Control Freaks

IssueOctober - November 2014
Feature by David Gee
‘The View from the Drone; Northern Pakistan (23 January 2009)’
by Steve Pratt, former SAS soldier turned art psychotherapist.


If peace is the ecology of mutual relationships, violence is the deliberate or negligent destruction of that ecology – the violation of persons, cultures, communities, peoples, the Earth.

Control, as the will to force a situation into a specific outcome, or to prevent one, is one way of understanding the genesis of violence. As such, violence is the extension of the will to control other beings; the will to control other beings culminates in violence. Militarism’s dynamic of control works not only on the world, but also through the people who enact state violence.

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Armed forces personnel are controlled from the moment they turn up for training, which steadily turns young civilians into operationally-effective combatants by inculcating conformity with and obedience to the martial system. Training ‘breaks you down and then rebuilds you in a different way’, as one veteran has put it.

In 1986, the sociologist and former soldier John Hockey wrote a detailed description of military training, which in large part still stands today. The training regime aims to dispossess recruits of their civilian role and build a new self-image in its place, explains Hockey. The process operates by making absolute demands of recruits which erode self-determination, autonomy of movement, privacy and choice of personal appearance. Required to look and behave the same, recruits are anonymised and controlled. Hockey says that this ‘socialisation under pressure’ will ‘soften’ recruits in readiness for the imposition of new personal self-images, values, and definitions of personal achievement.


“I’m really uncomfortable with… how we sold the army to young people; I feel like I was party to some fairly questionable stuff.”

Once the enculturation of values and behaviours has succeeded in gaining the willing compliance of trainees, the socialisation process enters a new, less-rigorous phase, Hockey observed. As a measure of permissiveness returns, trust and humour between commander and commanded partially offset the strictures of the training regime. With control secured through compliance rather than enforcement, the authoritarian application of power becomes less immediately necessary, although it remains omnipresent as the guarantor of military culture.

Trainers and trainees affirm hyper-masculine norms: aggression, stoicism and aversion to weakness. In the military group, the uniformity of this identity is enforced through the training process and reinforced by formal and informal (including illicit) hyper-masculine bonding rituals. Social and institutional pressures to conform create a strong insider-outsider dynamic, in which ‘military’ is understood in opposition to ‘civilian’, strength and weakness become gendered polar opposites, and values antithetical to a hyper-masculine ideal are resisted as threatening.

In sum, recruits are controlled and partly dehumanised by the system they serve in order to prepare them for war. They become, as the educationalist Paulo Freire expressed it, ‘beings for another’.

Yet despite the tough training and conditioning of the military regime, and in some respects because of it, exposure to the traumas of warfare still assaults the psyche. We often think of these effects as ‘mental health problems’ – and they are – but the primary injury is to the soul. Whilst such reactions are commonly stigmatised as part of a mental health ‘disorder’, the experience, while highly stressful, can also be understood as the healthy response of a morally functional individual. A British Iraq War veteran told me that, given his war experiences, he would have thought that something was wrong with himself if he had not been feeling a stress reaction afterwards.

Moulding the public

For all its ambitions of holding on to Britain’s warrior-nation status, our government worries that this vision bores the body politic. It does. The public generally has a high opinion of soldiers and likes the idea of Britain as an important state, but this interest is generally casual, not passionate, and does not translate straightforwardly into committed support for war. Nor does it necessarily endorse the national power-posturing of the government’s security strategy.

The British state and its establishment allies believe it needs to be able to fight future wars; it worries about whether it will be able to do so without the body politic on board; and it is urgently working to ensure that the public are prepared to support the political decisions required. Since the government has been unable to swing the public behind its wars, it is going for the next best thing: the normalisation of militarist values and worldviews by embedding them in society. The state’s ‘ambition’ to ‘shape the global environment’ undoubtedly includes moulding the public’s prevailing attitude into one of support for future wars, or at least polite indifference. The means employed to achieve this aim to distance the public from the reality of war as horrific, while generating a romanticised public conception of war as heroic. As such, the home-front battle for hearts and minds is just as much a project of control as the world-shaping scheme it is supposed to serve.

