Posts Tagged military

The 35 Most Powerful Militaries in the World


Taken from Business Insider UK.


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How the First World War broke our faith in authority

(or why Jeremy Paxman has got it wrong).

In yet another attempt to flog himself as a self-proclaimed expert on the First World War, Jeremy Paxman has been lamenting the apparent way in which the history of this conflict has entered public consciousness. Speaking at the Emirates Airlines Festival of Literature in Dubai last week Paxman argued that war poetry, such as that by Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, serves to confirm peoples’ ‘prejudices…to see the whole thing as a terrible pointless sacrifice’. Paxman believes that:

the events [of the First World War] now are so built upon by writers and attitudinisers and propaganda that the actual events seem submerged. So what I wanted to do was re-engage with the events themselves. How did they seem to people at the time?Forget the poems

Unfortunately it seems that Paxman has become confused with how history is studied (not surprising given that, despite his wish to be an authority on the First World War, he does not hold even an undergraduate degree in history). You can study events in history, and you can study the perceptions, thoughts, feelings and opinions of those who took part in these events. Sometimes you can study both together. But the two do not necessarily equate. In fact, rarely are they the same thing. No two people ever view the same series of events in the same way – which is what makes history so damn interesting in the first place. So if Paxman wants to study events that’s one thing. If he wants to understand how such events seemed ‘to people at the time’ he has to realise that Sassoon and Owen were people of the time. They were not propagandists – they wrote about what they felt and heard and saw, and the fact that they put these thoughts into the form of poetry does not make them any less valid as primary sources. To ‘forget them’ is to refuse to engage with an important historical source simply because you don’t like what they say.

Come_and_Join_this_Happy_Throng_Art.IWMPST13604What Paxman also fails to acknowledge is that Sassoon and Owen were not alone. Although Paxman and Michael Gove might not like it, there was a real sense of horror in Britain at the time of the First World War over the sheer scale and brutality of the conflict. The war touched the lives of ordinary people in a way that no previous conflict ever had. It’s easy to forget in today’s day and age where we are constantly exposed to images of soldiers in Afghanistan and bombs exploding in Gaza that for the average person in 1914 – 1918 the death and destruction of the war was a shock. People who had no previous experience of the military were pulled in to fight and nurse and grieve in a way that had profound consequences for the future of British society.

Mutiny and Revolution

One such consequence was the severance of traditional feelings regarding authority. The hurt and anger which the public felt at the destruction they saw came to focus on those who they believed were to blame for taking Britain to war in the first place. Rightly or wrongly, many British people did blame the Foreign Office and the Ministry of Defence for the First World War. It was believed that the secret machinations of elitist Foreign Office officials had led Britain into an unnecessary conflict that had caused the death of thousands of working class men. After 1918 there were veracious calls for reform of the Foreign Office recruitment process, for example, to counter the dominance of the aristocracy in the making of future foreign policy. It was also argued that all future foreign agreements and treaties should receive parliamentary approval – a suggestion made as a result of the belief that Britain had been pulled into the war in the first place because the Foreign Secretary, Edward Grey, had taken it upon himself to make various promises to the French and Russians. The economic crisis that followed the war only exacerbated these bitter feelings as unemployment spread and labour unrest rocketed. In January 1919 police and workers clashed violently in Glasgow to the point where tanks and machine guns were called in to occupy the city. Initial plans to release men from the military in phases so as to allow better re-integration into civilian work had to be cancelled when troops stationed in Folkestone and Dover mutinied. In 1918 and 1919 the police themselves went on strike. By 1920 there was a likelihood that should a general strike occur (as was being threatened for that Autumnthe authorities might find the police and ex-soldiers joining the workers. As a report of the Home Office put it, ‘in the event of rioting, for the first time in history the rioters will be better trained than the troops’. So serious was the situation that in January 1920 the Chief of the Imperial General Staff set his men to prepare plans for ‘mutiny and revolution’ in Britain.

