Image taken from "Dad's National Service Album, 1951", a collection uploaded to Flickr by an ex-conscript's son. Photo: Steve Bowbrick/Flickr
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The way we war: a history of British national service

Reading this detailed account of the national service experience – peppered with moments of humour among the long years of pointless routine – invites the question whether it made any sense.

National Service: Conscription in Britain (1945-1963) 
Richard Vinen
Allen Lane, 555pp, £25

I will not be the only man of a certain age eternally grateful for having missed conscription by a couple of years. Richard Vinen’s entertaining but sobering account of the postwar experience of millions of young Britons drafted into the armed forces will convince anyone who might still regret missing out just how fortunate they were. The story is not remorselessly grim but, overshadowed by the squalid and violent end of empire, it is grim enough.

The national service explored by Vinen was, properly speaking, an extension of the National Service Act introduced in 1939, which covered military conscription (as well as other forms of civilian mobilisation) for the wartime period. Conscription was sometimes used to describe the recruitment process, but British politicians seem to have preferred the term “national service” because it suggested a nobler obligation than mere conscription, with its echoes of enforced enrolment.

Nevertheless conscription is what it was, and for many young men pulled out of civilian life for two years at a time when they wanted to start a job, finish their education or raise a family, the sense of enforcement was evidently stronger than any sense of service to the nation.

What made national service so problematic was the lack of any evident purpose. There was no strong army tradition in Britain as there was in the rest of Europe, where conscription just carried on as it had done since the 19th century. Most British conscripts entered the army, which took over 70 per cent of them. The RAF took roughly a quarter, the navy hardly any. This in itself is significant, as the navy was Britain’s senior service, the one area where military traditions were most embedded and the status of the service more socially acceptable.

Thus, the many conscripts whose diaries, memoirs and letters Vinen has used to illuminate the experience of national service come overwhelmingly from the army. They were needed, so it was thought, to boost Britain’s pretensions as one of the victor powers in 1945, to protect the revival of British imperialism, as a symbol of British power, and to safeguard western Europe from the threat of Soviet communism. These ambitions seemed less bizarre in the late 1940s than they do today, and Vinen is right to remind his readers to
look forward from 1945, not back from the 21st century.

Reading this detailed account of the national service experience – peppered with moments of humour among the long years of pointless routine, purposeless spit and polish and petty tyrannies – invites the question whether it made any sense. Most conscripts stayed in Britain rather than serving abroad, where the regular army (much larger than it is today) played the main part. Some learned a trade, others simply passed the time. The one thing conscription did was to pluck a great many youngsters out of the restricted life of their town or village to a world that was in some respects more exotic than anything they had experienced before, away from the shelter of family, friends and a familiar landscape. Only public school boys seem to have found the transition less daunting. Their existence in the barracks was, one of them recalls here, “slightly more uncomfortable than life at a public school, but not that much”.

The peak of conscription came in the late 1940s and the early 1950s, and it did help to boost Britain’s military presence as efforts were made to rescue what was left of a crumbling imperial structure. This is in many ways the most awkward part of Vinen’s story. He insists that it is not his role to pass judgement on what the conscripts did when they were in combat, or faced with a widespread insurgency, but simply to explore the experience of killing, torturing or maiming “the enemy”. This sidesteps what would no doubt be a difficult discussion of British soldiers as perpetrators. Nevertheless, the descriptions of violence directed against insurgents in Malaya or Kenya or Palestine or Cyprus are deeply disturbing. So much time has been spent showing how particularly wicked the Germans were when it came to facing insurgency against occupation, that counter-insurgency operations in the post-1945 era of imperial withdrawal have been glossed over.

Vinen’s account makes it clear that any group of soldiers, faced with a hostile population, fearful for their own and their companions’ lives, unconstrained by strict instructions on how to respond to guerrilla warfare, and very far from home, will commit atrocities. The worst were, at least, investigated but most seem to have been passed over by the authorities as due simply to the friction of war. One conscript in Egypt thought it “rather caddish” to shoot unarmed Egyptians, but did it nonetheless. The description of violence in Cyprus from a letter sent back home includes the rape and killing of a 13-year-old girl held in a cage by one army brigade.

This part of the story is shocking, though not much more so than later atrocities in Vietnam, or the cruelties imposed on the population of Iraq. Conscription might have been generally a question of kicking heels in poorly resourced barracks somewhere in Britain, but at the sharp end it tarnished those who were forced to defend what was clearly indefensible. Malaya, Kenya, Palestine (Israel) and Cyprus all became independent while conscription was still in place. The disjuncture between fading visions of British greatness and the squalid end of empire cannot be smoothed over so easily simply by describing it.