We ought to be concerned. It might have failed to win our support for its recent wars, but the government’s power to elicit public compliance and shape social culture through the education system, the media, and legislation is prodigious. So is its chutzpah in ignoring public opinion when it wants to, as it did after the huge march against the Iraq war in 2003. The political theorist Margaret Canovan writes:

‘By historical standards, [modern liberal democracies] represent astonishing concentrations of collective power, wielding a degree of control over their territory and receiving a level of co-operation from their citizens that earlier despots would have envied.… Even more remarkably, these states use relatively little raw coercion: far more of their power is a matter of mobilising consensus and directing compliance.’

“Recruits are controlled and partly dehumanised. They become, as Paulo Freire expressed it, ‘beings for another’.”

To this end, the state marshals and manipulates cultural symbols that tap into our needs, desires and hopes. When the queen is sailed down the river Thames for her jubilee, she is a passive, controlled person; her behaviour is as determined by others as that of the security guard who stands stock-still next to her. But she is active as a symbol, mobilised on behalf of the state. The union flags that line the riverbanks are not just waved in the air, they are waved at the queen, confirming the public’s loyalty as devotees of the state she represents. The flag is an example of an empty signifier: a symbol whose meaning is not fixed but rather filled with whatever significance is conferred to it by those who use or witness it. Even so, the flag’s meaning is constant in one respect: it affirms the state as guardian of the people. Whether the vision it symbolises is one of aggressive nationalism or just a shared sense of social belonging, the union flag always indicates the state as that vision’s guarantor. The symbol is therefore mobilised, as is the public fêting of soldiers on Armed Forces Day, as a means to generate a consensus of compliance among the public.

A new covenant?

Propaganda trades on empty signifiers all the time and the military sphere has oodles of them: the remembrance poppy, Remembrance Day, and the name ‘Help for Heroes’ for the military welfare charity are among many examples. Even the armed forces themselves are their own cultural symbol – as our heroes. Now this toolbox of indeterminate symbols has a new joiner – the ‘military covenant’ – a presupposed, mutual commitment between the state, the public, and the armed forces. The armed forces sacrifice themselves for the nation, so the argument for the covenant goes, therefore ‘the whole nation has a moral obligation to [them] and their families’. The existence of a covenantal relationship between the nation and the armed forces is a claim, not a self-evident fact, but even as rhetoric it is fast becoming the rubric under which the government attempts to justify a militarist outlook to the public.

The term ‘military covenant’ appears never to have been used in print until it appeared in an internal army document in 2000, but historic roots have been claimed for it. Some sources suggest that a military-civilian covenantal understanding stretches back to Elizabeth I, who levied a tax in favour of injured veterans, but this appeal to history cuts both ways. If there has been a covenantal relationship between the state and its military personnel in Britain’s past, it has been habitually weak or worse, repeatedly privileging the state over the soldier.

Queen Elizabeth I might well have gestured in good will to meet the care needs of her injured officers, but her reign also saw navy press gangs forcing civilian sailors to man the galleons on pain of execution. In the First World War, soldiers’ chronic shell-shock caused by relentless traumatic experiences was put down to their moral weakness; hundreds of the psychologically-injured were shot for cowardice.

When troops returned from the Falklands in 1982, the battle-wounded were barred from London’s victory parade for ‘security’ reasons; after an outcry in the Daily Mirror, the ministry of defence allowed six hand-picked, wheelchair-bound veterans to watch the parade go by. The lord mayor still refused to allow blinded veterans to join the procession: ‘What will they see?’ he asked. As these examples suggest, the state’s historical attitude to veterans has often been appalling. Even today, despite the military covenant rhetoric, the government leans heavily on charities – the ‘Big Society’ – to fulfil its duty of care to veterans who are homeless or housing-insecure, have drug or alcohol dependencies, are unemployed, or require long-term support.

Funded by fines levied from the banks’ LIBOR fraud of 2012, the covenant has sent the armed forces’ PR machine into overdrive and sprouted hundreds of new local events and national schemes. Among these are homecoming parades in town centres; away-days at military bases for businesses; ostentatiously-militarised security for mega-events like the Olympics, and pre-kick-off medal award ceremonies on premier league football match days. Armed forces recruiters and military marketing have become far more pervasive in civilian life: in schools, job centres, community buildings, leisure centres, at cultural events, and throughout the annual ‘Remembrance Festival’, as it is now called.