This unrest was not confined to Britain either. Throughout the world people were starting to question the status quo. The First World War had seen the destruction of many of the great empires of the day and brought forth Communist revolution in at least one country. Everywhere the old ruling elite appeared to be collapsing and boundaries and borders shifting. America, with its proclamations of self-determination for all nations, was now front and centre of the international stage. The concept of ‘authority’ was evolving. When Gandhi, a small Indian man in a loin cloth, appeared able to challenge the might of the British Empire, then all ideas of authority, tradition and status quo were up for questioning. The First World War broke common faith in authority. People felt betrayed by the very people who professed to be their betters. While it would still take decades for British society to make real headway in eradicating notions of privilege, class and elitism, it was arguably in 1918 that such profound change began.

Soldier with Prosthetic Limb at the Personnel Recovery Centre in Edinburgh

The consequences of armed service are all too familiar to modern society. Photo: Sergeant Ian Forsyth RLC

Call of Duty

Paxman’s other argument centres on the idea that should such a conflict break out today Britain’s youth would not be rushing to sign up to fight as they did in 1914.

‘We live in such a relativistic society now, and materialistic, self-obsessed and hedonistic; it’s hard to imagine circumstances under which people would say that ‘it is worth it, I’m willing to risk my life and well-being for this’…What would [the younger] generation fight for? The right to use your iPhone? What are the great noble causes?’

In his typical fashion of trying to argue a point that is based merely on opinion and conjecture, Paxman resorts to the cliché of ‘young people today’. Expanding further, Paxman argues that one of the reasons the younger generation would not sign up to fight ‘is probably that ideas of duty, clearly strongly felt by many people, have diminished as the international significance of the country has diminished’. The problem here is that Paxman equates a lack of sense of duty with a lack of social conscience; that because young people today may not feel a sense of responsibility to Queen and country that they are therefore inherently selfish and superficial. This is a very poor argument indeed. I believe that young people today are still capable of incredible acts of generosity, bravery and self-sacrifice, if they believe in the cause. Perhaps they will not blithely sign-up to kill others simply because their elders say so; perhaps they would not believe it would be over by Christmas; perhaps they have seen too many photos and videos to be ignorant of the grim reality of warfare. That does not mean they do not believe or care about important issues. Thousands of men and women still enlist in the British armed services every year even though they face the real possibility of actually being shot at (unlike Paxman’s generation). And in 1939 when world war broke out once again, thousands of men and women still rushed to pledge their help. The reason? Part of it may have been about duty – but a large part would also have been because they believed that Nazi Germany needed to be stopped and that they needed to defend their homeland from foreign aggression. Their trust in authority may have been broken, but their understanding of right and wrong was not.

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Have we gone too soft? Russia, soft power and military cuts

Last week the House of Lords Select Committee on Soft Power produced a report calling on the government to do better when it comes to utilising Britain’s soft power capabilities. Just a few days previous to this, a high ranking military official had voiced his concerns over the potential weakening of that which embodies Britain’s hard power – the Army, RAF and Royal Navy. Meanwhile, back at the Kremlin, Putin has apparently been feeling nostalgic for the days of the Soviet Union and plotting his next annexation (if certain pundits are to be believed). By all accounts, Russia’s belligerence in Eastern Europe has come as a shock. Just as it seemed that the withdrawal of our troops from Afghanistan signalled a reduction in the UK’s military commitments, suddenly we are faced with the possibility of deployment in Europe. So have we been too busy worrying about our soft power at the neglect of our hard power?

Soft power

According to the committee’s paper, Persuasion and Power in the Modern World, British soft power means…

…generating international power through influencing other countries to want the same things as the UK, by building positive international relationships and coalitions which defend our interests and security, uphold our national reputation and promote our trade and prosperity. This has been described as the exercise of ‘soft power’, as distinct from the use of force and coercion for a nation to assert itself, labelled as ‘hard power’.

In essence, it’s the ability to get others to do what you want them to do without the threat of force; a blend of charisma, charm and persuasion to get what you want. Which reminds me of that lovely quote that ‘a diplomat is a person who can tell you to go to hell in such a way that you actually look forward to the trip’. But this is about more than traditional concepts of diplomacy. In the view of the committee, the world has changed rapidly in the last few decades and with increased connectivity, globilisation and interdependence Britain cannot be complacent about how it exercises soft power. Rather than the formal treaties, alliances, trade negotiations and military competition of old, twenty-first century foreign relations are to be conducted via less obvious channels such as the BBC, the British Council and our universities: think Britannia rules the international research community. Art, language, music, television, sport, heritage, NGOs, the Commonwealth – all of these represent avenues through which Britain can make its presence known in the world. But it’s not all about Downton Abbey and exporting our boy bands. How Britain is to secure its interests abroad, ensure its own defence and influence those it needs to is an important, difficult and complicated task.

