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.