Sorry, Sarge

Bernard Porter

Michael Fallon, the defence secretary, plans to institute military cadet corps in schools. The idea, apparently, is not only to provide future recruits for the British army, but also to instil discipline and ‘British values’ – whatever he thinks they may be – in young people.

School cadet corps started up in the later 19th century in order to encourage national and imperial patriotism. Most public schools had them; state schools refused to, out of anti-militaristic principle. (That was one reason Baden-Powell founded his Boy Scout movement.) As far as I know, the public schools have them still. So do, or did, the grammar schools that liked to ape the public schools, such as mine. At my direct grant school, corps was compulsory: parading in uniform every Thursday afternoon; going on soggy, chaotic camps; shooting on a rifle range on the Rainham Marshes. The only way of getting out of it was a note from your parents to say they were pacifists, and even then you didn’t entirely escape it, but had to go into a ‘medical’ squad, still in uniform, but with bright white webbing rather than the usual khaki to show up your cowardly nature to the other boys. I was too genuinely cowardly to risk that.

Everyone hated the corps, except for a few fascist-minded boys; they formed the ‘Right Wing National Party’ in our school mock elections, and went around with little polished sticks shouting themselves blue in the face. Many of them went on to Sandhurst, one of them after being expelled from school for his part in a gang rape. The rest of us resented them, and the whole business of Blancoing our webbing, Duraglitting our brass, ironing creases into our tunics, and shining our boots ‘so you can see your faces in them’.

I loathed Thursday afternoons, especially the mechanical waving your arms about and marching up and down in lines. ‘Squad, atten – wait for it, wait for it – shun!’ On the other hand I quite liked – and was good at – the shooting. Even there we could be easily distracted. On one occasion a sheep wandered across. We all turned our rifles to blow it into a ball of wool, bones and blood. ‘Sorry, Sarge, I missed.’ God what a farce. I learned nothing, except perhaps how to strip down a Bren gun, and even then I couldn’t put it together again. I was only promoted at the very end because they thought it would look bad if I went up to university still a private. I was jumped up to colour-sergeant on the last day of school.

My school cadet corps played no part at all in my later realisation that most soldiers aren’t militarists (that’s left to draft-dodgers, like George W. Bush and Donald Trump). Rather, my aversion to playing at soldiers only made me appreciate more the non-military 'values’ in British history and life. Maybe that’s what Fallon intends, though I doubt it.


  • 1 November 2016 at 1:25pm
    keith smith says:
    I wonder whether Mr Fallon has reflected on the possibility that giving training in advanced weaponry to modern teenagers might have unintended consequences.

  • 1 November 2016 at 2:58pm
    IPFreely says:
    I went through the same dreary process at a public school, at a time when conscription was still imposed and I learned one useful lesson; never under any circumstances, volunteer. Stay in the middle and you keep out of trouble. That was good enough for the drill sergeant so it was good enough for me. He used to watch the "officers" in their baggy uniforms, as once a week they tried to drill some military order and discipline into us. The expression on his face - amusement, sarcasm mingle with condescension - was almost worth the effort of putting on the uniform. But not quite.
    The headmaster was an austere, monk-like figure who had been on Montgomery's staff during the second world war, so one day the great man made an inspection with all the trimmings. An inspiration to join the army as a career? No way. Two of my friends joined the air force which still had some of the glamour of the Battle of Britain days. Gallant men, youngsters all, with silk scarves round their necks, swapping yarns about the Jerries, Monty Python got it just right.

  • 1 November 2016 at 3:33pm
    Joe Morison says:

  • 1 November 2016 at 5:59pm
    Rikkeh says:
    I did an NCT class one evening in a nursery and up on the wall was a list of the "British values" the staff were required to instil in their charges, including "the rule of law" and "democracy".

    Quite how one is meant to imbue the 3 month to 2 year olds who attend the nursery with these values is anyone's guess.

    • 2 November 2016 at 2:10am
      prwhalley says: @ Rikkeh
      God, I love that movie!

  • 2 November 2016 at 2:26pm
    Timothy Rogers says:
    While we don’t have the exact counterpart of the British high-school level of military training in the U.S., there are some parallel phenomena. There are “military prep schools” that used to begin training potential soldiers as early as the 5th grade (say age 10 or 11), and that continued with this regimen up through the 12th grade. They weren’t cheap, and attendees incurred no actual military-service obligations. Many of them were dumping grounds for kids from well-to-do families who thought that an unmotivated or undisciplined son would benefit from the military regimen (Donald Trump was sent to one of the these during his high-school days). And, for those who wish to go to one of the official military academies (West Point in New York, The Naval Academy in Annapolis, the Air Force Academy in Colorado) but don’t make the cut, we have “private military colleges” (the Citadel, in South Carolina, and Virginia Military Institute are – were? - the best known).