Military cuts

The idea that Britain can get all that it wants without resorting to military resources is an appealing one. After the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, there has certainly been a perceptible shift in regards to sanctioning use of the UK’s armed forces abroad; experts have argued that it will be a long time before the British public countenance international military action that involves boots on the ground. This aversion to become embroiled in any more foreign conflicts – together with economic needs – has influenced large cuts to the military and a move to relying on reservists. The army will face cuts of 20% to regular troop numbers over the next six years, while reservist numbers will increase. The Royal Navy and RAF will also be losing regulars while gaining reservists.

However, Russia’s annexation of Crimea and Putin’s apparently increasingly bellicose attitude has brought this issue of hard versus soft power into sharp focus. Now it seems we could be facing an aggressor very close to home, and the wisdom of such military cuts is being called into question. Retiring Nato deputy supreme commander, General Sir Richard Shirreff, voiced his concerns when he claimed that the military – especially the Navy – would be left ‘hollowed-out’ by the cuts: ‘…“The yardstick by which we measure ourselves is our ability to punch above our weight”. You can’t do that now. By that yardstick, therefore, we’re failing.’ While Defence Secretary, Philip Hammond, tried to dismiss Shirreff’s concerns as ‘nonsense’, the Commons defence select committee is also worried about the UK’s future military capabilities should these cuts go ahead. As it argued recently the crisis in Ukraine has shown that the threat of state-on-state conflict had not abated.

Soldiers Patrolling in Afghanistan. Photo: Cpl Mike O’Neill RLC LBIPP/MOD

Getting smart

The committee on soft power is quick to point out, however, that this is not a zero sum game:

We emphasise at the outset that we do not see the use of ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ methods in the projection of a nation’s power as alternatives, but as mutually reinforcing. The coercive or ‘hard power’ use of military resources remains a key component in a nation’s armoury. But all our evidence confirms that new and more subtle combinations of both ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ methods of power deployment are now necessary for national effectiveness and advancement on the global stage. These combinations have been christened as ‘smart power’: the use of both traditional and modern instruments of power to project and gain influence in a fast-changing world.

Again, Afghanistan has had its impact on our current thinking regarding smart power. The recent conflict provides a perfect example of how hard power alone is not necessarily enough to create the international order that the UK wants. Military methods have to be combined with political and social operations to achieve long-term peace and stability in countries ravaged by war. But then, we’ve known this all along. We knew this in the aftermath of the Second World War when the Allies were busy rebuilding Germany and Japan; we knew this going into Iraq and Afghanistan and coined the phrase ‘hearts and minds’ to remind us. There exists an entire canon of work on counterinsurgency (or COIN) that acknowledges the need for political remedies alongside military practices. And yet, when it came to Afghanistan, smart power appears to have been either forgotten or ignored, to the extent that the Lords committee is calling for a review into ‘how well DFID, the MOD and the FCO cooperated in Afghanistan, with a view to providing lessons for any future post-conflict reconstruction efforts’.

All of which means what for Britain’s future international relations? How do we rectify the committee’s findings with the recent military cuts and Russian belligerency? Well the lesson that already appears to be learnt from Afghanistan is that smart power needs to be front and centre of however Britain navigates future military questions. For as much as we should cultivate the variety of ways in which Britain influences the world, there will always be those who will only respond to force. It is understandable that recent events have made people reticent to becoming involved in further foreign conflicts. But we do not always have a choice. If Britain wants to have any kind of position of influence in the world, ultimately our soft power has to be supported by our hard power and we need to be militarily capable of this. Shirreff, the defence committee and others are not saying we should not have any cuts – just that any change to the military should be in line with Britain’s international commitments and defense requirements. At the same time, our military leaders and politicians need to understand, accept and employ the notion of smart power in foreign affairs.

As for Putin: well one of my previous posts demonstrates the affection I have for Russia and its people, and my belief that we should always try to see things from the other’s point of view. However, history provides ample evidence of what happens when we do not stand up to tyrants.

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