Who will fight for Britain?

Pax Americana has hollowed out our sense of duty

The year I was born, one of the most famous New Wave songs of all time was released: Elvis Costello’s “Oliver’s Army”. It was written after Costello visited Northern Ireland during the Troubles. There, he described seeing “mere boys walking around in battle dress with automatic weapons” — the soldiers, often recruited from Britain’s working class, that make up the United Kingdom’s standing army.

The Oliver is Cromwell: the man who founded what became the modern British army, as well as playing a notoriously brutal role in the 1649-1653 conquest of Ireland. And while the song is a long way from either nerdy military history or tub-thumping patriotism, it does take for granted the permanence of the military: “Oliver’s army is here to stay.”

But is it? Recruitment to Oliver’s Army, and related naval and air forces, is at crisis levels. The Tories are reportedly retiring two amphibious assault vessels, in a move critics have called “the end of the Royal Marines”, due to a shortage of sailors to operate them. Recruitment and retention are so poor that recently the Navy was reduced to advertising on LinkedIn for a rear-admiral. And the Army had to move hundreds of troops from the front line to recruitment because people aren’t joining.

According to Ben Wallace, a former defence secretary, this shortage is because Gen Z is not signing up. But why? Conservatives sometimes suggest that the culprit is some combination of wokeness, or women, or sexual minorities attenuating the Forces’ warlike masculinity. The real driving force, though, may be deeper and harder to reverse: the long, slow demise of the modern nation-state as a basic unit of geopolitics.

The history of Europe’s armed forces is inseparable from the development and reach of the states that command them. The reason for this is obvious: an independent state unable to plausibly threaten retaliation if attacked is unlikely to remain independent for very long. But such forces have not always been patriotic in character. In premodern times, peasant soldiers fought out of obligation to a feudal lord, or mercenaries for money.

The idea of fighting for an ideal “King and country” is, by contrast, relatively modern — and coincides with the 17th-century birth of the modern nation-state, as a by-product of religious conflict after the Reformation. In England, Oliver’s Army was founded in 1645 to fight for the Parliamentarian cause in the English Civil War: a series of religiously inflected political convulsions that would culminate, in 1688, with the adoption of constitutional monarchy and the inauguration of modern Britain. Roughly concurrently, in 1648, the Treaty of Westphalia ended the unimaginably brutal Thirty Years’ War, with a settlement that broadly established the modern European community of sovereign states.

Such states were implicitly, if not exclusively, conceived of as ethnic — in the sense of providing a political vehicle for a “people”. Indeed, such “imagined communities” were, paradoxically, sometimes at least in part conjured into being by the “nation-state” that emerged to represent them. But the question of what came first, the “peoples” or the nation-states, is arguably secondary to the reality of the political entities themselves: competing powers, complete with armed forces whose size grew rapidly even as their tactics and weapons became more sophisticated.

Modern European history is the story of these standing armies, nation-states and national “imagined communities”. The history of the one military division that survives from Cromwell’s original force — the Coldstream Guards — captures this in a nutshell. It was an age of imperial expansion, national fervour and great-power rivalries; it reached a cataclysmic crisis in the two 20th-century World Wars, where the Coldstream served in Europe and the Middle East.

Popular history today, especially in America, often recounts the two World Wars as a defence of abstractions such as “freedom” or “democracy”. But many in Europe at the time understood the wars in the more prosaic terms of rivalry between Europe’s post-Westphalia states and their sprawling global empires. For A.J.P. Taylor, for example, the First World War was a consequence of Great Power competition, with the aim of determining “how Europe was to be remade”. The Second, far from being an epic confrontation between good (the Allies) and evil (the Nazis), was more accurately “a repeat performance of the First”.

Compared with the First, Taylor views the Second World War as having changed very little. But with seven decades’ additional hindsight, it is clear that, even if Taylor was right to see both World Wars as in essence the same conflict, taken together the wars changed everything. For they ended the age of European nation-states and empires. And the real winner of both wars was America: the empire that has dominated since 1945, and whose defence spending and military priorities have, under the guise of the “rules-based international order”, governed Europe ever since.

Britain’s military atrophy, then, is less an effect of wokeness or of female soldiers than of this colonisation of Europe by the United States — in the course of which, under the banner of “national self-determination”, the battered European empires were dismantled, to America’s benefit. This became clear in the 1956 Suez crisis, when Elvis Costello was just a toddler. Here, Britain, France and Israel invaded Egypt to recover control of the Suez Canal, only to be pressured into backing down by the United States. Now widely understood as a pivotal moment in which hard-power supremacy very clearly shifted to the United States, it was a shattering blow to the British self-conception, revealing the state of its military enfeeblement.

