#Commentary – Trading in the Old Lawnmower for an F-16

#Commentary – Trading in the Old Lawnmower for an F-16

By Dr Rebecca Shimoni-Stoil and Dr Jacob Stoil

At 3:30 in the morning on Wednesday, a single mother of three boys, Miri Tamano woke up in Beersheva to a missile defence warning siren. In under a minute, she woke up her children and rushed them to a safe room just before the house was destroyed by a direct hit from a Gazan rocket.[1] The strike against the Tamano house was the last straw after days of escalating tensions along the Gaza border and the Israeli Air Force (IAF) retaliated by launching twenty strikes against Hamas affiliated targets in the Gaza Strip.[2] At first glance, this use of the IAF may seem similar to the many similar strikes Israel launched over the last decade. However, it may also be the beginning of a new air-centric response to Hamas rockets. What is most interesting about this potential change in approach is not the change in and of itself but rather the forces that drove it. Unlike many changes to operational approach, this one is not driven primarily by changes in the military operational environment or international political realities. Instead, the possible shift towards a new air-based approach and the new emphasis on the employment of the IAF stems from domestic politics and frustration with recent approaches to the problem of Gaza.

The home of Miri Tamano in Beersheba, damaged by rocket fire from Gaza.
The home of Miri Tamano in Beersheba, damaged by rocket fire from Gaza. (Source: @IDFSpokesperson)

The IAF has always had a role in Israel Defence Force’s (IDF) retaliatory and deterrence operations. In the pre-1967 period, the IAF served as part of joint operations against Syria. In one famous incident on April 7th 1967, Syrian artillery strikes and small arms fires led to an escalation which eventually brought the IAF in to bomb Syrian positions and IAF fighters to clear the skies of Syrian aircraft. The goal of this operation was to establish deterrence along the Northern border. Here the IAF acted in concert and in support of ground force. Similar in 1970, the IDF called on the IAF to launch a major operation targeting Soviet Air Force units in Egypt. This operation followed a series of ground operations and sought to achieve a decisive blow ending the War of Attrition. This pattern continued through the 1980s when the IDF launched Operation Peace to the Galilee which sought (and to an extent achieved) a decisive defeat of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in Lebanon. Here again, Israel used air power in support of the ground offensive. In these instances and many others, IAF served as one aspect of joint retaliatory operations. More significantly the retaliatory operations either anticipated the coming of a decisive engagement (e.g. the 1967 War) or sought to be decisive by themselves – at the very least restoring credible deterrence.

Although, since the outbreak of the Syrian Civil War something resembling the classic pattern of deterrence operations continues on the Syrian border, the withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in 2005 changed the primary Israeli approach to establishing deterrence and seeking decisive victory. Since leaving Gaza as part of disengagement, the IDF has pursued a strategy of countering the hybrid threat through a concept often referred to as ‘mowing the grass.’ This concept has led Israel to five major ground operations in Gaza since 2006. At its heart mowing the grass is a concept for conflict management which buys time for an eventual political solution. Mowing the grass centres on the creation of deterrence and periods of quiet. In the concept when the adversary decides to escalate its level of violence Israel responds with restraint. As the adversary further escalates, Israel escalates its response. Eventually, the adversary crosses the threshold of tolerable violence, and Israel launches a major ground operation to severely punish the adversary and degrade adversary capabilities. This buys a period of calm which may last anywhere from several months to several years. However, almost invariably the same pressures which caused the adversary to escalate in the first place cause another escalation and the process repeats. In Gaza, this process has repeated itself several times resulting in Operation Summer Rains in 2006, Operation Hot Winter in 2008, Operation Cast Lead in 2008-2009, Operation Pillar of Defence in 2012, Operation Protective Edge in 2014, and it is now leading to a potential conflict in 2018.

