Sarah Ingham is author of The Military Covenant: its impact on civil-military relations in Britain.
Mad, bad, sad: civilians can have a stereotypical view of former Service personnel, especially of veterans who have been in combat.
Ever since Robert de Niro’s portrayal of a Vietnam vet in Taxi Driver back in 1976, writers for big and small screens have reinforced the trope of the troubled ex-military loner, unable to fit into the civilian world.
Of course, fictionalised accounts of the Armed Forces, serving personnel, or veterans are not documentaries, just as The Crown bears little resemblance to ITV’s Queen of the World. But just as the Netflix series shapes perceptions about the Royal Family, the seemingly relentless focus on the negative impact of service in the Armed Forces is none too helpful.
Last year was the 20th anniversary of the start of the American-led military intervention in Afghanistan; next year will mark two decades since the beginning of the far more controversial campaign in Iraq. Both conflicts have inspired some memorable films and TV, but are less than original in their portrayal of the servicemen and women.
In Our Name (2010) focuses on a female soldier back home in Britain and struggling with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) after her tour of duty in Iraq. More recently, the first series of BBC1’s The Capture featured an Afghanistan veteran not only suffering PTSD but also in prison, following the unlawful killing of a member of the Taliban.
Both echo the Academy Award winning Hurt Locker, about a bomb disposal expert deployed to Iraq. The end of the film showed him pushing a trolley aimlessly around a suburban American supermarket, symbolising his inability to assimilate back into civilian life.
Today is Armistice Day. At 11am, many will observe the two-minute silence. On Sunday, the service of Remembrance will take place at the Cenotaph.
As similar services are held at war memorials across the country, the civilian population has the chance to pay their respects to those millions who made the ultimate sacrifice. They could perhaps also reflect on how conflict has formed Britain – and Britain’s sense of itself.
“War made the state and the state made war.” The assertion by Charles Tilly, an American historian, has inspired academics for more than 40 years, eager to uphold or disprove the theory that the nascent nation-states of Europe had to develop tax-raising bureaucracies to finance the continent’s conflicts.
In her Reith Lecture series The Mark of Cain, Margaret Macmillan explores how war and society are intertwined. As she says we do not take war, which has repeatedly changed the course of human history, as seriously as it deserves. In War: How Conflict Shaped Us, she suggests that when we consider war “we think of its costs, the waste of human beings and resources – its violence, its unpredictability and the chaos it can leave in its wake.”
Sunday’s service at the Cenotaph will the first in the reign of Charles III. With the death of Elizabeth II, a vital link to the Second World War was broken. The non-combatants who remember VE Day, let alone the Blitz, are now in their eighties. If they have survived, those who wore the King’s uniform, perhaps in the Battle of the Atlantic or on the Normandy beaches, are likely to be centenarians.
Today, few of us have any experience of Armed Forces’ life, let alone war. The National Army Museum reminds visitors that the last National Serviceman, Second Lieutenant Richard Vaughan of the Royal Army Pay Corps, was discharged in June 1963.
“My subject is war and the pity of war. The poetry is in the pity.” Perhaps more than anyone else, Wilfred Owen, killed in action in November 1918 a week before Armistice, informs our view of the Great War. In focussing on the brutality and suffering in the trenches, the soldiers’ belief in the justice of their cause is forgotten.
Today, as some civilians don the Peace Pledge Union’s white poppies, they can overlook the necessity of conflict. Ukrainians today believe that they are fighting a just war to defeat the Russian invasion: British and Commonwealth servicemen clamoured to volunteer in 1914. Many wars, including 1939-45, have been fought to create a better peace.
The spotlight on the negative impact of military service does Forces’ personnel a disservice. The latest figures state that the Armed Forces number just under 158,000, 56 per cent of whom are in the Army. Of the 14,630 who left in the 12 months to April, how many, if any, will conform to the media stereotype of being suicidal, criminal, PTSD-suffering, in prison, or homeless?
Perhaps the 45 MPs who, according to Forces.net, have experience either as regulars or reservists, can make the positive case for service and counter the mad, bad, sad narrative. Forces’ charity SSAFA reported in 2019 that almost half of those involved in recruitment said they would be worried about employing a service leaver in case they had mental health problems, and fewer than 50 per cent of staff would feel comfortable working alongside a veteran.
(However, 43 per cent reported that they would be proud to do so, citing qualities such as resilience.)
Each year, the Armed Forces Continuous Attitudes Survey quizzes thousands of personnel. Satisfaction with Service life has fallen in the past year, way down from its peak in 2009, when the Forces were deployed to Afghanistan and at the tail end of operations in Iraq. This year, 52 per cent of Royal Marines and 46 per cent of soldiers reported that they were under-deployed.
Even in a culture where masculinity is routinely condemned as toxic, many young men – and some young women – enjoy an adrenaline-rush. If they do, combat is surely the ultimate hit.
Despite decades of peace on the home front, Britain continues to be shaped by war. In the past week, as the Russian ambassador warned our involvement in Ukraine is “too deep”, Royal Navy submariners, who oversee the continuous at sea nuclear deterrent, held their own service of Remembrance for comrades now on “eternal patrol”.