Monday, 30 June 2014

Show Me Your War Face

As a Green you'd maybe expect me to be a bit of a hippy when it came to the topic of war. While I'm all for peace, I'm also a pragmatist and I have the experience of growing up the son of a soldier. Between the ages of 9 and 13 while living in West Germany it was my job on a Saturday to check the wheel arches of the family car for bombs. I view my enduring love of mayo on chips as compensation for such trauma.

While it's tempting to dwell, we must look to the future. As we debate the pros and cons of independence we should consider the opportunity to repurpose our armed forces, reprioritise our military spending and write our own foreign policy.

So often it seems those campaigning for a No vote characterise a Yes as Scotland turning its back on the world, when of course it would be us taking responsibility for our place in the world. It wouldn't guarantee we did or said things differently but there'd be a chance we might, and with the fairer representation that we have in the Scottish Parliament I can see the opportunity for debates on defence policy that simply don't exist through Westminster.

The Army itself is going through relentless reorganisation, so the idea that independence represents some sort of instability is simply laughable. By 2020 the MoD wants regular forces cut back dramatically and 30,000 reservists integrated.

Morale has understandably taken a huge knock. In the latest MoD survey there are fewer personnel who feel proud to be in the services, fewer who feel valued, fewer satisfied with service life.

Top brass say that the era of long-term "stabilisation" projects (as they cutely call Iraq and Afghanistan) is over. Adaptability will be key, and withdrawal from Germany means most of the UK military will be based at home for the first time in many generations.

Significantly, they say that the UK's economic climate remains a "strategic threat to the nation".

Deloitte, the corporate finance and risk management giant, publishes a global defense (sic) outlook, and in its 2014 version, hot off the press, it stresses: "Resources once devoted to conventional military formations are moving toward network security and military cyber capabilities."

All together you can see that the military is under enormous pressure to reform and get to grips with modern threats. For me it underlines the silliness of Trident. I seem to recall even Tony Show-Me-Your-War-Face Blair describing it as a status symbol.

The White Paper contains ideas for how an independent Scottish military would shape up, and naturally it focuses on personnel, bases, jets, etc. It seems reasonable to expect a long-ish transition rather than an overnight rearranging of the players and hardware.

How serving personnel will vote in the referendum is hard to say. It's tempting to think those who take the Queen's Shilling are likely to vote No, and it's understandable that those who depend on Trident for work want to know what job they'd get in future. However, the apparent attempt by the Cabinet Office to "cascade" pro-UK material down through the ranks using email is likely to have raised some hackles. It's one thing to take orders from a senior rank but it's quite another to be nudged by some remote politician with an agenda.

Crucially I'd like us to think of how a Scottish Government and Parliament with responsibility for the military would treat forces families. The impact on spouses and children can be both positive and negative - while there's an attraction to "seeing the world" as the recruitment ads used to put it, there's also the disruption to home life, schooling and friendships, not to mention the worry and trauma when mum or dad is away fighting or on exercise. I still can't quite believe my dad was on the frontline in the Falklands, and I still remember the night a helicopter was shot down over his base in Northern Ireland.

Whether it's lack of kit at the frontline or a failure to invest in decent houses for families back at home, it does seem like governments are happy to praise bravery but not provide for dignity. Interestingly I see from a glance at various military websites that the Army Welfare Information Service is currently suspended.

So, would a Yes soften the harsh realities of service life for families? Well, we'd have to push for it. By pursuing a defence policy that focuses on cyber threats, international peacekeeping and humanitarian operations we'd have a chance of ending the culture that Westminster governments have always embraced - a culture that says unquestioningly that war is inevitable.

And indeed we're seeing what appear to be attempts to repackage war as wholesome family fun, such as Armed Forces Day with all its bombast and bomb blasts.

I think the Quakers have a point when they invite us to step back from the music, parades and uniforms for a moment to ask what's going on. Are we creating a war-ready society?

While I like to insist I'm no hippy, I find it hard to resist quoting from Glasgow-born folk legend Donovan, who famously sang of the Universal Soldier:

"His orders come from far away no more. They come from here and there and you and me. And brothers can't you see - this is not the way we put the end to war."

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