Sites in the Gaza Strip targeted by the IAF on October 17, 2018.
Sites in the Gaza Strip targeted by the IAF on October 17, 2018. (Source: @IAFsite)

As a concept, mowing the grass recognises that defeating the enemy is next to impossible. In Gaza, Hamas is intertwined with Palestinian society and governance. For military planners mowing the grass means that there can be no decisive outcome. Hamas remained in government, the communities near Gaza could enjoy some calm, but invariably the threat would return, and the process would repeat. In Gaza, once escalation began, Israel would respond with warnings to Hamas, followed by more escalation and limited air strikes. This, in turn, would be followed by more escalation from Hamas and more significant air and artillery strikes by the IDF. As Hamas escalation continued, the IDF would build up ground forces near the Gaza border. Eventually, this process would lead to a limited incursion and then major ground operation by the IDF.

In the early stages of the escalation, the IAF played a messaging role indicating the seriousness of Israel’s intent and the willingness to escalate. As escalation continued the role of the IAF became a facet of joint operations aimed at reducing Hamas capabilities but never seeing a decisive victory. The final phase of these operations carries multiple political costs, both domestically and internationally. This phase inevitably causes more significant civilian and combatant casualties among the Palestinian population in Gaza which can be ‘expensive’ to Israel in the international community. The IDF has increasingly worked to distinguish between the two on the international stage, resulting in an associated media strategy that provides almost real-time footage of some parts of major Gaza operations.[3]  To an Israeli domestic audience, mowing the grass is an acknowledgement of the inability of the IDF to bring victory or create lasting deterrence and the Israeli Government to achieve a lasting end state. Essentially as long as mowing the grass remained the central method of military response to the situation in Gaza, the Israeli public knew that every operation and the lives it cost only bought time until the next one required the same sacrifices.

Mowing the grass relies on a lawnmower powered by patience and societal tolerance for the costs associated with the approach. The capacity of the Israeli public to absorb the costs associated with mowing the grass also constrains Israel’s policymakers. As a conscript army that draws upon a relatively small civilian population, IDF casualties are seen by the majority of Israeli society as ‘our children,’ a notable departure from earlier Israeli generations’ perspective of seeing them as ‘a silver platter upon which the country was borne’ – a tragic but unpreventable loss for a greater good.[4]

Traditionally, as in the Four Mothers campaign to pull out of Lebanon in the mid-nineties, concern with casualties as a justification for limitation of military action was the province of Israeli left-wing political parties. The right-wing parties, like Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud, also venerated soldiers but did not use the potential loss of life as a justification for reducing normative tactical options. Instead, right-wing politicians tended to emphasise the IDF’s role as protector of civilian life; frequently, centrist and right-wing governments were drawn into Gaza operations following public frustration with repeated terror strikes launched from within Gaza. Instead, Netanyahu is facing pressure from a different angle. The Israeli right-wing has grown stronger and particularly more popular with younger voters in the past two decades, and Netanyahu faces challenges from the right both in his own parties as well as from other right-wing parties that are natural and necessary allies in his ruling coalition. In the parliamentary system, a lack of confidence from within the coalition can collapse a government and bring about early elections that reshuffle the political balance of power.

One voice of opposition, former MK Moshe Feiglin signalled that Netanyahu’s right-wing might be losing patience with the ‘mowing the grass’ strategy. In an open statement to the press Wednesday, Feiglin wrote that ‘Victory is unconditional surrender! Don’t send a single soldier to his death for anything less than that.’[5] Feiglin went on to complain that as long as the government is ‘once again planning us a glorious defeat, just like previous iterations, a defeat that in the end leaves Beersheba a prisoner of Hamas,’ Feiglin’s faction will oppose any Gazan incursion ‘and the unnecessary risk to IDF soldiers.’[6] Feiglin’s comments reflect a growing frustration with what many Israelis see as a lose-lose strategy. The limited scale of the ‘mowing’ operations does not disable Hamas in the medium let alone long-term, meaning that Israeli civilians continue to live under the constant threat of rocket fire. While not entirely preventing rocket fire into Israel, Gaza incursion operations also incur high casualties from an Israeli perspective; 67 IDF soldiers were killed in Operation Protective Edge, a number surpassed this century only by the Second Lebanon War.[7]