It had consequences for Oliver’s Army, too. Thomas Fabyanic recounts how, immediately after the Second World War, Britain was spending some 10% of British GDP on defence, and allocating a huge proportion of public effort and material resources to the military. Six months after Suez, a White Paper was presented to Parliament calling for scrapping conscription, and moving to an all-volunteer armed forces.

The post-conscription British Army has suffered recruitment shortfalls ever since. And as Britain’s relative economic and military standing has continued to decline, so our armies have shrunk too: a slow withering again epitomised by the Coldstream Guards, now down to a single battalion and serving mostly ceremonial functions in London and at Windsor Castle. And why would European defence not atrophy, when peace continues to be underwritten by the Pax Americana?

We might, perhaps, argue that military recruitment has only lagged behind the loss of Empire because the memory of a political order takes longer to die than the order itself. The Forces continued running on patriotic fumes, long after after Suez and the subsequent quiet decision to abandon the nation-state. What’s replaced the older Europe of patriotic, implicitly ethnic “imagined communities” is — at least in aspiration — a dream of post-national rules, post-ethnic harmony, and maximal economic growth.

This is usually presented as simply “modern” and self-evidently positive. In reality, though, it’s an ideology that extends as far as, and no further than, the American empire. This entity is no less real for governing via rules and “international courts” rather than colonial administrations, and has had much to recommend it: the period of peace in Europe since 1945 is matched, for instance, only by the period of peak British imperial dominance, from 1815 to 1914. But at the very point where the defeat of the nation-state seems complete, in favour of post-national Pax Americana, things appear, once again, to be changing.

For one thing, the 20th-century war America waged on European empires, in the name of “decolonisation”, has now rebounded, in the form of a challenge to the American founding itself as “settler colonialism”. By extension the American project itself is no longer self-evidently morally good; the result of this turn is a youthful American elite increasingly hostile to many of the founding presumptions of American hard power, and reluctant to enforce American borders, join American forces, or support American military adventures overseas.

Thus we find the hegemon facing both internal and external challenges — even as financial pressures see some on the American Right suggest mothballing support for European security altogether. If this happened, what would it mean for European security and, by extension, European sovereignty? Having embraced American-style civic nationalism, itself now under attack, it’s far from clear that we could still rely on our youth to defend our nations voluntarily. Would the crowds of often very young people who gather in London every weekend to protest the conflict in Gaza accept conscription into the British armed forces on the grounds of patriotism?

It’s hard to say. But it seems unlikely that a country can dissolve Westphalia-style European sovereignty and European peoples in a bath of international treaties, while denouncing national identity and history as shameful, and simultaneously ask what Costello called the “boys from the Mersey and the Thames and the Tyne” to continue signing up to fight for their country in extremis. After a while, even the most unobservant will notice that “country” is growing increasingly difficult to define, let alone who might claim such an entity is “theirs”.

So, then, governed by uncertain, porous and habitually post-national elites, and absent the noble promises of patriotic common identity, what would happen if conflict returned to Europe? Well, even if the nation-state model is dead, and unlikely to be re-animated except in the conservative imagination, it’s hardly as though there were no wars or armies prior to the nation-state era. These were simply recruited and justified differently: the mercenaries who fought in Machiavelli’s Italy, for example, or the feudal peasants obliged to arm at their own expense and turn out for their landowner when required.

I suspect a breakdown of European security would, in practice, look like a mix of existing armed forces, conscription, and ancient forms of militarism updated for the present: private armies, neo-feudal military obligations, perhaps armed activists or religious groups. Indeed, perhaps we’re already there: the role of the Wagner Group, for example, has been much-discussed in Ukraine, as have relations between its leadership and the Russian government.

Assailed from one direction by the legacy of Flower Power pacifism and from another by a consensus in favour of diversifying citizens’ ethnic heritage, demoted in political importance by Pax Americana, European nations’ “imagined communities” have been under fire for some time. Now, we find ourselves contemplating at least the possibility of retrenchment in the Pax Americana that succeeded it. In the wake of such shifts, the question of who will fight, and for whom, is not far behind — even in currently peaceful Europe. But an important corollary of the post-national ideal we embraced is that you can’t then appeal to national identity if you need to raise an army.

In that vacuum, the question of who in Europe, in an emergency, could be induced to lay down their lives — and for what cause — is an open and profoundly troubling one. We can only hope we continue to avoid the need to answer it.

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