me I would like to read something that has a much stronger angle.



Zettel at 11:14 on 28 October 2005  Report this post

So tempting. And your idea stands perfectly as an 'as well' anyway. And long overdue.

You pose the great pacifist dilemma and I have nothing but admiration for those, especially Quakers, Medicin Sans Frontiers etc who eschew war and violence but head into the thick of it in order to help its victims - who are always the poor and underprivileged.

It isn't hard to oppose bad, unjust, self-serving, aggressive wars e.g. Iraq. It gets tough with wars of self-defence and even harder to resist the idea that Sarajevo, Rwuanda, Darfors, etc etc did not, do not, require a highly trained, highly disciplined, honourable group of people driven by a desire to use minimum force but willing to use it in order to protect the innocent.

It seems to me we are all dependent on the resolution of the question as to whther the UN is going to become an effective organisation and the International Court a means to develop a respect for a form of legal order through which international disputes may in the main be settled. E.g It is a no-brainer that Saddam should be tried before the International Court, legally and politically obvious I would have thought. Thus armies as an expression of national self-interest instead of national self-defence are the real problem surely. The UN should have a permanent rapid reaction force, comprised of the very best officers and men drawn from all the nations of the world. It should have a mission statement men of honour could identify with - to protect innocent non-combatants and genuinely keep the peace with such authority that the internal conflicting forces are driven to compromise.

It should have the highest possible standards and become regarded as the pinnacle of any professional soldier's career, beyond even heading his/her own national armed service. No state would have a veto on its use.

Indeed, thinking about it maybe your own idea could be merged with this so that even these soldiers could experience non-combat roles to help innocent people whatever their oppression, military or civil.

Now were your grandson to change his mind again, that might be an honourable thing to aim for. As for me, I would share your relief that he has moved in a different direction. especially as we are being 'softened up' for military action against Iran. One wonders whether the election of a fundmentalist, right wing, reactionary president was entirely unconnected in the Iranians' minds when they voted, with the West's politically disastrous and indefensible (sic) invasion of Iraq and their declaration of a unique new instrument of foreign policy - the pre-emptive military intervention. If Iran is stepping up its efforts to go nuclear then they are only providing the effect to the cause we intitated.

Over 75 million people died in the 20th century of ideological conflicts. Judging by my little history, as the 21st century shapes up to become one of recycled fundamental religious conflict, armed with the appalling tchnology of modern warfare, 'we' may surpass event that inconceivable statistic.

Two men of different religions face each other, armed to the teeth. Each says with passion "my God has told me I must kill you". If either man is to survive it is his false belief about his religion he must put down first, not his gun. While the false belief persists, he'll find another inventive way to kill the other and find a religious excuse to do so.



James Graham at 11:27 on 28 October 2005  Report this post
Thanks to all for such thoughtful comments. I'll get back to you probably in a few days, one or two things to get out of the way first.


James Graham at 09:08 on 05 November 2005  Report this post
Just managing to call in on the Group after a busy, busy, busy week. Elspeth and Beadle, you're probably right - for a journalistic article this sets up too much of an obstacle course for the reader in getting to the core of the argument. I will have to look at it again. It's already gone off to Z Magazine in its present state, but if I were resubmitting it elsewhere I'd have to juggle the material.

Zettel, I agree. Especially when you point out how important it is that the UN and the International Criminal Court need to be set on their feet, and their role in the world much better defined. Also what you say about blanket opposition to war, which is way too simplistic. The metamorphosed armed forces would be highly trained for disaster relief, but also for combat, to deal with the perpetrators of such atrocious crimes as those in Rwanda and Darfur.

Once again, thanks to all for your comments.


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