Sunday, March 16, 2008

MoD's war with the British mind

One of the welcome effects of the antiwar movement in the UK has been to, perhaps to some extent irreversibly, roll back a long tradition of militaristic patriotism. This, despite some waning in the postcolonial era, reasserted itself during the Falklands campaign and the first Gulf War. During the 1990s, this was conjoined with the ideology of 'humanitarian intervention', so that the British Army was seen as an anti-genocide action man outfit. But under the surface, opinion was shifting, especially as Iraq wilted and suffered under the sanctions regime and even Daily Mail readers were apprised of its horrors. And that is one reason why the narcissistic compassion that Gilbert Achcar talks about - the exaggerated and ostentatious sympathy with 'people like us' - was less pronounced in the UK than it might otherwise have been after the attacks on the twin towers. People knew almost instinctively that US foreign policy had contributed to bringing about the attacks The antiwar movement over Afghanistan, despite the obviously difficulties, was surprisingly large.

Since 2002, the warmongers have been losing the battle for public opinion. The scale of the antiwar movement, and the foundation of groups such as Military Families Against the War, has done for militarism what the poll tax riots did for Thatcherism (an analogy which contains warnings against complacency, I might add). Recruitment in the armed forces has dropped sharply, as has retention; opinion remains overwhelmingly against participation in the 'war on terror' in its many forms; there is no support for a war against Iran; and the decades-long pro-Israeli consensus has reversed. Even the head of the armed forces has started espousing antiwar views.

Like the US armed forces, the Ministry of Defense has responded to this crisis in part by abolishing or easing restrictions on recruitment. They have also tried the tactic favoured by every tobacco manufacturer, booze merchant and drug-dealer in the world - nail the kids, get them when they're young. One of their more developed programmes is the Defence Schools Initiative, which involves among other things getting elderly veterans to talk to the kids and inspire some weird emotion they call 'respect'. They upped their game in dealing with the press as well, so when it emerged in 2006 that the government had trebled the amount of money spent on propaganda, the Ministry of Defense had - next to the Central Office of Information - the largest number of PR personnel.

The unions have rightly resisted recruitment activity in schools, and the UCL students union has incurred a great deal of contrived wrath for voting to ban military recruiters from campus. The MoD's latest attempt to force pro-war propaganda into the schools' syllabus has been rightly rejected by teachers, and the government has been put on the defensive. And now a multimillion pound PR drive by the MoD to present the bright side of 'military intervention' has angered military families. So, what's next? Send Harry out again? Moan about soldiers not being able to wear their fucking uniforms again? I suppose another round of medals for derring-do, or the lionisation of one particular soldier, will produce a brief PR boost. In some ways, however, the cat is already out of the bag. Groups of people never before touched by antiwar feeling are part of the movement. Former soldiers, military families, an SAS trooper, and a former ambassador, are all in a position to expose the seaminess, corruption and violence of the government's global strategy. The way soldiers are used, chewed up and spat out, is public knowledge, and it militates against the attempt to inspire irrational admiration for those who are essentially victims of the war machine.