Israeli F-16
An Israeli F-16 (Source: @IAFsite)

Under these circumstances, air power seems like one of the only choices available to politically navigate the public expectation of responding to rocket strikes while also avoiding the lose-lose dynamic of the mowing-rocket cycle. Feiglin intimated as much, calling on the prime minister to avoid ‘once again sending soldiers to die in the alleyways of Gaza for a political performance of war.’[8] Should the escalation from Gaza continue, the domestic political situation provides Netanyahu few choices. He could continue with the old pattern of operations in which the IAF serves to signal escalation and then as part of the combined operation, but this would risk significant domestic fallout. The Prime Minister could seek a decisive engagement in Gaza in which the IAF would act to support the land campaign, but this would be militarily and diplomatically extremely difficult. Finally, he could find an option that achieves the effect of mowing the grass without the human cost. In other words, he could turn the main effort of the response to the IAF, with supporting effects provided by the navy and ground forces outside of Gaza.

Israelis view air power as relatively risk-free, and in fact, only one IAF plane and one helicopter have been shot down in combat in the last 20 years, resulting in five deaths and two injuries. By relying more heavily on an air response, Netanyahu can avoid criticism for ‘wasting’ IDF soldiers on an operation that yields little clear take-home in the eyes of his voters. This changes the balance between the IAF and the other tools of military power and may drive Israeli engagement to air-centric approach. For this to work, the IAF will have to launch more strikes than in previous engagements. No longer part of a joint plan, the IAF will shoulder the responsibility for inflicting most of the cost on Hamas. By attempting to win an operation through the air alone, the IAF returns to an almost Douhetian concept of operations. As Israel, discovered in the 2006 Lebanon War this approach is not without problems. Among other challenges, it encounters questions as to what happens if the IAF completes its target list without achieving the war aims. The presence of ground forces has traditionally stimulated the exposure of new targets for the IAF allowing it to increase the efficacy of its strikes. Without such multi-domain cooperation, the target list may be far more limited.

What is significant then about the potential turn towards an air-centric approach is that it stems not from military or operational necessity but from domestic politics. This may be familiar to US and European states, but it is new for Israel. Even if this current period of increased conflict in Gaza ends with a ground operation or before one is necessary the change in the conversation on such operations will have a dramatic effect on the IAF and Israel’s thought about air power. For Netanyahu or any subsequent Prime Minister, until Israel develops a new approach to Gaza, an IAF centric approach will be at the forefront of consideration. This pushes the IAF into a new concept of operations and turns it from a critical supporting aspect of the IDFs total war package into the lawn mower of choice.

Dr Rebecca Shimoni-Stoil is a former NCO in the Israel Defense Forces, where she served as a combat medic and medical platoon deputy commander in the 9th Battalion of the Armored Corps. As a reservist, Shimoni-Stoil was a heavy search and rescue medic with the Home Front Command, mobilising in the Northern Sector during the Second Lebanon War. In her military capacity, she served in and around Gaza. After leaving her regular service, Shimoni-Stoil was hired by the Jerusalem Post and served in several capacities eventually being appointed the newspaper’s Internal Security correspondent. It was in this position that she covered both the increase in tensions and rocket attacks along Israel’s southern border with Gaza as well as the opening weeks of the Second Lebanon War. She later served as the Knesset [Parliamentary] Correspondent before becoming the Washington Correspondent for Times of Israel. Dr Shimoni-Stoil is now a lecturer in history at the Loyola University of Maryland. She has appeared as a commentator on radio and television channels worldwide and written for 538.com. She can be followed on twitter @RebeccaStoil.

