A National Serviceman's postscript

<strong>Taken from The <em>New Statesman</em>1 February 1958</strong>

Until 1 January 1961, national service was mandatory in Britain. Under the pseudonym National Serviceman, Anthony Howard, who would become editor of the New Statesman in 1972, wrote a number of articles for the magazine, exposing the brutality and tedium of his experience and those of others. In a final piece, written a month after he completed his stint as a second lieutenant with the Royal Fusiliers, Howard revealed his identity to the readers.

Selected by Robert Taylor

As each new conscript came into the barrack room he smiled nervously round; those already in possession grinned cheerlessly back. Everyone – the avuncular aunts, the Joan Hunter Dunns, the man-to-man housemasters – claims that this is the worst moment. I am not sure that they are right;
for the full horror of military life breaks through into consciousness only as the days unfold and the knowledge increases. And in those carefully counted hours at the beginning we were fully, and fairly innocuously, occupied with being injected, inspected and indoctrinated. The last, I remember, was done by the depot commander – a man to whom no musical comedy, and not even Mr Peter Ustinov, has yet done justice. A heavy, ponderous figure with an incongruous high-pitched voice he talked of ‘the Queen’, ‘this old country of ours’, ‘the honour of the regiment’, ‘the grand lot of chaps who have been through this depot before you’, and last (but in a very different tone of voice) of the Daily Mirror. ‘I want to assure you lads of one thing: we are not Daily Mirror conscious here. We have years of tradition behind us in this barracks, and there’s only one place where you’ll find that paper – in the latrines where it belongs. Right, carry on, Sergeant Major’.

But all that seems far away and long ago; and the much more recent memory is of the brisk, crisp little farewell interview with the C.O. of the battalion. At least it was brisk arid crisp for most of the time, but at the end of our conversation – during which I had not perhaps expressed the normal satisfactory sentiments – there was an embarrassed pause, a crack in the mask and a sudden, almost pathetic ‘You haven’t hated it too much have you?’. He looked puzzled and perplexed, and added (almost to himself): ‘I can’t understand why you chaps don’t settle down and make the best of it’.

It was fair comment; and the onus is clearly on those of us who failed to provide the requisite degree of enthusiasm to show why it was that we never took advantage of the advice so insistently given us on training areas and in lecture rooms ‘to put our backs into it’. It wasn’t even as if that advice came only from company comanders: the King George’s Jubilee Trust, the Daily Telegraph, and the Duke of Edinburgh all say very much the same thing. It is in fact the harmonised, recorded tune of the barrel-organs of the establishment that most of us, whatever we may have thought about national service beforehand, look back upon it with a mixture of gratitude and pleasure. As the Daily Telegraph said last April, ‘There is no doubt that many young men have enjoyed their national service and been vastly improved by it’.

It is interesting that the case should be put in this way; for this, of course, is precisely the battle-ground on which we – the recalcitrants and the Adullamites – would choose to fight. The memories of hours of boredom, organised fatuities, and deliberately inflicted discomforts can easily pass away as if they had never been; but what must remain is the scarring recollection of a system of values designed to teach each human being his place in ths structure of society. If social progress in this country has been suprisingly slow over the past 12 years, then the taking of 140,000 young men a year into national service must bear part of the responsibility. After all, the point that its defenders never tire of making is concerned with the influence it has on men out of the milk bars and off the raspberry shakes; and it would be astonishing indeed if the regular casting of whole generations into a thorough-going hierarchic mould left no impression. In fact, at regular two-year intervals since the war, the army has taught some to be aggressive and domineering, others to be obsequious and respectful. I can still hear a recently commissioned 18-year-old Etonian saying to me: 'Of course I believe in being easy with the chaps, but if any of them tries to give me any lip I chase him so hard to the guard-room that he doesn't know what hit him'. It is some years now since Harold Laski wrote: ' Nothing is more striking than the way in which we train the sons of rich or well-born men to habits of authority, while the children of the poor are trained to habits of deference'. That this should still be triumphantly true is in no small measure due to the military virtues that have been rigorously instilled into the post-war generation.

But this type of consideration perhaps belongs more to the social observer than to the recently demobbed national serviceman. And if, four weeks after coming out of the army, I was asked why it is that I can imagine few greater horrors than having to go back, I should quote the atmosphere of brutality that seemed to me to characterise all of the army barracks I knew. The pushing of one face into another, the verbal flaying pf the clumsy, the ruthless persecution of the unfortunate – these have more in common with Buchenwald than with the Atlantic Charter; and it has always puzzled me how people like Sir John Wolfenden can expect to grow a crop of good democratic citizens on a soil of hatred, ridicule and invective. It was not so much the things that were done as the attitudes of mind which lay behind them. Every time I acted as defending officer in a court-martial I would afterwards be eagerly asked in the mess: 'What did he get?'. And when I gave the answer – which might be as much as a year's detention for nine days' absence – I would hear some such reaction as 'Bloody good, I'm glad they hit him hard – the only sort of language he'll understand'. That attitude smacks not so much of feudalism as of Facism. And the fact that the Queen looks down on the rock-buns in the Naafi does not really operate as any form of moral alchemy.

It was the same on a much more personal, and insignificant, plane with the occasional articles that have periodically appeared in this journal under the pen-name of National Serviceman. A short time ago a major in my regiment, who was not serving with the battalion, convinced himself that he had established the identity of their author. His reaction was, I think, significant. It was to storm up and down the ante-room of the regimental depot and proclaim to anyone who would listen: ‘By God if that fellow comes here, I’ll stamp on his toes, I’ll smash his fingers, I’ll make him wish he’d never been born’. That sort of reflex represents the aggrandisement of brutality. And it is largely because of it – and the way it permeates military discipline – that I do not think I could ever be reconciled to army life as it is lived at the moment.

In fact the most powerful indictment of our present army that I know is contained in an essay by Tom Stacey in an otherwise undistinguished book entitled Called Up. That essay is concerned almost exclusively with three examples symbolising the personal brutality of barrack life; and it ends with the sentence: ‘The considered hatred which I still retain for the army which I saw will stay with me until I or others have changed it, or at least until it is openly shown me that it cannot carry out its important duties in a manner which does not so affront humanity’. From my own experience seven years later I would not alter a single word of that.

This article first appeared in the 28 January 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Merchant adventurer