Defending military 'honour'

Full rights for armed forces rank and file must be our demand, writes James Turley

The British establishment is fuming after officers at RAF Wittering in Cambridgeshire advised military personnel to avoid wearing uniforms when off duty, after receiving anti-war “abuse” in Peterborough.

The row reminds me in a sense of the Dreyfus affair in France. In October 1894, army captain Alfred Dreyfus was arrested and charged with espionage. Dreyfus was Jewish, and is widely regarded today as having been victim of an anti-semitic frame-up. At the time, however, the French right was trying to make the best of it. As the scandal developed (it would be 12 years, including five on the infamous Devil’s Island prison colony, before Dreyfus was finally rehabilitated), the entire French body politic was divided into Dreyfusards (liberals and socialists who supported Dreyfus) and anti-Dreyfusards (rightwing opponents).

What is most interesting from our point of view is that after a while, as it became increasingly clear that Dreyfus was innocent, the anti-Dreyfusards simply stopped even pretending he was guilty. For them, the matter of justice in this piffling case was insignificant compared to the value of the army’s honour, and it was through defending that honour that France would maintain greatness. The liberal ‘intellectuals’, by blindly following ideals of liberty, would destroy the fabric of society. Long after Dreyfus’s rehabilitation, the anti-Dreyfusard organisations maintained themselves, albeit with broader political programmes - most famously the fascist militia, Action Française.

It is this not-insignificant quirk of the Dreyfus affair which springs to mind today, when the honour of the military also seems to be at stake. Squad leader Tony Walsh claimed that the “abuse” came from a “cross-section” of the community, The Daily Telegraph reported, and was linked to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq (March 8).

In response, the government has been touting the old anti-Dreyfusard line. The same Telegraph piece quoted Gordon Brown, ever eager to over-egg his ‘Britishness’, to the effect that the armed forces should be “encouraged to wear their uniform in public and have the respect and gratitude of the British people”; while defence secretary Des Browne fulminated angrily to the BBC: “It is a great shame that some individuals in this community don’t respect our forces, who are daily doing a great deal for this nation.”

The case, as it happens, encourages even dodgier parallels with the Dreyfus affair. Cambridgeshire police claim that no such incidents have been recorded. In the wake of a truly audacious publicity coup on the part of the army with regard to prince Harry, it would certainly not be far-fetched to suggest that the whole Peterborough farrago has been cooked (and leaked) to order. Given the paucity of evidence presented, the link to anti-war feeling may also be a fabrication, designed to make a political instrument out of the low-level conflicts between locals and squaddies that pepper any town with a significant military presence. At this point, however, such suggestions cannot be more than speculation.

Armed forces rank and file

In any case, it should be easy enough to see that we on the left must be good ‘Dreyfusards’, so to speak, and not fall for any kind of fetishistic identification with the military apparatus. Indeed, should it emerge that anti-war abuse has indeed been hurled at unfortunate RAF personnel by a “cross-section” of Peterborough citizens, we should see this as an encouraging sign - that, despite the great dead-weight of military ideology on British society (from Britannia’s rule of the waves to the heroic derring-do of plum-throated airmen of the Biggles type), people nevertheless feel able to hurl obscenities freely.

That said, we cannot allow ourselves to be drawn into pacifistic moral denunciations of the military rank and file. It is certainly true that the military as an institution forms an apparatus of state repression - while, in normal circumstances, not frequently deployed in a domestic setting, the forces are the main means of asserting state control over oppressed nationalities; the resort to the British army in Northern Ireland is an object lesson in the failure of conventional policing in such circumstances, while the occupiers of Iraq and Afghanistan are often portrayed as doing similar work to that of the friendly British bobby.

It would be mistaken, however, for the left to treat ‘its’ army in the same manner as the equivalent police force. For a start, it is simply empirically true that in revolutionary situations past, the army has been decisive in the outcome. It is prone in such situations - which often issue from catastrophic wars - to split, and successful revolutionary initiatives make use of this tendency. In 1917, for example, there grew a whole network of soldiers’ soviets, which were represented in the same way as the workers’ and peasants’ equivalents. The Bolsheviks’ successful agitation among the ranks was instrumental in almost bloodlessly circumventing the Kornilov revolt in September.

The re-emergence of revolutionary politics in America during the Vietnam war, more recently, was aided immeasurably by the widespread anti-war feeling within the American ranks. Vietnam Veterans Against the War was a massively influential organisation at its height, though numerically small; and frequent reports of the deliberate killing of officers (‘fragging’) had their own effect.

In both these cases, of course, we are talking about conscript armies. Russia was still fully mobilised against Germany; the US operated a draft lottery. This has led many Marxists - including, it must be said, Trotsky, with the ‘proletarian military policy’ - to support, or at least avoid opposing, conscription. Perhaps the most prominent advocate of the PMP today, the American League for the Revolutionary Party, argues that “our basic attitude on the military is that we oppose any and all bourgeois armies - drafted, mercenary or hybrid ... However, until it is overthrown by revolution, the capitalist state must retain a military force. If there is no conscripted army under capitalist rule, there has to be a mercenary army ... For that reason, a campaign against the draft within the context of reforming capitalism amounts to a campaign in favour of a mercenary army” (‘Why “No draft” is no answer’ Proletarian Revolution No73).

Without getting too bogged down in this debate (often ignored due to the prevailing opportunism on the left), I would argue that it is usually conducted on the basis of a false understanding of the balance of forces in a so-called ‘mercenary’ army. The bulk of the lower ranks in the military are, in the popular phrase, ‘economic conscripts’: men (mostly) with no real prospects in civilian life turn to the military for a wage they can survive on. While more attached to their institution than conscripts proper, is it certainly not the case that they are loyal to more than the pay cheque, and the same kind of low-level class struggle to be expected in almost any workplace is widely found in the ranks of the military, as a brief perusal of the ARRSE/Rum Ration-type websites will confirm.


For this reason, communists sympathise with the unlucky RAF personnel in Peterborough (insofar, of course, as they are of the lower orders of that institution: ie, insofar as they are of our class). We solidarise with them in their struggles against the brass, and we should prepare, however tentatively, for agitational work, as conflict within the ranks becomes more widespread.

This is not a matter, as bourgeois apologists typically imagine, of soldiers, sailors and airforce personnel ‘just doing their jobs’. The military is an institution of ruling class power. We are not looking for people to ‘blame’ in some moralistic way, but for an opportunity to split the military so as to undermine the power that underlies and is reinforced by it.

Therefore, we look at all opportunities to exacerbate class struggle within the ranks (the officer corps represents, after all, more or less exactly a reproduction of the ruling class within the military apparatus). We demand trade union rights for all soldiers, sailors and airmen and women, their full rights of freedom of speech against the tyranny of official ‘secrecy’, and the accountability of the higher ranks to the lower - in short, the activation of soldiers as genuine political agents.

Only when the workers’ movement takes up such demands will the military rank and file see where their real interests lie.