From the January 1971 issue of the Socialist Standard
It is just over ten tears ago that peace time conscription (one of the Attlee government’s steps towards socialism) came to an end (by order of a Tory government). For the most part, National Servicemen agreed that the time they spent in the forces was a stilling bore. Some swore that they spent almost the entire two years sitting around with virtually nothing to do; others, that any sporting prowess was the passport, through a corrupt adjutant, to a cushy posting.
The surprising fact was that so many of these men, after their demob, could recall the episode without experiencing an overwhelming urge to blow up the Houses of Parliament. Very few were really angry about those wasted months; they looked back on it all with an amused tolerance, perhaps even with some affection.
They remembered the time spent square-bashing under roaring NCOs, the kit inspections with everything moronically clean and laid out in monotonous pattern. They swapped memories of barrack room japes and booze ups as if service life was one long revel. Many a demobbed clerk used to announce his morning arrival at the office with "Orderly officer! Stand by y’beds!” It was almost as if, in very drab lives, being plucked out into the service was one isolated, treasured patch of colour.
Perhaps those gentle memories were a rationalisation of what was actually an unpleasant experience, which the conscripts could not contain or justify in any other way. If there is a massive guilt complex at large, it has probably been successfully projected; a recent Opinion Research Centre poll said that 43 per cent of those questioned about conscription favoured a return of it.
At this time of long haired, protesting, questioning, free-loving, delinquent, youth — a return of conscription? It is useful, to take that as a starting point.
If we played the old psychological party game and asked a collection of people what word came immediately to mind when we said “Army”, a fair number would reply “discipline". And it is discipline, with elements of orderliness, smartness, cleanliness, which present day society is supposed to lack. A large part of the Services’ efforts goes into this discipline business and the instilling of it is the basis of all those parades, saluting, stamping, polishing, shining, folding, adjusting . . .
A plainer, but more accurate, way of expressing this is that it is intended to induce a state of mind in which the disciplined ask no questions. They obey — even the word of an ignorant, bull-headed man whose only advantage is in the stripes on his sleeve. Men who can be trained to co-operate enthusiastically in pointless activities like making sure they walk about a barrack square in exactly the same way as a few hundred other men can also be trained to give of their best in other, equally pointless, activities. They will, for example, if the man with the stripes tells them to, do their best to kill some other, equally disciplined and conditioned, man who is wearing a different uniform.
Once in that mindless mob action, it takes some courage to make a stand. Conform — that is the password. When you are in the mob you take everything like a soldier. That includes your work (which may mean killing your fellow conscript on the other side), your punishments, your drink. Even your sex. The old conscripts may backlash, now that they are in their thirties and forties, at the so-called Permissive Society and the current attempted ventilation of some of the more suffocating phobias of sex. It was different in their day, when a soldier was applauded for taking a local wench upright in an alley at the back of a dance hall. That, after all, was the soldier's way . . .
This professed contempt for women is in fact part of an obsession which finds its place conveniently among the myths of capitalism. That is the obsession with manliness, the notion that a man must act in a particular style and must confine his interests to particular fields. Thus in advanced society a man may be employed in a factory, he may relax in some sports, he is pressured to adopt certain dress styles, even to like particular drinks (like in the T.V. ad for Courage bitter). To step out of this pattern — for example for a man to put on an apron and do the housework while his wife goes out to work — would be to put doubt on his sexuality, even his sanity.
There is of course a vast amount of research which destroys the idea that the respective roles of men and women in society are fixed and necessarily logical. In fact capitalism allots to them the roles which fit in with the system’s needs and priorities. Predictably, capitalism justifies this with a campaign which glorifies the roles it has allotted and by erecting a huge edifice of prejudice. In this way, manliness and militancy are connected; the soldier stamps his way around, he shouts his commands. He demonstrates strength.
The crucial point here is that the reactions and the disciplines which are instilled by military life are in their way very useful to capitalist society outside. Capitalism is a social system of privilege in which the vast majority are underdogs. If they ever realise their sheer power, if they ever see through the system’s deceptions, then the days of privilege are numbered. A great propaganda effort is devoted to delaying the day of reckoning.
Workers are taught that in many things conformity is a virtue; they are taught that mass production is good because it is more profitable. The ideal which is dangled before them is to live in one of a regiment of semis, with a Ford in the gutter outside and two point three (or whatever point it is) children to take out an endowment insurance on. They are taught docility, that the life of the worker who accepts his lot is good (those endowments mature someday) and getting better. Anybody who gets impatient at the slowness of the “improvements”, or who wants more than an improvement, must be a neurotic, a long hair, a hippy. It would obviously do him good, knock all that nonsense out of him, if he had to go in the Army. A pity they don’t bring conscription back . . .
This is no more than an attempt at an easy answer to all the doubts and questioning about capitalism and its effects. Militarism is itself suppressive, an attempt to harden bodies and brutalise minds to the point where they are ready to obey any order, tolerate any obscenity. But the questioning will go on and militarism is no more than an obstacle to be surmounted. If there is no discipline in this it is not the discipline of the barked command, the automatic obedience. It is the discipline of knowledge and in the struggle between the two there is no doubt about which shall overcome.