Tuesday, 24 November 2009

National Service? Squad Will Not Advance


An independent TV company, Avalon, is looking for servicemen with strong views and the ability to express them for a programme to debate the question of whether National Service should be reintroduced, an issue that has been given public attention by a suggestion made by Sir Michael Caine, born Maurice Micklewhite into a family of working Londoners. He did his National Service between 1952 and 1954 under that name in the Royal Fusiliers, firstly in Germany and then in Korea during the war there.

It follows the release of his new film “Harry Brown” in which an ex-service Old Age Pensioner falls back on his experience in the Royal Marines to act as prosecutor, judge, jury, and executioner to clean up his home patch where gangs have targeted the aged. In many ways he is returning to his roots and the film, although a highly dramatised account, has a germ of truth and an uncomfortable one.

So his ideas are worth attention in view of concerns over the detachment of so many young from society and into criminal gang cultures. In the country at large, policing has withdrawn from the streets, leaving all the vulnerable open to exploitation and attack, persistent, merciless, and with a degree of viciousness beyond normal understanding. The concept may seem good to have a scheme for the young to deal with the urban social problems but there are too many problems and it evades the real issue and needs of the future.

The world has changed. If we want to sort out our present young then it needs more radical thinking over a number of issues. Firstly, the problems begin at a much earlier age than the 18 of National Service. By then if they are in gangs they join and become active even at the ages of nine or ten. Also, they are not just males, there are many females involved.

Beyond the gangs problems of anti-social behaviour, addiction, truancy, and rejection of any authority exist amongst many pre-teen elements. For those who are older, if they don’t want education then how do you persuade them to work? First you need the work and then you recruit them to it. They have to believe they have a future. That is the problem, so many of our young do not see a future at all beyond the life style cultures offered by a predatory mass media and commercial interests.

For a scheme, what will it be for, where will it be, just what disciplines could be applied in an age of human rights, health and safety, and the rest, personal lifestyles, and computer access? Who will it be for? Will a number of minorities be excluded? Just how does one deal with a horde of fat, unfit, self regarding, people raised in the belief that individualism is paramount, and authority is alien? If the intention is to have those involved based at home and working in their immediate neighbourhood, I think you can forget it, because the control and monitoring will not function.

If they are to be shipped off somewhere else in the UK, much in the way that the old 18th and early 19th Century Militias were, the cost, housing, and other implications are huge. The conscription, legally enforced military service, remembered today is that imposed from 1939, named National Service in 1948, and continued until 31 December 1960. World War II had left a legacy of extensive military facilities into which later National Service was easily fitted. There is neither the infrastructure, nor the large scale old institutional management available. It would have to be created, and to a standard beyond the wildest dreams of the old National Servicemen.

The scale and nature of the bureaucracy necessary is another challenge. One thing that is certain is our existing government has botched almost every such task it has attempted in the last 10-15 years. That of the National Service of the past was poor enough; the potential mess of a modern one would beggar belief.

Also, just how good was the old one? It is now close to half a century since National Service ended. Those who served were brought up, lived and worked, and experienced as young people a life very different to that of today. In the period 1948-1960 alone, millions were called up, to add to the millions of those who had served after 1939. They served in the Army, Navy, and Air Force, and all over the world. Their experiences, individually, will have been radically different from one another.

A few served out time in “cushy numbers” in home postings with frequent leaves and weekends off, others saw action in the most dangerous wars of the period. Their service was good, bad, useful or not according to the luck of the posting and who finished up where doing what. It is impossible to generalise and reduce these complexities to simple propositions.

In any case it related to the educational and employment background of those conscripted. The great majority had already worked for two to three years beforehand. Many had not had secondary education and attended only the old all age Elementary Schools leaving as soon as possible after their 15th birthday, and often disappearing before. It was as late as the 1958 White Paper that a determined attempt was made to complete the provision of secondary schools across the UK.

A small minority had been educated until the age of 18, although a few others had night school classes as part of their work. The educated types were regarded as more of a nuisance than an asset and could be a source of trouble. One with a Cambridge First in physical sciences, working as a corporal clerk, typing and filing, was ejected from the Army early after a bitter argument with an Artillery Brigadier over the implications of the use of battle field and other nuclear weapons. The Brigadier did not grasp the implications of fall out. The records now show that the Corporal was right and the Army badly wrong as we have learned more about what happened at Christmas Island and elsewhere.

Much of it was chaotic in function, designed to shore up a collapsing Imperial system, and to create a temporary obstacle to Soviet aggression. The servicemen were paid in shillings which were often lost as stoppages for clothing and kit replacement, housed and provided for at minimum levels. They could be used to break strikes, and as forced labour. They were allowed cheap cigarettes and booze in lieu of pay, creating a population of smokers to the benefit of The Treasury.

Also they did not have National Insurance credits, as an economy measure, and could lose three years if the dates were bad, and those who were longer in education lost much more. Today as old age pensioners some have less than they should because of this.

They learned how to avoid the bosses and how to skive, that is avoid unwanted activity. It created a working class distrustful of management and supervision, highly unionised, resistant to change, and who had the wrong kind of disciplines for a rapidly changing economy under stress. It helped to create a 1960’s management culture that too often aped the less desirable organisational features and expectations of the military.

As so many manual jobs in that period had higher records of fatalities and serious injury than are acceptable today, it is difficult to say whether the number of non-combat casualties was higher in the services than in civilian life. There were a good many, having teenagers and young men partial to a drink or two in charge of weaponry, heavy armaments and vehicles inevitably led to deaths and damage.

The Conqueror Tank when first deployed had a turret which in full traverse could decapitate unwary gunner loaders. The first Champ signals vehicles often turned over. New types of rifle and mortars killed a number, as did various forms of well worn old ones. Many of the vehicles were over age and prone to go off road. Quite a number, notably in the tropics contracted medical problems of one sort or another for which the facilities were very basic.

In those days there were no inquests and families did not question the “accident” or “user error” on the death certificates. As for Porton Down trialling new types of crowd control gas on unsuspecting troops in chambers, never mind the experiments with poisons on volunteers who thought they were talking about the common cold, the less said the better. One senior general held the view that Porton Down, then as now, was essentially an asylum for lunatic scientists.

It is assumed that discipline was maintained. That is not correct, as things could get out of hand quite easily, but rarely made the media of the time. Conflict between units on a quasi-tribal basis was endemic and personal violence routine. It was common for unconscious drunks to be laid out on the Guard Room terrace on a Saturday night and riots could occur. One spectacular was in a garrison cinema when the troops realised that all the steamy parts in the film “The Outlaw” had been cut out by the operators for private use. A garrison town on a Saturday night was a place to avoid at the best of times.

During the Suez Crisis many mutinous situations arose, especially where reservists were called back from their civilian lives. It may well have been the breakdowns in discipline in this period that began to convince the military that if politicians could be persuaded could rein in their willingness to commit troops, the Armed Services would be better off without the conscripts and the demands of training and control.

In those last days of Empire the conscripts were sent to police and control places where the UK government were insisting on UK type political institutions and norms in the constitutions being written up at the LSE, imposing western ideals and notions on cultures and communities that might not want them. As we have learned, it was not entirely successful in many places.

Today the notion of a UK government sending troops across the world to a hostile area to impose parliamentary government, human rights, equality of sex, religion, and ethnic origin and the rest would be regarded as utterly insane.

1 comment:

  1. "Today the notion of a UK government sending troops across the world to a hostile area to impose parliamentary government, human rights, equality of sex, religion, and ethnic origin and the rest would be regarded as utterly insane."

    Irony, I assume, Demetrius?

    ReplyDelete