If you portray the Labour leader as an enemy of the state, how do you expect him to be perceived by those charged with defending it?
BY NOW, you will likely be aware of the footage currently in viral circulation, which appears to show members of our brave armed forces heroically assassinating a photograph.
Displaying the kind of moral and physical courage rarely seen outside of a Fortnite Twitch channel, several British soldiers are seen unleashing a barrage of presumably taxpayer-funded ‘simunition’ paint bullets into a graphic representation of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, in a display which really shows the value for money the UK gets for £36 billion per year in defence spending.
Since many have predictably taken issue with British military personnel apparently using the image of a potential future prime minister as target practice, some have already warned against accepting the video at face-value. Doubt has been raised (albeit rather belatedly) over the veracity of the footage by its original poster, author and ex-sergeant Trevor Coult, who claimed it had been photoshopped; the Ministry of Defence, however, has reportedly verified the footage as legitimate.
What is known for certain is that the video has been condemned by politicians across the ideological spectrum. Conservative MP and former lieutenant colonel Tom Tugendhat described the footage as “disgraceful”; Labour MP Jess Phillips, though hardly a fan of her party leader, nevertheless tweeted that the incident was “absolutely hideous and irresponsible under this or any other climate.” Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon called it “appalling” and welcomed the MOD’s decision to launch an investigation.
On the one hand, the announcement of an investigation has happened with remarkable speed, considering the efforts both the UK Government and the British military generally put in to making sure – from Bloody Sunday to Deepcut – that soldiers are rarely investigated for anything at all. That said, British military investigations do not have an unblemished record; only last year, a trial against army instructors accused of abusing and assaulting teenaged recruits collapsed after it transpired that the Royal Military police investigator pursuing the case did not interview possible witnesses, because she assumed, with Poirot-like insight, that they would be dishonest. Perhaps with this in mind, Labour shadow education secretary Angela Rayner commented that she hoped the investigation would be conducted “thoroughly and the conclusions made public.” We shall see.
Until such conclusions are reached, the controversy surrounding the footage should prompt a much-needed public discussion about the relationship between politics and the armed forces. Even if one does not interpret riddling Corbyn’s picture with practice-ammunition as a veiled threat or ominous rehearsal for the real thing – a speculative assessment, but one which is hard to avoid – much of the reprobation which greeted the video hinged upon the violation of the British armed forces’ vaunted – and largely mythical – status as an apolitical institution.
This is no unwritten rule or vague ethos. A ForcesWatch briefing on the terms of service for the UK armed forces notes that “considerable restrictions” are imposed upon the political freedoms of those who join the British military: “They are not permitted to join a trade union or a political organisation, to speak to the media or in public without permission or stand for elected office.” The briefing further notes that the restrictions facing UK personnel are “more extreme than those that govern the armed forces in the US and in many EU countries,” and that “members of the armed forces can be criminalised, and even imprisoned, for relatively minor acts of personal expression.”
Yet even if military personnel themselves are constrained from engaging in political expression, it cannot honestly be claimed that the military – in this, or any other country - is an apolitical institution, whether it be due to its pivotal role within the state in question, or simply its frequent and largely unquestioned usefulness as a prop for opportunistic politicians, from Donald Trump’s desire for a military parade celebrating (what else?) himself, to Scottish Tory leader ‘Colonel’ Ruth Davidson, whose TA training has been put to effective use seizing any territory where photographers might see her posing in uniform or straddling a tank.
Nevertheless, one of the crucial fairy tales which undergirds both the military as we know it and the militarism it relies upon is that duty supersedes all other concerns, including political opinions; that those in uniform can, must and do rise above such petty and personal matters to focus exclusively upon the defence of the realm.
And yet, in light of Corbyn’s appearance on the firing range, it is reasonable to ask: when members of an instrument of the state, indoctrinated to think of little else but the state’s defence, are confronted with the possibility that an individual who has been widely portrayed as an enemy of the state might become the political leader of that state… What exactly did you expect to happen?
Painting Corbyn as a fiendish enemy within, an untrustworthy traitor, an agent of the UK’s ever-multiplying enemies, has been a passion project for his opponents both in and outside of Labour since he won the leadership. Former MI6 head Sir Richard Dearlove went so far as to intervene ahead of the 2017 General Election to brand Corbyn as “a clear and present danger to the country”, an “enthusiastic supporter” of terrorism who wouldn’t get passed the vetting process for the British security services, and should not be anywhere near the levers of power.
Regrettably for his detractors, according to recent polling, the British public largely aren’t buying it. This may be because many of them have difficulty engaging in such paranoid flights of fantasy when confronted with a lifelong member of an intensely familiar social democratic party who, at present, backs the UK’s membership of NATO, has committed to ring-fencing defence spending, and hasn’t budged Labour’s traditional backing of the Trident nuclear deterrent. As the political journalist Jamie Maxwell argued last year, the dark secret of Corbyn may be that he’s actually nowhere near as radical as both his supporters and his enemies have built him up to be.
While that may be apparent to many, this week’s viral video hit shows that some are perfectly happy to see Corbyn as something else. And while we may express shock that this perception exists – and is distastefully acted upon – by members of the armed services, we are only fooling ourselves if we pretend that a military consumed by the archaic pomp and wilful self-delusion of British nationalism can somehow be an exclusively, perfectly apolitical entity.
The far right know this, whether they admit it publicly or not; as Joe Glenton argued recently, the army has always been a “hotbed of politics”, and recent pictures of far-right activist Tommy Robinson posing with smiling British infantrymen are hardly surprising, because the British Army is itself a far-right organisation, “anchored to a violent colonial past that it gleefully celebrates.” Trying to engineer an end to instances like Robinson’s photo-op or this week’s incident by forcing a return to an apolitical military that never existed in the first place is a strategy doomed to failure.
Instead, however taboo it may be, the answer to the institutional conservatism of the military may be the radicalisation of its ordinary men and women in the opposite direction, a process which often needs no outside instigator – life in the armed forces can be its own brutal political education.
The activist and journalist Mike Prysner joined the US Army as a young patriot; he returned from Iraq a dedicated anti-imperialist. As he put it: “Those who send us to war do not have to pull a trigger or lob a mortar round. They do not have to fight the war. They merely have to sell the war. They need a public who is willing to send their soldiers into harm’s way and they need soldiers who are willing to kill or be killed without question. They can spend millions on a single bomb, but that bomb only becomes a weapon when the ranks in the military are willing to follow orders to use it. They can send every last soldier anywhere on earth, but there will only be a war if soldiers are willing to fight.”
Picture courtesy of Garry Knight