Dr Jacob Stoil is an Assistant Professor of Military History at the US Army School of Advanced Military Studies where he serves as the author for the course ‘Anticipating the Future’. He is the Deputy Director of the Second World War Research Group for North America. Stoil holds a PhD from the University of Oxford, and an MA and BA from the Department of War Studies at King’s College London. He has research experience carrying out fieldwork in both Israel and the Horn of Africa. His most recent publications include Command and Irregular Indigenous Combat Forces in the Middle East and Africa’ in the Marine Corps University Journal, and ‘Martial Race and Indigenous Forces’ in Rob Johnson (ed.), The British Indian Army: Virtue and Necessity (2014). Additionally, he has authored analysis of contemporary operations and policy for the Journal of Military OperationsWar on the Rocks, and From Balloons to Drones. Most recently he published an article on the spread of vehicle ramming attacks through West Point’s Modern War Institute and has a forthcoming in Le Vingtième Siècle article on indigenous forces in Palestine Mandate. He can be reached on twitter @JacobStoil.

Header Image: Israeli Air Force F-16I (Source: Wikimedia)

Disclaimer: The opinions and conclusions expressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, any other government agency, or any institution.

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[1] https://www.timesofisrael.com/hero-mom-asks-for-help-after-beersheba-home-destroyed-by-gaza-rocket/

[2] https://www.timesofisrael.com/idf-says-20-targets-bombed-in-gaza-including-tunnels-blames-hamas-for-rockets/

[3] For examples of this type of information strategy see: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qG0CzM_Frvc&list=PL854689D6B2FCDD45; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bmh1dhRGzzM&index=2&list=PLObnKQho8o8PNUxfldeGNOsDFdazchJH8;  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OfjW-CcvxRw;

[4] For the text of the iconic Israeli poem that serves as the basis of this concept see: http://zionism-israel.com/hdoc/Silver_Platter.htm

[5] Press release from Moshe Feiglin, October 17, 2018

[6] Press release from Moshe Feiglin, October 17, 2018

[7] http://mfa.gov.il/MFA/ForeignPolicy/Terrorism/Pages/IDF-soldiers-killed-in-Operation-Protective-Edge.aspx

[8] Press release from Moshe Feiglin, October 17, 2018

#BookReview – Cultural Politics of Targeted Killing: On Drones, Counter-Insurgency, and Violence

#BookReview – Cultural Politics of Targeted Killing: On Drones, Counter-Insurgency, and Violence

By the Reverend Dr (Wing Commander) David Richardson

Kyle Grayson, Cultural Politics of Targeted Killing: On Drones, Counter-Insurgency, and Violence. Abingdon: Routledge, 2016. Tables. References. Index. Hbk. 218 pp.

Cultural-Politics-of-Targeted-Killing-cover

One cannot venture very far in the field of contemporary air power studies without encountering remotely piloted air systems, which have become a central feature of western military operations. Their use has raised many questions regarding their ethical status, and the effects they may have both on the battlefield and in the control cabin. Kyle Grayson, Senior Lecturer in International Politics at Newcastle University, has taken a slightly different approach in this volume, looking more widely at the interaction between culture, technology, the economy, government, and geostrategic elements. The book is part of the ‘Interventions’ series, which aims to examine international issues through a range of disciplines including critical, post-structural, and postcolonial approaches; this is not simply a primer on the rights and wrongs of conducting war with remotely piloted aerial systems (RPAS) – or drones. Grayson’s focus is on what he describes as ‘targeted killing’, which he sees as a form of modern-day assassination from the air, an activity which has often been debated on the fringes of the western ethical tradition (p. 4). In writing the volume, he seeks to demonstrate how modern liberal societies have come to terms with targeted killing through culture, emphasising ‘the incorporation of disparate elements including the non-human, power-relations, plasticity and the importance of discourse’ (p. 199).