The central propaganda vehicle under the military covenant is now the annual Armed Forces Day. Launched in 2009, the event’s scale now rivals the British Legion’s Remembrance Festival in November. It is a nationwide, soft recruitment jamboree, described as a ‘thrilling spectacle with a plethora of explosions’. After its lacklustre beginnings, the day is now backed by extensive TV advertising with the tagline ‘Show Your Support’ and events are planned in over 100 towns annually.

By lionising and in some cases fetishising the armed forces, initiatives like Armed Forces Day serve to normalise a swollen military force as part of the healthy order of society – even one facing no military threats for the foreseeable future. As in war, so in the propaganda battle at home, the state controls the soldiers as a body, making them stand and march as an heroic emblem of nationhood. The stage-managed fêting of soldiers reduces them once again to means, rather than ends; in making a collective cultural icon of them, it submerges them as individual persons. In these set-pieces, as the Falklands veteran Gus Hales has said, we the public are rarely allowed to hear soldiers’ own voices, which may be complex and, from the state’s point of view, intolerably unpredictable.

Under-age, under fire

“The army openly targets so-called ‘pre-eligibles’: children not yet of recruitment age.”

Increasingly anxious to fill the ranks, especially the perennially-understaffed infantry, the army openly targets so-called ‘pre-eligibles’: children not yet of recruitment age. Its online recruitment programme for 14-16-year-olds, called Camouflage, celebrates ‘awesome armour’, ‘big guns’, and ‘wonder weapons’, linking through to the jobs site.

The army’s recruitment efforts are concentrated in economically-suppressed regions: central Scotland, north-east and north-west England, Wales, and the West Country. Arbroath Academy, the most frequently contacted school in Scotland, with some 31 armed forces visits in two years, is one of the country’s poorest: 29% of its students take free school meals.

The creeping invasiveness of militarism is pushed back every time people within the scope of its dominance determine not to participate in the game. Britain abolished conscription in 1960, but among those who now enlist voluntarily moral doubts can still develop and often do, leading personnel in some cases to a conscientious refusal to kill.

A number of veterans have hit the headlines for refusing to fight in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, such as Ben Griffin, Joe Glenton, Michael Lyons and Malcolm Kendall-Smith. Most objectors whose stand has reached the press have been punished by incarceration, demotion and dishonourable discharge. If the intention is to cow them, it tends to fail: many such veterans now number among our wars’ most eloquent and persuasive critics.

Besides rebellion from the ranks, others responsible for supporting the military system of control have also spoken out. Richard Pendleton, who used to write the publicity materials for army jobs, is the only former executive to have publicly criticised the ad agencies’ manipulative messaging to children and young people. ‘I’m really uncomfortable with… how we sold the army to young people; I feel like I was party to some fairly questionable stuff,’ he admitted. As an army recruiter, Martin McGing would take the SA-80 rifle into schools to get children excited about becoming soldiers. He now regrets his involvement: ‘Kids loved it,’ he said, but the approach was ‘wrong’ and ‘not honest’.

School teachers, parents and pupils have also taken a stand. Although the armed forces visit most schools – even some primary schools – some head teachers refuse to host them. One such refusenik institution is the Trinity Catholic School in Leamington. Its principal, Chris Gabbett, believes it is wrong to encourage children to enlist from age 16 when they are ‘still choosing the appropriate pathways to enable them to be consciously, politically and socially fully involved in an adult world’.

In colonising the outlook of children, occupying the bodies of soldiers, and dominating relations between nation-states, a culture of militarism diminishes us and turns our humanity to inhumane purposes. As militarism domesticates and controls, it stands against freedom: not the unbounded liberty of consumer capitalism that Western wars profess to defend at home, nor the enforced liberty that they profess to impose abroad, but the freedom of our common desire to be more fully human.

One of Paulo Freire’s insights was that the journey from oppression to freedom is the very thing that makes us more human; the process itself will ‘return to the people what truly belongs to them’, namely their ‘stolen humanity’, he said.

To my mind, veterans who felt that the military regime entrapped their conscience, and so left it, and turned their skills to challenging militarism and war, testify to this process of re-humanisation.

In Freire’s terms, they are no longer ‘beings for another’. They prove the political potency of moral imagination, which they show is at work even within the domesticating structures of militarism. Their stand ought to challenge us all to look upon our own participation in the controlling dynamic of militarism that they have renounced.

Topics: Anti-militarism