    At the time I was attending a private university (the early and mid-1960s), many colleges (including, I think, all state university systems) had an option called R.O.T.C. (Reserve Officer training Corps). I believe this dates back to the World War Two era, when manpower requirements were very high. The deal was that if you signed up for this (a course that took up about three hours each week) and stayed with it for the whole four years of college, you would be commissioned as a second lieutenant upon graduation and you owed your branch of the military four years of service. You had 6-8 weeks of additional training at an Army base during one summer. If you received an “R.O.T.C. scholarship” you got most of your college costs covered -- if you failed out or dropped out, you still had a military obligation, but in this scenario you were an enlisted man. On the other hand you had the option to leave R.O.T.C without penalty at the end of your second year of college. This is what I did, finding the whole exercise fairly silly. In my own case I left college during my final year and thereby exposed myself to the draft, which was going full-steam in 1966, so I wound up enlisting (“get a better deal” according to the Army’s advertising) and ascending from a private to the rank of “buck sergeant” during my year in Vietnam. Nonetheless, I had no regrets about my decision, and my encounters with the junior members of the officers’ corps (lieutenants and captains) led me to believe that most of them were incompetent wishful thinkers and martinet “patriots”. Many of them came out of the R.O.T.C. program, while a few came from O.C.S. – Officers Candidate School, a training branch of the Army itself, which singled out “promising enlisted men” and offered them a new (officer’s) contract. At least some of these guys, having been draftees or enlisted men, had some common sense. Both in basic and advanced training and in the field most of us paid far more attention to sergeants than to officers. Not only were their instructions and running commentary on what a sorry lot we all were full of colorful combinations of expletives, they had a standard line that expressed their own feelings toward officers: “Don’t call me Sir, I work for a living.”

    I do remember from my R.O.T.C. days that the “cadet officers” in the college corps (the maniacal, ambitious, or the most ass-kissing servile sort) valued “esprit de corps” and “high morale” above any practical skills that the rest of us could demonstrate (e.g., “field-stripping” and reassembling a rifle while blindfolded). Such were our follies, those of young men and ancient ones indeed, and I doubt that things will change much in this neck of the human woods. To place even younger adolescents in this kind of environment seems like a waste of time and effort.

  • 7 November 2016 at 11:58pm
    Hugh Myers says:
    The culture of dressing children as soldiers is increasingly uncomfortable in light of the fact that children have been - and still are - deployed in combat contexts. Some of the saddest images of the Second World War are surely the children pressed into uniform in the closing months of the Third Reich. The culture of militarising childhood is a strange luxury that stems, ironically, from the absence of systemic violence in modern Western democracies. This allows "the army" to represent abstract values detached from the maudlin reality of what actually happens on the battlefield. There is nothing new in any of this, but what I find curious is the introduction of a culture of fortitude drawn from a pseudo-military imagination. This is reflected in the rising popularity of cadet programs in schools to the emergent fitness training culture.

    Here in Sydney, Australia, fitness training is a national preoccupation rivalled only by real estate speculation in its popularity. At least once a week I get a flier in my mailbox touting the latest “boot camp” promotion, and a walk across the big public parks of the central city district on a weekday reveals teams of corporate office workers crawling under nets, struggling at tug-of-war contests, running while boxing the pads of a trainer, and similar quasi-military activities. Being a regular private is not commercially attractive, so these programs are invariably marketed as “Special Forces” or “Commando” based regimens. There is even the occasional appeal to the classical world with an annual Spartan obstacle race (why anybody would want to revive the ethos of this cruel, sadistic and bitterly misogynistic society is in itself cause for concern).

    Dressing children as soldiers to instil value systems and marketing military fortitude through fitness training regimens are all part of a long-term trend. This process is easy to dislike but difficult to comprehend as much of the desire originates from a culture of self-empowerment rather than nationalism as traditionally understood in the West. Is this primarily a culture of self creation, or a reformulation of nationalist integrity in an age where the memory of total war is so distant that it does not curb fantasy construction?

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