In his first chapter, Grayson’s approach is to examine the use of RPAS for targeted killing as primarily a cultural phenomenon, trying to understand how culture interacts with such practices in such a way that they can become ‘part of the common sense of security thinking’ (p. 200). His second chapter looks at the legal frameworks which maintain a distinction between assassination and targeted killing while expanding the legal scope of such operations. Chapter three looks at the ‘moral problematics and gender relations’ of assassination and targeted killing, arguing that the use of RPAS systems can help overcome some of the ‘narrative ambivalence’ that these relations involve (p. 201). Chapter four examines how technology alone does not explain the increased usage of RPAS. Rather, a much broader scope of ‘chaoplexic thinking, network centric imaginaries, and preferences for speed, maximising information flows, flexibility, delayered organisational forms, and automation’ help explain current trends to use such systems (p. 201). The fifth chapter focuses on what Grayson describes as the ‘aesthetic’ of killing, examining how those who authorise and those who participate in RPAS warfare experience what is taking place on their screens. In the last chapter, the author emphasises the effect that missile strikes have on the homes of those targeted, arguing that this ‘colonises places and seeks to disrupt their temporalities’ (p. 202).

Grayson concludes his work by elucidating six factors that arise from liberal political culture; issues involving the legitimacy of assassination/targeted killing, the influence of modern camera technology, the role of information technology networks, politics of gender, the use of the law, and representation of the other (pp. 202-6). In his final comments, he urges the need for modern liberal societies to continually evaluate their relationship with RPAS usage, and to critically reflect upon their political culture.

Reaper Remotely Piloted Air System
A Royal Air Force Reaper RPAS at Kandahar Airfield in Afghanistan, c. 2014. (Source: Defence Imagery, UK Ministry of Defence)

There is much in this book that is of great interest. For instance, Grayson very helpfully notices the importance of the contemporary market economy in world affairs, emphasising how much the private sector engages with defence. In Grayson’s analysis, ‘the continuing growth of the RPA industry is benefiting from a favourable constellation of politico-economic elements’ (p. 125). Alternatively, to put it another way, the unmanned aerial vehicle is an ideal fit for the current economic climate and the political ecosystem. It would have been fascinating to see even more of an interaction with current thinking on neoliberalism, such as the writing of Wendy Brown, on how the market economy has effects far beyond the market. Grayson’s observations on the ‘complex social assemblage of war’ are thought-provoking and could arguably have been pressed even further, on such subjects such as deskilling and delayering of the economy. Similarly, Grayson’s interaction with Guy Debord and the role of spectacle in society merited further attention (pp. 93-135).

Grayson’s book has the potential to ask real and meaningful questions about the use of RPAS in contemporary warfare. By offering an approach that goes beyond a basic ethical analysis, considering the wider role of culture and warfare, his work could offer real insights into the interface of weapons and worldviews. Thus, for example, his comment that ‘a disproportionate amount of applied innovation in forms of governmentality under liberalism has been directed at the margins within territory, or oriented towards its periphery […] [liberalism] has shown great brutality to those it identifies as being beyond reclamation’ (p. 206). Such considerations are worthy of serious debate and analysis, whether one agrees with Grayson’s premises or not. Many commentators such as Nicholas Carr and Neil Postman have commented on the highly visual nature of contemporary culture – Grayson’s focus on the ‘aesthetics’ of RPAS warfare has the potential to offer real insights in this field. However, a great deal of his writing is delivered in a style which, in generous terms, one would describe as technical. The general reader who wishes to avail of Grayson’s insights is obliged to hack, word by word, through a lexical jungle overgrown with the bon mots of social theory. Many of the terms such as ‘problematisation’ and ‘biopolitics’ are inadequately defined for the non-specialist, which means that reading the book can be a profoundly frustrating experience. This is unfortunate, as Grayson shows an ability to express himself clearly in portions of the book where social theory assumes a lesser role, such as when describing the interaction between the global market and the armed forces of western nations. In short, Grayson raises many useful questions, but this is a book for only the most determined reader.

The Reverend Dr (Wing Commander) David Richardson is a chaplain in the Royal Air Force, initially ordained into the Church of Ireland. A graduate of the universities of Edinburgh, Dublin, Belfast, and King’s College London, he has served on a variety of RAF stations. His operational experience includes tours across Afghanistan and Iraq.

