I was 2.30 in the afternoon. I was sitting in my car in the middle of Oxford. The traffic was moving very slowly and I was becoming a little impatient since I was coming from one appointment to another with limited time in between them.
Realising that I couldn’t influence the state of the traffic flow, I let my thoughts wander. I got to thinking about the troops in Afghanistan and the everyday arguments as to whether UN troops should be there or not – we all know these differing points of view.
I then began thinking about the individual soldier and how life must be for him, trying to compare it with my own military service in World War II when I was serving in the Grenadier Guards – one of the elite regiments of the Household Brigade, which guard the royal family; (in addition to being among the leaders on the battle field). These thoughts didn’t get me very far, as the differences are too far apart. So I thought about armies as a whole.
All the British armed forces today are made up of volunteers – there is no compulsory military service. This has been the case for over 40 years. I asked myself if that was a good thing or not. A few countries including Germany still have ‘national service’. Although, the latest news is that conscription in Germany has been reduced from 9 months to 6 months service. There is some resistance to this reduction e.g. hospitals, caring for old people, organisations, etc, where the majority of the 90,000 conscripts who opt for community service rather than military service, are usefully employed.
At the cost of Euro 400 m a year and needing 10 – 20,000 professional soldiers to train recruits, the future of conscription in Germany seems to be at risk. But stopping it totally will not be easy, as it is a part of the country’s constitution.
In general it must be very expensive for any country’s national purse. On the other hand it lowers the cost of unemployment and keeps the idle young off the streets. Military routine may help those young people to form good behavioral habits for their future lives. Germany’s community service has a lot to recommend it.
But then, will this country have enough military personnel to fight its battles? This may depend on the employment situation of the country, as a whole. If there is higher unemployment then there will be more volunteers for the military and vice versa. The need for adventure in the young will also provide volunteers.
One must furthermore not ignore the military requirements of the country, e.g. how many wars it involves itself in.
The British talk a lot about the importance of peace, but there has hardly been a month since World War II when they haven’t been involved in some war or another. They have always found it easy to criticise the militaristic attitudes of other countries. Yet, here we are in a country whose every generation has worn a military uniform and still talk about their military past. There are regimental associations which keep alive the old camaraderie as they meet regularly for lunches, dinners and other events.
Yet for all this, it is sometimes difficult to believe that until the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, the British soldier was seldom glorified by the rest of the population. ‘Don’t let your daughter marry that man, Mrs. Smith. He is only a common soldier’. Such was typical of the way soldiers were regarded.
Suddenly, we now talk of veterans, heroes, etc, as they come back from Afghanistan. Some come back in a coffin. They are honoured as never before. At last their values are being recognised .
How time changes some of our basic beliefs.
Oh! I notice that I haven’t told you why I was in a hurry to get to my next appointment. At 3 p.m. I was due to stand on a street corner with some 200 other people, just before the entrance to a famous Oxford hospital where the dead bodies of our soldiers from Afghanistan are taken for post mortem examination,
Most of us will be old soldiers with many non-military people who live nearby. We will wear our old medals on our left breast, wear berets with the badges of our previous regiments.
There will be 20 big colours (flags) of military associations, held by old soldiers. As the coffins pass slowly by, draped in the national flag and escorted by police, the colours will be lowered to the ground and we will all salute these young volunteers.
So what were my conclusions as I did, in fact, arrive in time for the ceremony. That the British have always been a militaristic nation – it hasn’t changed. What has drastically changed is the high regard we now show for our soldiers and the high honour we pay the dead.
Have we become a better society? Or have we just become more emotional? At least ‘Mrs. Smith’ may allow her daughter to marry a soldier!
Tell me what you think about these controversial, funny Brits.
Volunteer: someone who joins an organisation such as the military, or takes part in an activity by his/her own choice - i.e. freely.
Compulsory: something which we have to do – e.g. wearing a seat belt in a car is compulsory.
Conscript: someone who has to join the military during wartime or to do military service. In this context the opposite of a volunteer.
Opt for: to choose something – e.g. I opted for tea rather than coffee = I chose tea rather than coffee.
Idle: usually has the same meaning as lazy. In this context it can also mean unemployed.
A common soldier: the usual meaning of common is ordinary. Here it has a negative meaning, it is used as an insult.
Coffin: a box in which a dead person is transported and buried or cremated in after the funeral service.
Post mortem examination: a procedure carried out by a pathologist to find the cause of a person’s death.