Issue 302: 2021 11 25: The British Army

25 November 2021

The British Army

Discipline & leadership AWOL?

By Neil Tidmarsh

It’s a curious fact that the most famous and successful fighting forces in history – Shaka’s Zulus, the Janissaries of the Ottoman empire, the Mamluks of Egypt, the Samurai of Japan, the knights of medieval Europe, the Duke of Wellington’s army, etc – did not encourage, licence or even tolerate ‘laddish’ behaviour or any other kind of uncontrolled misbehaviour, but positively repressed it. Off the battlefield (and to a certain extent on it), these martial cultures were characterised not by unbridled testosterone-fuelled aggression but by restraint and control, either imposed by its leaders or accepted as a valued code of ethics.

Shaka’s Zulu warriors weren’t allowed to marry until they were forty years old, and they had to stay celibate – on pain of death – until then (and even after marriage, during times of war). Similarly, Janissaries were not allowed to marry and were expected to remain celibate. Medieval knights accepted a code of service and sacrifice – chivalry – which was a secular version of the Christian principles of the church which legitimised the institution of knighthood; the Knights Hospitaller and the Knights Templar, with their monastic values of “chastity, poverty and obedience”, were its most extreme followers. The samurai followed the code of ‘bushido’, which put an emphasis on self-control, self-restraint, personal rectitude and selfless loyalty. The army which the Duke of Wellington marched from Lisbon to Waterloo to win the Napoleonic wars was restrained by strict orders and notoriously severe penalties; flogging and hanging discouraged theft, rape and murder. From the same theatre of war, Goya’s The Horrors of War graphically depicts the disintegration and defeat of other fighting forces which weren’t so restrained or controlled.

Goya’s work also depicts the miseries suffered by the populations despoiled by unrestrained and uncontrolled soldiery, but the purpose of restraint and control in the military isn’t just to protect civilians; it’s primarily to ensure victory’s essential ingredients – obedience and steadfastness – on the battlefield. Blind fury and unbridled aggression will invariably lose the day against discipline and resolve, as Boudicca’s tribesmen discovered against Rome’s legions and as highland clansmen discovered against redcoat regiments at Culloden.

So what are we to make of General Sir Nick Carter’s excuse, when trying to defend the British Army from the onslaught of accusations – bullying, sexism, sexual harassment, sexual assault, abuse, battery, grievous bodily harm, rape and even murder – which has driven it onto its back foot in recent weeks?

“We must encourage a laddish culture as ultimately our soldiers have to go close and personal with the enemy” he said. “One needs to have a culture in which we grow people who are able to close with and engage with the enemy at close quarters.” Or, as Max Hastings asked in last Saturday’s The Times, “How do you foster much-needed macho courage in an age that reviles violence and laddishness? Can we keep our soldiers mean, tough and ready to kill or be killed, if we tame them?”

“Well, yes, we can” would be the somewhat bemused answer from Shaka and the Duke of Wellington and a captain of Janissaries and a Templar and a Samurai, victorious generals and warriors all. “In fact, we have to tame our soldiers, with almost impossible restraints and controls, if they are to have the grit to keep their heads and obey orders during battles, as well as the aggression to win them. Aggression must be contained off the battlefield so that it can be channelled effectively on the battlefield.”

To cast the army’s current crisis as a conflict between traditional male values and today’s gentler, kinder, more woke society is a misunderstanding, a red herring. Soldiers from a rougher, tougher, un-woke past would see the causes of this crisis for what they are – weak discipline and poor leadership.

Cover page image: Creative Commons

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