Header Image: A Royal Air Force Reaper RPAS at Kandahar Airfield in Afghanistan, c. 2014. (Source: Defence Imagery, UK Ministry of Defence)

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Society and #highintensitywar

Society and #highintensitywar

By the Reverend Dr (Wing Commander) David Richardson

Editorial Note: Between February and April 2018, The Central Blue and From Balloons to Drones, will be publishing a series of articles that examine the requirements of high-intensity warfare in the 21st Century. These articles provide the intellectual underpinnings to a seminar on high-intensity warfare held on 22 March by the Williams Foundation in Canberra, Australia. In this article, the Reverend Dr (Wing Commander) David Richardson discusses the relationship between society, political culture, and military sacrifice.

In his thoughtful account of the closing days of the Second World War, Max Hastings argues that the character of the conflict in western Europe was determined by the character of the western democracies themselves. The armies of Britain, America and their associates, he suggests, may have lacked the ruthless military prowess and determination of the German and Soviet forces, but ‘fought as bravely and well as any democracy could ask, if the values of civilisation were to be retained in their ranks’[1]. When Churchill and Roosevelt invoked ‘Christian Civilization’ as the grand cause worthy of sacrifice, they were not so much making a religious statement as appealing to a shared sense of identity which they expected their listeners to understand and relate to.  Seventy-five years later, it is by no means evident that this shared identity still holds. In this series articles published by From Balloons to Drones and The Central Blue considering the possibility of high-intensity war in the future, it is worth pausing to reflect on this relationship between political culture and military sacrifice, and some of its implications.

A 14063
Prime Minister Winston Churchill and President Franklin Roosevelt at the Casablanca Conference, c. January 1943. (Source: © IWM (A 14063))

As peace returned to the shattered remains of Europe in 1945, some positive developments followed in its wake. West of the Oder, at least, liberal democracy seemed to strike deeper roots than ever before, going hand in hand with a prosperity that followed a solid upward trajectory. Across the Atlantic, America abandoned isolationism and committed itself to be both the guardian and bankroller of freedom. The only primary rival in town, Marxist-Leninism, was seen off the stage after 1990 – it seemed as if the liberal democratic steamroller would flatten a global path for economic and personal freedom. However, all was not quite as it seemed.

Before considering just how the course of history unravelled after the fall of the Berlin Wall, it is useful to lay out – with a very broad brush – some of the presuppositions that had driven western society up to this point. From the Fall of Rome until the Enlightenment, religious horizons essentially bounded the world, symbolised most powerfully by the Holy Roman Emperor kneeling in the snow at Canossa. Architecture, art, and music all reflected this human concern about relating to the divine. Come the Enlightenment; the focus changed to working out what kind of world humans could create for themselves, relying on their unfettered reason and empirical discoveries. This was the age of science and developing democracy, which held out a dream of unending human progress. The waves of devastation which swept across Europe twice in the first half of the twentieth century cruelly mocked any such hopes. The last spasms of Enlightenment optimism at least gave birth to the liberal democratic project which seemed to triumph – and had been worth making sacrifices for.

However, the liberal democratic project rested on increasingly shaky foundations. Premodern people could find their certainties in religious truth. Enthusiasts for the Enlightenment could base their philosophy on a confidence that the truth was out there for any rational person to discover. Although these two views were divergent in almost every respect, they had this in common – a belief in a transcendent universe which provided a framework for understanding the place of human beings in the world.[2] As James Davison Hunter expresses it, there was a ‘common grammar for recognising the natural affections and moral sentiments shared by all humanity…the seeds of social solidarity could be found in human sentiments, the public good within private interests, the universal within the individual’[3]. This is precisely the transcendent worldview assumed by Churchill and Roosevelt in 1945. One of the tragic ironies of recent history is that, just as the liberal democratic project appeared to triumph, its internal coherence began to dissolve.

