by Giles Fraser
Friday, 24
April 2020
Seen Elsewhere
15:31

Don’t let the bean-counters abolish our army regiments

by Giles Fraser
Soldiers don’t fight for a cause, however noble — they fight for their mates

I used to have the great privilege of teaching ethics to Army officers at the Military Academy in Shrivenham. Rows of straight-backed newly qualified Majors — about to take up their first command responsibility in Iraq or Afghanistan — were the most engaged audience I have ever lectured. The ethics of warfare mattered quite a lot to those who were about to go off and do it. And I have had a very soft spot for the British Army ever since.

One thing came through to me from the years of teaching on this course. Soldiers don’t fight for a cause, however noble — when it really comes down to it, they don’t fight for Queen and country either, they fight for their mates. That is why esprit de corps is so vital among fighting men and women. When you are exhausted and cold and confused and scared — when you have long forgotten why you were sent to this shit-hole to be shot at — there is still the person next to you. And you fight for them. Or to put this another way: you fight for the badge, you fight for the Regiment.

A fascinating blog just out by Nicholas Drummond reviewing the current state of the Regimental System over at Land Power UK is well worth a read. As Drummond notes, there are always those out to rationalise the organisational structure of the army, merging or abandoning traditional regiments. They say that the regimental structure is expensive, a barrier to innovation and to what they call “cap badge mobility”. As Drummond explains:

What is significant about the debate is how emotive it is. Any discussion about Army regiments arouses passion and conviction out of all proportion to this topic’s importance relative to other military priorities.
- Nicholas Drummond, Land Power UK

But, of course, that’s why the regimental system works. The passion and conviction with which regiments are defended is a reflection of the passion and conviction that you feel for your comrades in battle. No wonder the subject is emotive. Would an ‘efficiently organised’ army, with a flexible labour market and cap badge mobility command the same sort of loyalty? I very much doubt it.

I would only add to Drummond’s excellent analysis a little more about ethics. He mentions that the whole army is governed by the ‘Standards and Values of the British Army’ document. Which is fair enough, as far as it goes. But it’s the traditions of pride in behaviour that are embedded in the regimental structure that are far more effective delivery mechanisms for ethical instruction.

In other words, as the Americans say “Marines don’t do that” — short, pithy, but summoning a whole world of tradition and instruction — is generally a much more successful admonition at times of high stress than the advice to consider page 13, section 2 of Standards and Values.

Deontological, rule-based ethics is all very well, but no one has the time to look up the rules on the battlefield, even when reduced to a little card — Card Alpha — that soldiers carry to summarize their rules of engagement. In reality, armies have specialised in virtue ethics — the ethics of character (i.e. embedded ethics) — long before Elizabeth Anscombe re-invented the philosophy in the twentieth century. And probably long before Aristotle himself.

Burke, of course, had it right, when he reached for the metaphor of the military subdivision to describe the basis of our wider moral solidarity:

To be attached to the subdivision, to love the little platoon we belong to in society, is the first principle (the germ as it were) of public affections. It is the first link in the series by which we proceed towards a love to our country and to mankind.
- Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790)

Join the discussion


  • April 25, 2020
    Since May 1975 as a boy soldier of 15, I served with six different regiments of the British Army whether it be regular, reserve or Home service force. Two of those six regiments was served as an instructor with the army cadet force. I was and still am very proud to have served with honour, not just... Read more

  • April 24, 2020
    Good assessment. In the military, I often heard "Be proud of the corps", and never heard "Be proud of yourselves" or even "Be proud of your country." The corps was elemental. Read more

  • April 24, 2020
    Brings to mind something Chesterton said: 'Does anybody in the world believe that a soldier says, "My leg is nearly dropping off, but I shall go on till it drops; for after all I shall enjoy all the advantages of my government obtaining a warm water port in the Gulf of Finland!"' Read more

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