Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Armies are Not a Source of Pride

One of the more bizarre images from the First World War – in hindsight at least – was occasioned by the start of the battle around what was to become the Ypres salient in 1914. Apparently, the people of the town all gathered on top of Ypres’ medieval walls in order to view the excitement. The town museum has photographs of the people, all presumably expecting a visual confirmation of the romantic stories of warfare that were the belligerent currency of the time. Of course, as we know now, what was to come was utterly beyond the imaginings of the people on the wall.

Mechanical, mass warfare would, within a few weeks, literally demolish the town, scatter the survivors of the bombardment and turn the region into a spectacle of graveyards.

I wonder how the people on the Ypres’ impotent, obsolete, comical ramparts would have felt if they had had an inkling of what the coming war would mean for the soldiers – buttons polished – who had marched through the town's gates to meet the German advance. Or what it would mean for them as the military machine enveloped them in its embrace.

But they could only see the world through the romantic sentiments about military life that were current at the time. Militaries were a source of national pride because they presented not just a vision of strength but because they presented a distillation of the national virtues: courage, loyalty, self-sacrifice and the like.

As Sunday’s festivities in Dublin suggest, people don’t seem yet to learn that armies are not sources of pride and grand spectacles only serve to obscure their true function in society.

There are two special elements in the story told about the Irish army. First, the army is the legitimate heir of Óglaigh na hÉireann. Ministers haven’t taken this line solely because they have made the foolish decision to compete with the Provos on their own ground. They also see the Irish army as the guarantor of freedom for the nation and as such as more than a facet of statehood. Second, people have spoken about the army’s proud record in United Nations peace-keeping operations, for instance in Katanga or more recently in East Timor and Sierra Leone.

It may well be that on some level these claims are true. But, if so, they are true not because of some special characteristics of the army as a corporate entity. They are true because Irish governments and society chose to employ the army as a tool in the name of some laudable aims. As such, pride in the army seems misplaced, except insofar as the army acts as a symbol of national virtues (I don’t actually think nations can have virtues, but that’s an argument for another day – my point is only that seeing things this way would be more coherent than simply having pride in the army per se).

So where does this leave the army? Well, it leaves the army where it belongs: as a tool of state power, and certainly not necessarily as a tool of state virtue. Given what they are designed to do – no matter how laudable the political aims behind their actions – one ought to regard armies as at best a sad necessity of statehood. Morally speaking, we’d be better off without them. Even if, pragmatically speaking, they are necessary, that doesn’t make them a good thing. It’s hard to see, in that case, armies are any more worth celebrating than rat-catchers.

That’s not to say that individual soldiers don’t display some of the virtues that we attach to armies. Soldiers might well be courageous, loyal and the like. But that only makes those soldiers admirable individuals. Their virtues can’t be transferred to the army itself.

Sunday’s parade was wrong because it celebrated the most unfortunate side of statehood: the necessity for states to reserve the use of force. Like the citizens of Ypres, we mistake the romance attached to armies for virtue.

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