To put it crudely, liberal democracy bifurcated into liberal and democratic elements. Regarding liberalism, this was not the classic liberalism that Adam Smith would have recognised. Instead, it is something new – neoliberalism. The underlying assumption behind this concept is that the market is sovereign – and not merely over economic issues. Based on the theory of Friedrich Hayek, nothing has a given and immutable value – even those aspects of human significance and meaning that previous generations would have treated as normative. Objective truth is no longer ‘out there’ to be revealed or reasoned out but is determined by what the market will bear. As Stephen Metcalf points out, the old political processes of public reason – debate and thoughtful argument –  are incongruent with this process, as in market terms they are simply opinions. What happens instead is that the public square ‘ceases to be a space for deliberation, and becomes a market in clicks, likes and retweets’[4]. There is no longer a shared, transcendent mise en scène for human existence. Virtues have transformed into values – individually held and formulated – but of no binding or enduring significance.

Regarding democracy, the individual now has an unprecedented status. Once seen in relation to divinity or wider society, human beings are now increasingly regarded as sovereign agents. As the public sphere has become eviscerated of a shared cultural story, the individual is now free to decide his or her path through life.  Alternatively, so the theory goes. Jackson Lears expresses it like this – ‘redefined as human capital, each person becomes a little firm with assets, debts, and a credit score anxiously scrutinised for signs of success or failure’[5]. The individual may be freer to choose than ever before, but also carries an increasingly heavy burden for their destiny. Lacking the safeguards of a benevolent Providence – or a paternalistic society – the individual must shift for themselves. The mantra that every schoolchild knows so well – ‘follow your dreams and you can achieve whatever you want’ has a darker side that few if any primary school assemblies ever spell out. Failure to achieve those dreams or ambitions will be your responsibility alone. In such a culture, the individual faces an unrelenting pressure to boost their own image and status above all else. For example, an intriguing textual analysis of Norway’s main national newspaper between 1984 and 2005 revealed that as the occurrence of self-referencing words such as ‘I’ and ‘my’ increased, instances of other-focused concepts such as ‘duty’ and ‘obligation’ declined[6].

What, if anything, does all this have to do with high-intensity warfare in the twenty-first century? Going back to where we began, the armies which liberated western Europe in 1945 did so against a broadly shared cultural outlook. Britannia, Marianne, and Columbia are hardly identical sisters, but bequeathed a remarkably similar legacy of shared understanding to their descendants – and the freedoms for which they gave their lives had a transcendent quality. This situation, it may be argued, no longer obtains. Evidence for this can be seen in a wide variety of forms, from Allan Bloom’s analysis of education to Robert Putnam’s influential work on the decline of social cohesion in late twentieth century America[7].  As the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor observes, ‘the individual has been taken out of a rich community life and now enters instead into a series of mobile, changing, revocable associations’[8]. With his or her small stock of human capital, each person makes their way through life via a series of short-term contracts, which run the gamut of human existence from car insurance to employment. What matters most is the utilitarian and the instrumental – an epistemic ecology where traditional concepts such as humility, duty and sacrifice seem anachronistic surds. Moreover, as analysts of our neoliberal world have suggested, the promised blessings of prosperity and success have not trickled down universally, leading to a considerable degree of cynicism about public life – from fake news to the political establishment. This is not a development which augurs well for a strong common existence. If citizens withdraw from political and civic engagement into a private sphere of personal fulfilment, as Larry Siedentop remarks, liberal freedoms are at risk[9].

PUMA SQUADRON MARKS 100 YEARS
An RAF Puma deploying flares whilst on Operation TORAL in Afghanistan, c. 2016. (Source: MoD Defence Imagery)

One of the founding principles of modern democracy is that the individual citizen surrenders certain freedoms and benefits to the state in exchange for protection and stability. This relationship is perhaps seen in its starkest form when a nation sends its citizens to war. In the post-2001 operations, when the legitimacy of the campaigns was subject to intense public scrutiny, this affected the commemoration of those citizens who had given their lives. As Sandra Walklate, K.N. Jenkings and others have observed, repatriation ceremonies became ‘deeply political acts’ protesting against military action, where those who died were remembered as victims of government policy[10]. Anthony King, in his analysis of the obituaries of British service personnel, comments that the death of soldiers is not seen so much as an act of service for the nation as ‘the meaningful expression of a man who defined himself by his profession’[11]. If the individual is indeed a small firm with a limited stock of human capital, a strong relationship of trust between citizen and society is vital should the citizen be required to sacrifice that capital for a bigger purpose.