Postwar national service was ended not long after it had begun. Evident disaffection among bored and frustrated recruits jostled with the realisation among politicians and military leaders that the cold war was not going to get hot and that the old empire was politically bankrupt. The Duncan Sandys-led defence review of 1957 in effect ended conscription, though the last small batch of conscripts was not demobilised until 1963, bringing to an end an experiment in recruitment that went back to 1939, not just to the postwar years.

The great merit of Vinen’s intelligent and measured account is to restore national service as an element of British social history worth observing. Its significance as a military factor, however, is surely questionable. It is hard to imagine how these raw recruits, most of them retained in a reserve force after serving their two years, would have stopped the Red Army if it had pushed aside the Iron Curtain, any more than the earlier cohort in 1940 could have stopped the German army. Professional armed forces were not and are not immune to the persistent problems of inadequate resources or political interference, but they are, at least, professionals. 

Richard Overy’s latest book is “The Bombing War: Europe – 1939-1945” (Penguin, £12.99)

This article first appeared in the 17 September 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Scotland: What Next?

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The age of loneliness

Profound changes in technology, work and community are transforming our ultrasocial species into a population of loners.

Our dominant ideology is based on a lie. A series of lies, in fact, but I’ll focus on just one. This is the claim that we are, above all else, self-interested – that we seek to enhance our own wealth and power with little regard for the impact on others.

Some economists use a term to describe this presumed state of being – Homo economicus, or self-maximising man. The concept was formulated, by J S Mill and others, as a thought experiment. Soon it became a modelling tool. Then it became an ideal. Then it evolved into a description of who we really are.

It could not be further from the truth. To study human behaviour is to become aware of how weird we are. Many species will go to great lengths to help and protect their close kin. One or two will show occasional altruism towards unrelated members of their kind. But no species possesses a capacity for general altruism that is anywhere close to our own.

With the possible exception of naked mole-rats, we have the most social minds of all mammals. These minds evolved as an essential means of survival. Slow, weak, armed with rounded teeth and flimsy nails in a world of fangs and claws and horns and tusks, we survived through co-operation, reciprocity and mutual defence, all of which developed to a remarkable degree.

A review paper in the journal Frontiers in Psychology observes that Homo economicus  might be a reasonable description of chimpanzees. “Outsiders . . . would not expect to receive offers of food or solicitude; rather, they would be fiercely attacked . . . food is shared only under harassment; even mothers will not voluntarily offer novel foods to their own infants unless the infants beg for them.” But it is an unreasonable description of human beings.

How many of your friends, colleagues and neighbours behave like chimpanzees? A few, perhaps. If so, are they respected or reviled? Some people do appear to act as if they have no interests but their own – Philip Green and Mike Ashley strike me as possible examples – but their behaviour ­attracts general revulsion. The news is filled with spectacular instances of human viciousness: although psychopaths are rare, their deeds fill the papers. Daily acts of kindness are seldom reported, because they are everywhere.

Every day, I see people helping others with luggage, offering to cede their place in a queue, giving money to the homeless, setting aside time for others, volunteering for causes that offer no material reward. Alongside these quotidian instances are extreme and stunning cases. I think of my Dutch mother-in-law, whose family took in a six-year-old Jewish boy – a stranger – and hid him in their house for two years during the German occupation of the Netherlands. Had he been discovered, they would all have been sent to a concentration camp.

Studies suggest that altruistic tendencies are innate: from the age of 14 months, children try to help each other, attempting to hand over objects another child can’t reach. At the age of two, they start to share valued possessions. By the time they are three, they begin to protest against other people’s violation of moral norms.

Perhaps because we are told by the media, think tanks and politicians that competition and self-interest are the defining norms of human life, we disastrously mischaracterise the way in which other people behave. A survey commissioned by the Common Cause Foundation reported that 78 per cent of respondents believe others to be more selfish than they really are.

I do not wish to suggest that this mythology of selfishness is the sole or even principal cause of the epidemic of loneliness now sweeping the world. But it is likely to contribute to the plague by breeding suspicion and a sense of threat. It also appears to provide a doctrine of justification for those afflicted by isolation, a doctrine that sees individualism as a higher state of existence than community. Perhaps it is hardly surprising that Britain, the European nation in which neoliberalism is most advanced, is, according to government figures, the loneliness capital of Europe.

There are several possible reasons for the atomisation now suffered by the supremely social mammal. Work, which used to bring us together, now disperses us: many people have neither fixed workplaces nor regular colleagues and regular hours. Our leisure time has undergone a similar transformation: cinema replaced by television, sport by computer games, time with friends by time on Facebook.

Social media seems to cut both ways: it brings us together and sets us apart. It helps us to stay in touch, but also cultivates a tendency that surely enhances other people’s sense of isolation: a determination to persuade your followers that you’re having a great time. FOMO – fear of missing out – seems, at least in my mind, to be closely ­associated with loneliness.

