The Good ‘Ol Days…

I recently met and spoke with a British military officer who is on the verge of retirement after more than 38 years in the service of Her Majesty. I was interested to hear his opinion on serving in the military, especially in the changes that he witnessed over four decades.

The officer basically broke down his service into two periods — during the Cold War, and after the Cold War. He had fond memories of the two decades immediately after he joined the service, and enjoyed postings at bases across the globe. Starting in the early 1970s, the British had bases across Europe, several in the Middle East, and more in the Far East. The officer spent years in Germany, Bahrain, Oman, and Hong Kong. He saw action in the first two decades was in the Falklands and the Persian Gulf War, two conflicts that were relatively brief, and which were marked by excellent inter-branch cooperation.

But in the second two decades of service, things changed. With the end of the Cold War, British bases in Europe and beyond were “downsized,” and as economic and political cooperation increased with the development of the EU, military cooperation declined as the importance of NATO waned. The lifting of the Cold War pressure also meant that the different branches of the military focused less on cooperation and more on challenging each other for budgets and attentions. This meant that the post-Cold War conflicts for the British military–from Bosnia to Basra–were, in the officer’s view, poorly fought because the different branches could not communicate nor cooperate.

And from a lifestyle perspective, the officer felt that the “good” postings were gone. Overseas garrisons have largely been dismantled and downsized, and the personnel in the Armed Service today are most likely to find themselves in messy occupational duty in Iraq or Afghanistan. Back in the 1970s, it was more likely to end up in Europe or the Middle East in an experience where the officers had an enjoyable experience and exposure to different cultures. The officer also had a harsh critique of “Peacekeeping,” which would continue to survive because it was so politically tasty and publicly acceptable, but which was in fact a nightmare for the boots on the ground, doing work that they were not trained for in environments that demanded much more concentration on opaque local affairs that soldiers simply would never master.

It’s always easy for the older generation to say that things were better back in the good ol’ days, but the eloquent critique of today’s military from an experienced officer gave me plenty of food for thought. Did he have anything positive to say? Yes — the post-Cold War had resulted in improved training of military forces across the globe, and this had resulted in a real improvement in the quality of soldiers. The officer had completed rotations with soldiers in Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE, and he saw real material improvements in the conduct of the forces in his time there. What’s more, he overwhelmingly found the soldiers that were trained really enjoyed learning how to be professional. That’s a topic that our Robert D. Kaplan has discussed before — see, for example, the article from 2005 titled America’s African Rifles.

About Curzon

Lord George Nathaniel Curzon (1859 - 1925) entered the British House of Commons as a Conservative MP in 1886, where he served as undersecretary of India and Foreign Affairs. He was appointed Viceroy of India at the turn of the 20th century where he delineated the North West Frontier Province, ordered a military expedition to Tibet, and unsuccessfully tried to partition the province of Bengal during his six-year tenure. Curzon served as Leader of the House of Lords in Prime Minister Lloyd George's War Cabinet and became Foreign Secretary in January 1919, where his most famous act was the drawing of the Curzon Line between a new Polish state and Russia. His publications include Russia in Central Asia (1889) and Persia and the Persian Question (1892). In real life, "Curzon" is a US citizen from the East Coast who has been a financial analyst, freelance translator, and university professor; he is currently on assignment in Tokyo.
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7 Responses to The Good ‘Ol Days…

  1. Brand X says:

    I hve no sympathy for this officer. He’s just belly-aching about the supposed “Good ol’ Days” of Empire. I’m not sure that Kaplan’s article does anything to reinforce the notion of better professionalism. He’s all googly-eyes for the military in that one. It reads as if he was trying to write a script for a war film but couldn’t sell it. If that’s supposed to be professionalism, why does everybody in the article appear to be walking cliches?

    “There ain’t nothing I’d rather do than get shot at. But if I can’t shoot or get shot at, just being on the range is heaven.” WTF? Idiot Marine.

  2. Ralph Hitchens says:

    This officer’s comments are unsurprising, and reinforce the need for military establishments to restructure themselves along the lines of Tom Barnett’s schema, with some (perhaps a minority) of units trained for combat and others trained for peacekeeping and, yes, nation-building.

  3. Ed says:

    I strongly disagree with Brand X. The officer is simply comparing the pre-Cold War and post-Cold War periods solely from the perspective of an officer, and what is best for the officer’s quality of life. You have to keep in mind that this is not necessarily what is best from the pespective of a taxpayer, or for national security. If we doubled the salaries of all officers, they would definitely view military service more favorably, but that doesn’t mean that we should do that.

    The other area where I disagree with Brand X is that it is the post-Cold War military operations that smack of 19th century imperialism, not the Cold War ones. Again, this is not necessarily bad from a national security perspective. During the Cold War the focus of the US and UK military was preparing for a conventional fight with a large, advanced, industrial power, plus both were involved in actual fighting supporting various governments who were battling insurgencies, supported by that advanced industrial power. There was nothing quite like this in the nineteenth century. Post-Cold War operations are characterized by fighting small and weak countries that the US and UK governments dislike, or garrisoning countries where the US and UK are trying to restructure their institutions. This actually is imperialism!

    So military service today means being stationed in disagreeable places, and operating under all sorts of political constraints, in support of objectives that are questionable from the standpoint of the interests of the nation but which are nevertheless pushed by the elites. At least in the case of the US, in compensation the pay has risen. Militaries conducting these types of operations, as shown in the 18th and 19th centuries, tend to become much more “professional” than the mass mobilized armies more typical of the 20th century.

    Btw, though it occurred during the Cold War, I classify the Falklands more as a “post-Cold War” conflcit for purposes of this critique.

  4. Ed says:

    In respsonse to Ralph’s comment, we as citizens should first think about why we want an army, and then structure it so it is best able to do whatever it is we want it to do. This sounds tautological, but we don’t actually do this.

  5. Alfred Russel Wallace says:

    I think Ed has it right – one can imagine that University Professors much preferred when they had only a small number of well-educated rich, and reasonably cultured students, and would look back nostalgically to such times. And surely car mechanics would have liked it when there was more time for tea breaks… As Ed suggests, the important question is “What is the Army, Navy and Air Force for?” Certainly not just to provide interesting travel opportunities for tax-payers’ employees.

  6. I liked what someone once said: peacekeeping is the tactic of drawing a war out to its longest possible duration.

  7. SJPONeill says:

    The old ‘peacekeeping isn’t soldiering’ line is pretty tired…I imagine this chap’s grandad would have been saying the same when it was time to get rid of the horse and replace them with those noisy smelly tank things, or give up the red jacket that had served so well for centuries in favour of a dirt coloured tunic…get over it! Times change and so does the face of soldiering…yes, things were probably simply (which does not necessarily mean easier) in the Cold war days but the last thing we want or need is to hear from someone else yearning for the good old days of the Fulda Gap.