Moreover, this is the nub of the argument. As Alexis de Tocqueville saw some two centuries ago, a society which favours atomism and instrumentalism undermines the very freedoms which it cherishes.[12] Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the freedoms that the western world enjoys have primarily been sustained without significant periods of high-intensity conflict – and the associated heavy demands of blood and treasure. Future military operations may not follow this pattern, and free nations may have to pay a large price for such nebulous terms as liberty and democracy. A worldview furnished from the moral stockroom of utilitarian instrumentalism will offer little strength in such circumstances. To quote Taylor again, ‘high standards need strong sources’ – a stripped down public square does not provide the wherewithal to sustain a deep understanding of human meaning and purpose.[13] Churchill and Roosevelt saw the battle that they were engaged in as something more than a struggle over resources and the possession of territory.

Alternatively, in other words, they understood the need for spiritual resilience – an awareness that human existence cannot be reduced to a profit and loss transaction. The free society which values the individual did not arise from an instrumentalist worldview – indeed Siedentop has recently published a fascinating volume which explicitly traces the development of modern liberal equality right back to Christian thinkers in the middle ages.[14] One does not need to share the faith of these scholars to appreciate their insights. Perhaps it is time to pause in our pursuit of relentless individualism to consider the bigger truths of the world to which we belong. Davison Hunter remarks that our current cultural trajectory is likely set to bend us away from the very concepts of justice, freedom, and tolerance that we treasure. Before we are called upon to defend these convictions in intensive conflict, it is undoubtedly worth reflecting on why they are worth defending in the first place.

The Reverend Dr (Wing Commander) David Richardson is a chaplain in the Royal Air Force, initially ordained into the Church of Ireland. A graduate of the universities of Edinburgh, Dublin, Belfast, and King’s College London, he has served on a variety of RAF stations. His operational experience includes tours across Afghanistan and Iraq.

Header Image: Stretcher bearers of the Red Crescent evacuate a civilian casualty in Basra during Operation TELIC. (Source: © Crown copyright. IWM (OP-TELIC 03-010-37-091))

[1] Max Hastings, Armageddon: The Battle for Germany, 1944-45 (London: Macmillan, 2004) p. 588.

[2] James Davison Hunter, ‘Liberal Democracy and the Unravelling of the Enlightenment Project,’ The Hedgehog Review, 19:3 (2017).

[3] Ibid.

[4] Stephen Metcalf, ‘Neoliberalism – the idea that swallowed the world,’ The Guardian, 18 August 2017.

[5] Jackson Lears, ‘The long con of Neoliberalism,’ The Hedgehog Review, 19:3 (2017).

[6] Jean Twenge and Keith Campbell, The Narcissism Epidemic (New York, NY: Free Press, 2010), p. 264.

[7] Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind (London: Penguin, 1987); Robert Putnam, Bowling Alone (New York, NY: Touchstone, 2000).

[8] Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), p. 502.

[9] Larry Siedentop, Inventing the Individual (London: Penguin, 2014), p. 363.

[10] Sandra Walklate, Gabe Mythen and Ross McGarry, ‘Witnessing Wootton Bassett; An Exploration in Cultural Victimology,’ Crime, Media and Culture, 7:2 (2011), pp. 149-65. K.N. Jenkings, N. Megoran, R. Woodward and D. Bos, ‘Wootton Bassett and the political spaces of remembrance and mourning,’ Area, 44:3 (2012), pp. 356-63.

[11] Anthony King, ‘The Afghan War and ‘postmodern’ memory: commemoration and the dead of Helmand’, The British Journal of Sociology, 61:1 (2010), pp. 1-25.

[12] Quoted in Taylor, Sources of the Self, p. 502.

[13] Ibid., p. 516.

[14] Siedentop, Inventing the Individual.