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Returning soldiers: what can we learn from history?

As the government faces criticism for the care it offers troops, Chris Bowlby asks Hew Strachan how the army’s relationship with society has changed over the centuries.

Published: November 4, 2009 at 5:22 am

British troops returning from Iraq haven’t always been welcomed with open arms. Demonstrations against soldiers just back from the Middle East revealed that some in British society blame military personnel for a politically controversial war. This follows allegations in recent years of misbehaviour by soldiers abroad.


Meanwhile the military and their supporters have criticised what they perceive as a lack of provision for returning soldiers in areas such as health care, compensation for injury and reintegration into civilian life. Sir Richard Dannatt, the head of the army, has even been moved to speak of his fear of “the growing gulf between the army and the nation”. 

Prominent in this debate has been the idea of a ‘military covenant’ between the country and its armed forces. This covenant was formally codified in 2000, but by the army alone. Its doctrine stated that “the army differs from all other institutions and must be sustained and provided for accordingly by the nation”. This is said to be based on a relationship going back centuries.

So has there been a sense of mutual obligation in the past, and, if so, is it now coming under unprecedented strain? Or does this simply reflect a constantly changing relationship? I’ve been discussing this with distinguished military historian Professor Hew Strachan.

For how long has there been a settled bond in relations between the armed forces and society?
Hew Strachan: The current view of the relationship between the armed forces and society rests on what is very largely an invented tradition. If the British army wishes to reflect, and be integrated with, society, that is only really possible in a conscript army. If the army is professionally recruited that is not going to happen. And that has been the norm in British history – periods of conscription have been limited to 1916 to 1921 and 1939 to 1960. 

When conscription finally went, the army became professional once again, and was able to become more inward looking. On the whole, it did not serve at home in the postwar decades; either it was engaged in campaigns of counter insurgency or it was in Germany ready to face a Soviet invasion.

The effect was that the army could be used with greater impunity by the government of the day. This was because the government was not called to account as the operations in which the army was engaged did not impinge on most people’s lives.

All this suited the army, as it could do things its way, and practices not compatible with what the rest of society was doing could be justified by the military context. Think of how long the army resisted allowing homosexuals to serve, and think too of the accusations made regarding its treatment of women and ethnic minorities.

Today, when the army expects to be recognised by society as a wider extension of itself, it needs to understand that society expects the army to reflect society’s values. It doesn’t always want to do that.

Is the military covenant part of this invented tradition?
HS: The covenant is undoubtedly an invented tradition, and a very recent one. Before that, there wasn’t an explicit contract between the state and the armed forces, giving rights to those who have served.

Charles II certainly recognised the need to look after military pensioners when he set up Chelsea hospital, and pensions came to be given for long service as well as to those who had been wounded. Indeed, by the 19th century, with the growth of empire, the soldier had become, not a repressive agent of domestic order, but a hero.

In the slums of London you might have no respect for a chap who was effectively a policeman, but with a uniform on, facing Zulus or Pathans, he was suddenly heroic and worthy of being looked after.

Yet, despite all this, much of the provision for the needs of ex-servicemen, from the Crimean War onwards, was through private charity. Today there are around 140 military charities, reflecting the fact that it is not only the state that looks after people following their military service.

So why does the idea of a covenant have particular resonance now, in the era of the welfare state?
HS: The extension of the welfare state at home has been accompanied by the dismantling of the services’ own support systems for their people and their families while in uniform. As a result, the latter have become progressively relatively disadvantaged by military service.

If you move around the country you lose your place in waiting lists for schools, in a doctor’s practice, in the queue for housing. In the past, such as the Cold War period, when the armed forces were themselves much bigger organisations, much of this was provided by the military.

But what do we mean by a military covenant? Do we mean that a soldier, because he or she has run the risk of being killed or wounded, has greater rights as a citizen than those civilians who have not served? As a democratic society we cannot accept that. The point, recognised by the government’s command paper published in 2008, is that a soldier should have the same privileges. He or she should certainly not be disadvantaged.

Pundit from the past: Douglas Haig

Would the famous commander have felt compassion for today’s ex-servicemen?

After commanding British forces in the Western Front campaign in the First World War, Douglas Haig could have retired to his newly acquired estate in Scotland to enjoy his title, Earl Haig, and the £100,000 he had been voted by parliament.

But he opted instead to play a prominent role in new organisations providing for the welfare of former soldiers, as president of the British Legion, formed in 1921, and chairman of the United Services Fund.

Haig, says Professor Strachan, felt an obligation to his soldiers, realising that the First World War army bore “no relationship to any other British army” and that the regular army and the nation owed a debt to those who had served.

But this was not the same as suggesting some permanent covenant between state and soldiers. And it was about more than pure altruism. Haig was “very concerned about the potential for Bolshevism” and worried that disaffected ex-servicemen might foment revolution as they had in Russia and Germany. He recognised that, after mass conscription, the re-employment of ex-servicemen in the British economy would take time, and that there needed to be some sort of charitable organisation that “acts as the bridge between military and civilian life”.

How might Haig view today’s military returnees? Bolshevism no longer threatens, and the welfare state has changed the nature of social provision. But that transition from military to civilian life still poses problems he would have recognised.

However Professor Strachan points out that the nature of the problem has changed. We no longer have a conscript army, so the numbers are smaller. Yet care of the wounded has grown in importance, as medical advances mean proportionately many more soldiers are disabled rather than killed by the injuries they suffer.

As for the drawing of the military into political controversy, Haig might not have found that entirely unfamiliar. His costly attempts to break the stalemate of trench warfare received much political and press attention.

But, suggests Professor Strachan, the First World War never became politically controversial in the same way as the war in Iraq today. “In the early 1920s, however much families had suffered, the majority continued to regard the war as worth fighting”. And then, as now, the army leadership would have wanted to uphold a distinction between the values of service and soldiering and the political context in which this service is set.

Hew Strachan is director of the Changing Character of War research programme at Oxford University


This series is produced with History & Policy. You can find out more about them and read their papers at www.historyandpolicy.org.


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