Do we need a belligerent military?

When invited to volunteer doing DIY for a paramilitary youth organisation last week, I politely declined.

‘Paramilitary youth organisation’ is a deliberately precise way of describing the Sea Cadets, but I’ve had enough of euphemisms in the service of killing people.

From Wikipedia:

A paramilitary is a semi-militarised force whose organisational structure, tactics, training, subculture, and (often) function are similar to those of a professional military, but is not formally part of a country’s armed forces.

Okay, so the Sea Cadets might not be issued arms, but they do train young people in target shooting and ‘follow a similar ethos, training plan, and ranks, to the Royal Navy, and are recognised by the UK Ministry of Defence’.

There’s another euphemism: ‘defence’.

The United Kingdom has an incredibly violent history and it’s almost impossible to justify any of our killing sprees with the word ‘defence’.

In the century from 1910 to 2010, I counted that the British military were involved in at least 34 conflicts, lasting a total of around 200 years.

The biggest threat to UK citizens since the end of the Second World War has come from terrorist activities on British soil: the IRA in the 1970-1990s and the so-called Islamists since the British-American invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan in 2003.

One important thing to note is that, although this terrorist activity on British soil has represented a real threat to our lives and livelihood, the defence of our citizens was largely performed by the police and other emergency services, not the military.

Terrorist activity is not a justification for the military. In fact, as I have rather clumsily intimated, I would argue that it was the activity of the British military that fomented these terrorist attacks, both from the IRA and so-called Islamists.


What most annoys me is that so many of my fellow citizens believe that a belligerent military is necessary for a flourishing society.

In 1947, Japan voluntarily surrendered its right of belligerency in Article 9 of their constitution.


(1) Aspiring sincerely to an international peace based on justice and order, the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes.

(2) In order to accomplish the aim of the preceding paragraph, land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained. The right of belligerency of the state will not be recognized.

The Japanese don’t seem to have suffered for the decision. From the ashes of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan grew to become the second biggest economy in the world (now third, blown away like the rest of the world by the rise of China), and one of its most technologically advanced, leaving the UK in its dust.

Please can we all give up on the idea that belligerence is somehow necessary for our flourishing as a society?

* Important Note: Since the first Gulf War in Iraq, and despite ridiculous levels of development between 1947 and 1989, successive Japanese governments have extended the scope of its now euphemistically titled Self Defence Forces. The nationalist government of Shinzo Abe are currently doing their damnedest to revise Article 9 as well. These militarising decisions seem to be based more on gaining ‘international respect’ and getting a seat as a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council than on supporting the health and flourishing of their citizens.


Notice that I’m talking about belligerence, not violence in all forms. I’m not a Buddhist and nor am I a pacifist. In fact, I’m not much of any kind of an -ist.

Categorical decision-making can tie you up in knots and I’d rather judge situations on their merits.

I concede that, perhaps, when human beings have really fucked things up good and proper, it’s just conceivable that violence is our only recourse for genuine defence.

But this is not the same ‘last resort’ rhetoric that is wheeled out with such alacrity by our politicians at the first whiff of oil. Human beings have to make decades of poor decisions before violence might become a necessity.

Whenever I argue against the existence of (for example) paramilitary youth organisations, people often bring up the Second World War. Wouldn’t I support – even participate in – military action to stop Hitler?

Not only is this incredibly disrespectful to the people who fought and died in such misery, but it also ignores the history that led to the awful violence.

The Second World War didn’t come out of nowhere; it resulted from decades of horrific mismanagement of international affairs.

Diplomats failed, economists failed, politicians failed. In the decades leading up to the start of the Second World War, including the First World War and its aftermath, human beings failed, time and time again, to cooperate harmoniously.

Then the worst thing that could possibly happen, happened.

Defenders of ‘defence’ seem to forget that war is the worst thing that can possibly happen to anyone. They seem to see ‘defence’ as something that happens a long way away, to other people. And, growing up as we have in a time of domestic peace, they’d be absolutely correct.

British ‘defence’ drops bombs and wrecks homes in Iraq, Afghanistan and Serbia. Each bomb is a testament to decades of shocking failure. But there is no doubt in my mind, having met quite a number of refugees from our conflicts, that war is the worst thing that can possibly happen to a human being.

Isolated and insulated, our military takes action too quickly, as if to justify their existence. So much can happen before violence breaks out: we should remember that side of history, not the reckless moment we start firing rockets.


But they do good things!

Humanitarian missions, disaster relief, ‘peacekeeping’ (another euphemism) – our soldiers do good work!

I wouldn’t even bother trying to argue over the value of our military’s humanitarian work. Only to say that there are, obviously, other ways of providing this relief through organisations that don’t rest on a fundamentally violent basis.

I believe that the fate of humanity is best served by cooperation between equals and that everyone is responsible for ensuring knowledge and power is shared equally.

This philosophical and ethical position is the diametric opposite of military organisation, where power is concentrated in the higher levels of the hierarchy, orders cascade down from above, and intelligence is shared on a ‘need to know’ basis.

If there is a kicker to this polemic, it’s this: in 2017, Panorama revealed that the Ministry of Defence had paid out more than £2 million to former Sea Cadets who were sexually abused.

As one of the victims said:

You are trained to follow orders and you are trained to respect the officers and do as they tell you. That includes having to lie on the floor on a dirty blanket and just lie there and… take it like a man.

According to the BBC, the Marine Society and Sea Cadets apologised unreservedly and promised that it wouldn’t happen again. Because that’s how power works, right?

I’ll leave the final word to a man who knew about military power and the paramount importance of both the unquestionable hierarchy and silencing those who strive for non-military solutions:

Why, of course, the people don’t want war. Why would some poor slob on a farm want to risk his life in a war when the best that he can get out of it is to come back to his farm in one piece? …

But, after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine the policy and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy or a fascist dictatorship or a Parliament or a Communist dictatorship. …

The people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country.

~ Hermann Göring, in an interview with psychologist Gustave Gilbert during the Nuremburg Trials

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David Charles is co-writer of BBC radio sitcom Foiled. He also writes for The Bike Project, Thighs of Steel, and the Elevate Festival. He blogs at

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