Children’s lives in particular have been transformed: since the 1970s, their unaccompanied home range (in other words, the area they roam without adult supervision) has declined in Britain by almost 90 per cent. Not only does this remove them from contact with the natural world, but it limits their contact with other children. When kids played out on the street or in the woods, they quickly formed their own tribes, learning the social skills that would see them through life.

An ageing population, family and community breakdown, the decline of institutions such as churches and trade unions, the switch from public transport to private, inequality, an alienating ethic of consumerism, the loss of common purpose: all these are likely to contribute to one of the most dangerous epidemics of our time.

Yes, I do mean dangerous. The stress response triggered by loneliness raises blood pressure and impairs the immune system. Loneliness enhances the risk of depression, paranoia, addiction, cognitive decline, dem­entia, heart disease, stroke, viral infection, accidents and suicide. It is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and can be twice as deadly as obesity.

Perhaps because we are in thrall to the ideology that helps to cause the problem, we turn to the market to try to solve it. Over the past few weeks, the discovery of a new American profession, the people-walker (taking human beings for walks), has caused a small sensation in the media. In Japan there is a fully fledged market for friendship: you can hire friends by the hour with whom to chat and eat and watch TV; or, more disturbingly, to pose for pictures that you can post on social media. They are rented as mourners at funerals and guests at weddings. A recent article describes how a fake friend was used to replace a sister with whom the bride had fallen out. What would the bride’s mother make of it? No problem: she had been rented, too. In September we learned that similar customs have been followed in Britain for some time: an early foray into business for the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, involved offering to lease her posh friends to underpopulated weddings.



My own experience fits the current pattern: the high incidence of loneliness suffered by people between the ages of 18 and 34. I have sometimes been lonely before and after that period, but it was during those years that I was most afflicted. The worst episode struck when I returned to Britain after six years working in West Papua, Brazil and East Africa. In those parts I sometimes felt like a ghost, drifting through societies to which I did not belong. I was often socially isolated, but I seldom felt lonely, perhaps because the issues I was investigating were so absorbing and the work so frightening that I was swept along by adrenalin and a sense of purpose.

When I came home, however, I fell into a mineshaft. My university friends, with their proper jobs, expensive mortgages and settled, prematurely aged lives, had become incomprehensible to me, and the life I had been leading seemed incomprehensible to everyone. Though feeling like a ghost abroad was in some ways liberating – a psychic decluttering that permitted an intense process of discovery – feeling like a ghost at home was terrifying. I existed, people acknowledged me, greeted me cordially, but I just could not connect. Wherever I went, I heard my own voice bouncing back at me.

Eventually I made new friends. But I still feel scarred by that time, and fearful that such desolation may recur, particularly in old age. These days, my loneliest moments come immediately after I’ve given a talk, when I’m surrounded by people congratulating me or asking questions. I often experience a falling sensation: their voices seem to recede above my head. I think it arises from the nature of the contact: because I can’t speak to anyone for more than a few seconds, it feels like social media brought to life.

The word “sullen” evolved from the Old French solain, which means “lonely”. Loneliness is associated with an enhanced perception of social threat, so one of its paradoxical consequences is a tendency to shut yourself off from strangers. When I was lonely, I felt like lashing out at the society from which I perceived myself excluded, as if the problem lay with other people. To read any comment thread is, I feel, to witness this tendency: you find people who are plainly making efforts to connect, but who do so by insulting and abusing, alienating the rest of the thread with their evident misanthropy. Perhaps some people really are rugged individualists. But others – especially online – appear to use that persona as a rationale for involuntary isolation.

Whatever the reasons might be, it is as if a spell had been cast on us, transforming this ultrasocial species into a population of loners. Like a parasite enhancing the conditions for its own survival, loneliness impedes its own cure by breeding shame and shyness. The work of groups such as Age UK, Mind, Positive Ageing and the Campaign to End Loneliness is life-saving.

When I first wrote about this subject, and the article went viral, several publishers urged me to write a book on the theme. Three years sitting at my desk, studying isolation: what’s the second prize? But I found another way of working on the issue, a way that engages me with others, rather than removing me. With the brilliant musician Ewan McLennan, I have written a concept album (I wrote the first draft of the lyrics; he refined them and wrote the music). Our aim is to use it to help break the spell, with performances of both music and the spoken word designed to bring people together –which, we hope, will end with a party at the nearest pub.

By itself, our work can make only a tiny contribution to addressing the epidemic. But I hope that, both by helping people to acknowledge it and by using the power of music to create common sentiment, we can at least begin to identify the barriers that separate us from others, and to remember that we are not the selfish, ruthless beings we are told we are.

“Breaking the Spell of Loneliness” by Ewan McLennan and George Monbiot is out now. For a full list of forthcoming gigs visit:

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood