On being a soldier

WW2 paratroopersPeople usually have personal reasons for wanting to be a soldier; often because their father, brother or grandfather were in particular regiments; or they wanted to see if they could measure up to the demands of the job.

Nobody joins the Army knowing exactly what it’s going to be like. The children of serving soldiers have a better idea than most; but you can only really know once you’ve become a member of the club, having endured its rigorous basic training – which, particularly when compared to the basic training of the Navy and Air Force, has additional value as being the modern tribal equivalent of ‘initiation ceremonies’.

Armies have traditionally recruited the most people in times of war and economic hardship when jobs are scarce. The idea of soldiering being a ‘profession’, hence the British Army’s recruiting slogan “Join the Professionals”, is part of the Army’s efforts to compete with other occupations in the job marketplace. But in reality, the Army will always score very heavily with the people it wants to attract, through its unique lifestyle and defining sense of adventure. Some parts of the Army require less adventurous people happy to be trained in often complicated technical skills; but even they are defined by the Army’s overall image of physical outdoor adventure, as an added bonus to the useful non-military training they’re given.

As a vocation, soldiering is less obvious than membership of the other two Services: sailors enjoy the adventure of the sea; and airmen the excitement of flying. Soldiering is more popularly identified with …. walking, carrying heavy weights, marching up and down being shouted at….? However, in reality and especially on operations, soldiering often requires more individual initiative at the lowest level than either of the other two Services. In modern warfare, with each man having his personal radio, operations taking place round the clock and over large distances, gives far more ‘combat power’ to the individual, who is increasingly expected to operate on his or her own. This expectation is set to increase very greatly.

Perhaps more so than the other two Services, being a soldier is the most basic of all. Unlike fighting on or under the sea; or in the air, there is no underlying expertise by which soldiers must first overcome the challenges of water or air. Soldiering involves the most basic sharing of hardships, comradeship and purpose, with each person trained and ready to fight as well as do the more specialised tasks of their particular unit.

Commitment

Military training develops commitment to other people and to the tasks in hand. This is notably at odds with much of modern society and its emphasis on the achievements of the individual. This is not to say that all people in the Army are selfless; as a military career unfolds, many of the same careerist distractions crop up as in any large corporation, which some handle better than others…

My own late father, an academic and Church of England priest, who was an infantry officer during the Second World War, was always impressed by people who were committed to something, and as far as he was concerned soldiers were most to be admired in this respect. Despite deeply unpleasant wartime experiences; being severely wounded during the siege of Tobruk, then one of only a handful in his regiment the Royal Northumberland Fusiliers to survive the Great Retreat, when the war was over, my father very seriously considered a military career over the Church or academic life. I’d very much recommend his autobiography “Fusilier”.

Attitudes towards soldiers

There have always had mixed feelings about soldiers; popular dislike having in the past stemmed from armies not being formally provisioned, but relying on local food and accommodation to survive. Victorious armies are always more highly regarded – as Kipling pointed out in his savage poem “Tommy”, about ‘Tommy Atkins’, the generic name for ordinary British soldiers, and latterly the nickname “Toms” for parachute soldiers.

I’ve identified some of the very various strong and often-contradictory reactions that good soldiers inspire in others:

  • Pride and anxiety in parents;
  • Mistrust and fear in hippies and dictators;
  • Irritation, relief – then jealousy in politicians;
  • Heart-felt gratitude in every good officer.

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Can soldiers be individuals?

Unless you have particular things you’d like to do in life, and are unlikely to develop your own preferences, the life of a soldier can be utterly ideal: a lively and fully established social life, getting paid for being trained in almost anything you wish, doing a variety of often wildly different activities, traveling and having adventures – which in comparison to the dull routine of most civilians’ lives, seems very individualistic.

Pablo Picasso would not have agreed: “My mother said to me, “If you are a soldier, you will become a general. If you are a monk, you will become the Pope.” Instead, I was a painter, and became Picasso.”

So whilst good soldiers are also strong individuals, self-reliant and determined, they must also fit in with what the Army and their superiors require of them.

Whereas in civilian life, people regularly change jobs whenever things are not exactly to their liking, soldiers cannot do this, which can be stressful, especially when clashes of personality are involved. Also, others may not be as dedicated to doing the job as it should be done, their leadership style accompanied by some of the careerist negativism experienced in other walks of life. Finally, there are soldiers and officers who aren’t any good, ought to have left, but didn’t, who have learned how to safeguard their own positions within the hierarchy.

My personal view, is that soldiering is too important and soldiers too valuable to tolerate this sort of thing…. But that’s just my own personal view…

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Do soldiers enjoy war?

A soldier without war experience is very like a surgeon who’s practiced his skills only on already-dead corpses; further practicing soon becomes worse than pointless, accompanied by increasing desire to experience combat as a rite of passage.

However, once experienced, for most that once is enough; but many soldiers so enjoy the camaraderie that accompanies combat, that they remain serving, and become highly respected veterans whose experience is of enormous value to their units and comrades.

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