Plain Talk (1): Home thoughts

One can tell a great deal from a garrison barracks building, particularly in the case of the squat hunks of red-brick at Tidworth in the Army’s spiritual heart-land of the Salisbury Plain, where memories of ‘old sweats’ were seared in a rite-of-passage by the Russian menace – not the spectre of T-55’s or 72’s advancing en masse but Siberian winds whipping across the Plain like demented sjamboks as an exercise ambled along with bodies frozen from head to feet.

Tidworth HQ began life just after the Second Boer War (1899-1902) had finished but as statements go, the red-brick barracks’ are pretty emphatic; Assaye, Bhurtpore, Candahar, Delhi, Lucknow, Mooltan and Jellallabad are enscribed in large letters across the porticoed frontage of each Officers’ Mess that were built like some Anglicised miniature Red Fort harking back to the high pomp of late-Victorian empire and militarism.

Until a few years ago Tidworth and each of its siblings such as Larkhill and Bulford were invisibly separated from the world around, the dominant colour being ‘garrison-green’ of mussed guacamole and khaki: apart from the residential quarters and the NAAFI shop, a betting-shop, hairdresser, post-office/newsagent, a few other bib’s and bob’s and a couple of churches, the rest of the space was mostly mown open green-land and verges, with ‘garrison-green’ Land-Rovers and ‘squaddies’ in the fore-ground – this was a military garrison, no more no less. 

Today Tidworth, and to a lesser extent Larkhill and Bulford, have been both in-filled and out-filled; Tidworth’s ‘Red Forts’ are not only cocooned by perimeter-fencing but have been swallowed up by the surrounding housing expansion jostling with urban mainstays like Tesco and Lidl supermarkets, a Subway as well as the Tidworth Kebab and Pizza take-away, a nail-bar and hair-dressers along with Garrison Guitars and the Gurkha Variety Store, plus traffic snarls and whatever else that has overtaken and overgrown the garrison roots. Tidworth looks and feels urbanised, ‘civilianised’, almost de-militarised – the Army is not what it used to be and even the winds on Salisbury Plain are not so perishing (thanks to global warming).

Indeed, given that there are no major wars at present and the future war is turning more and more to AI and cyber, the lines between civilian and Army life are being blurred by the process of ‘civilian-isation’. 

While the whole idea of military-civic relations is both multi-faceted and blurred clearly there is a difference between the military-civil operational interface and the ‘civilian-isation’ of the military which involves the osmotic penetration of quotodian, non-military culture and ethics into the military’s bloodstream: this not only includes anything from social media, on-line shopping to Netflix but also contemporary mores like gender relations and even wider culture and attitudes, all gathered together in the ‘herd community’. Here, climate-change, the destruction of biodiversity and demand for sustainability are high priorities for an increasing number of people of all ages within the ‘herd community’.

In one of his impassioned pleas for climate-change action based on national self-interest, Anatol Lieven made the intriguing suggestion that in the near future ‘the most important single branch of the US armed forces will become not the Marines or the special forces but the Army Corps of Engineers’: the assumption here is that there will be an ever-growing cascade of climate-change related natural disasters.  

Qatar-based Prof. Lieven’s wider point is that climate-change represents a major national security threat and therefore the armed forces will be called upon to play a major role in dealing with the threat whether or not they feel comfortable with the responsibility; for part of his supporting evidence Prof. Lieven nonchalantly suggests: ‘in a sense, we will all become Holland. The most important motto of our armed forces will not be “For Queen and Country,” but the old motto of the inhabitants of Romney Marsh: “Serve God. Honour the Queen. But first, maintain the dyke!”. 

It’s a jocular, journalistic tone that hints at Prof. Lieven’s newspaper ancestry; however, it does highlight questions about the military carrying out non-military roles demonstrated by the use of armed forces across the world joining in the mortal struggle against Covid-19, which in the case of Britain was the largest ever peace-time ‘homeland’ operation.

Possibly, Prof. Lieven didn’t have in mind heavily-armed street-patrols, high-building observation-posts and even being confronted by marauding packs of dogs: all this happened in New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, with the then Louisiana Governor, Kathleen Blanco, warning: ‘They (the Army) have M16’s and are locked and loaded. These troops know how to shoot and kill and I expect they will’; with all the local jails flooded, the Greyhound bus-station was used as a temporary facility, while police stationed snipers on station rooves.

As a climate-change related event Hurricane Katrina is still debated but it certainly provides plenty of insights for ‘homeland’ climate-change risk management, not least the possibility that violence, both actual and threatened, could be increased in times of crisis; potential violence is especially worrying where gun-ownership is high, such as in The United States.

German for ‘homeland’ is ‘Heimat’, which goes beyond merely functional to also include a spiritual connection to the land and geography, which could conceivably also include the French wine-maker’s ‘terroir’ of unique ecological and environmental conditions.

In this way, ecology and the environment construct part of a vital crucible in which the very essence of ‘homeland’ security connects with ‘ecological security’: in his superlative book, ‘Where Poppies Blow’, about the First World War ‘Tommies’ and their many links with the natural world during the war, John Lewis-Stempel, writes: ‘whether from countryside or city, love of nature was the British condition ‘, citing Vaughan Williams, composer of ‘The Lark Ascending’, volunteering at the age of forty two through patriotism. Even if The First World War was long ago, the principle remains the same.

Alexandre Timoshenko explains ‘ecological security’:

‘Ecological security makes environmental protection a problem of human survival, reflecting the seriousness of existing and future ecological threats. It gives the problem the highest priority traditionally attributed to security matters. It introduces a new basis for resolving environmental problems – the “forecast and-prevent” model instead of the usual “react-and-correct” model. It creates an opportunity to redistribute resources allocated for security in favour of environmental tasks, thus it may help to solve the problem of reconverting the military sector of national economies.’ 

Several weeks ago a ‘Defence in Depth’ blog made a thoroughly convincing case that called for Britain to have a fully-fledged Civil Defence organisation while also stressing that military operational capability would be compromised by large-scale diversion of resources for non-military operations.                                                 

Other countries are much further ahead in this field, especially in Scandinavia where Norway, Denmark and Sweden have dedicated corps and agencies; for instance, The Norwegian Directorate of Civil Protection (DSB) and the Danes’ Directorate for Civil Protection (DEMA) each have about 1,000 personnel, blending conscripts and local volunteers who are highly trained and considered an elite group. 

So clearly there is huge scope to integrate ‘ecological security’ within the whole resilience architecture connected to ‘homeland’ security; in a military context it consists of greater optimisation of operational assets such as transport and engineering which would include construction, like the US Corps of Engineers, while at the same time supporting the sustainable ‘circular economy’ principles of reducing the carbon foot-print and waste. 

While politicians can’t resist the thrum of grand geopolitical strategy, these words are virtually meaningless if the very land on which a nation stands is under threat, taking its cue from the ascending male skylark singing his heart out to advertise his strength and vigour.

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