A post-imperial army

Commonwealth soldiers willing to die for Britain aren't rewarded with citizenship.

In the capital this year Armistice Day will be marked by the scarlet illumination of the London Eye, with laser beams marking 11am like the hands of a clock. Yet despite attempts to keep the anniversary modern and meaningful to younger generations, the actual conditions of militarywork remain obscured by this type of patriotic symbolism.

It is a little known fact that the British Army currently employs more than 8,000 personnel from Commonwealth countries, not including former Gurkhas from Nepal. In 1998 the New Labour government removed the residency requirement for Commonwealth citizens and individual regiments
began to recruit from countries as far away as Fiji and Jamaica. Numbers increased over the decade, and in 2009 a cap of 15 per cent was placed
on those trades where levels threatened to rise above a level deemed appropriate for a “British” army.
 
Today there are approximately 2200 from Fiji, 890 from South Africa, 800 from Ghana and hundreds from Jamaica and the eastern Caribbean.
Ostensibly recruited to meet shortfalls in voluntary recruitment through the 1990s, this ready source of “manpower” has meant that the armed forces
have been able to sustain adequate levels of recruitment throughout wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The numbers of non UK nationals has also had a
significant impact on levels of ethnic minorities in the army, currently hovering around 9.9 per cent. Ten years ago this figure was likely to be
near 2 per cent, although statistics were not comprehensively collected at that time.
 
In November 2009 I interviewed four young recruits from the Caribbean who had flown over that week to complete the final selection process.
They had passed the basic tests in their home countries of Belize and St Lucia the previous year when the army’s “overseas pre-selection team”
was in residence. They had then waited many months before receiving the invitation to fly to London. We had watched the remembrance service in
Westminster Abbey on a large TV screen and discussed the impact of Britain’s imperial history on their countries and their families.
 
We observed the most celebrated Commonwealth soldier to date, then Lance Corporal Johnson Beharry, VC, handing the wreath of poppies to the
Queen to place on the tomb of the unknown soldier. Originally a citizen of Grenada, Beharry would have passed through the same selection centre
in 2001 shortly before being sent to the infantry training centre in Yorkshire where these young recruits were bound as well. While on deployment in Al-Amarah, Iraq, in 2004 he distinguished himself by driving members of his unit to safety on two occasions when they came under heavy fire. He was awarded the Victoria Cross the following year, becoming the first living person to receive it since 1965 and certainly one of the youngest. He was 24 at the time.
 
Soldiers such as Beharry and the recruits I interviewed, who might otherwise be cast as ineligible skilled and unskilled migrants from outside the EU, are not automatically rewarded with citizenship as a condition of employment in the armed forces. Nor is their path to citizenship, should they wish to apply, significantly expedited by their readiness to kill and to die for Britain.
 
This past year has been an escalation in the number of cases where Commonwealth soldiers have been refused UK citizenship. The UK Borders
Authority maintain that criminal convictions and sentences imposed under military law affect immigration and nationality decisions, regardless of
the severity (or not) of the alleged offences. The Home Office is currently reviewing the criteria as a result of publicity gathered by the organisation Veterans’ Aid which deals with veterans in crisis.
 
As the Royal British Legion asks people to "stand shoulder to shoulder with those who serve”, it is worth recalling that the soldiers who are not UK citizens would, out of uniform, be regarded as unwelcome immigrants. However, this is not to argue the case that military work should be considered exceptional and that soldiers’ claims for settlement should be expedited.
 
The employment of migrant-soldiers with strong postcolonial ties to Britain challenges the “common sense” racism that delineates the boundaries of our political community by colour and concepts of indigeneity. The ratcheting up of anti-migrant policies by successive governments in order to earn the approval of the electorate reveals the hypocrisy, double standards and racism that are inherent in framing the war these military migrants are sent off to fight.
 
Vron Ware is a research fellow in the centre for citizenship, identities and governance (CCIG) and the centre for research in socio- cultural change (CReSC) at the Open University. Her book “Military Migrants: Fighting for YOUR country” has just been published by Palgrave.
Lance Corporal Johnson Beharry meets the Queen in November 2010 (Photo: Getty Images)
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In defence of orientalism, the case against Twenty20, and why Ken should watch Son of Saul

My week, from Age Concern to anti-semitism.

Returning late from a party I never much wanted to go to, I leap up and down in the middle of the Harrow Road in the hope of flagging down a taxi, but the drivers don’t notice me. Either they’re haring down the fast lane or they’re too preoccupied cursing Uber to one another on their mobile phones. My father drove a black cab, so I have a deep loyalty to them. But there’s nothing like being left stranded in NW10 in the dead of night to make one reconsider one’s options. I just wish Uber wasn’t called Uber.

Just not cricket

Tired and irritable, I spend the next day watching sport on television – snooker, darts, cricket, anything I can find. But I won’t be following the Indian Premier League’s Twenty20 cricket again. It’s greedy, cynical, over-sponsored and naff. Whenever somebody hits a boundary, cheerleaders in cast-off gym kit previously worn by fourth-form Roedean girls wave tinsel mops.

Matches go to the final over where they’re decided in a thrashathon of sixes hit by mercenaries wielding bats as wide as shovels. Why, in that case, don’t both teams just play a final over each and dispense with the previous 19? I can’t wait for the elegant ennui of a five-day Test match.

Stop! Culture police!

I go to the Delacroix exhibition at the National Gallery to shake off the sensation of all-consuming kitsch. Immediately I realise I have always confused Delacroix with someone else but I can’t decide who. Maybe Jacques-Louis David. The show convincingly argues that Delacroix influenced every artist who came after him except Jeff Koons, who in that case must have been influenced by David. It’s turbulent, moody work, some of the best of it, again to my surprise, being religious painting with the religion taken out. Christ’s followers lamenting his death don’t appear to be expecting miracles. This is a man they loved, cruelly executed. The colours are the colours of insupportable grief.

I love the show but wish the curators hadn’t felt they must apologise for Delacroix finding the North Africans he painted “exotic”. Cultural studies jargon screams from the wall. You can hear the lecturer inveighing against the “appropriating colonial gaze” – John Berger and Edward Said taking all the fun out of marvelling at what’s foreign and desirable. I find myself wondering where they’d stand on the Roedean cheer-leaders of Mumbai.

Taking leave of the senses

My wife drags me to a play at Age Concern’s headquarters in Bloomsbury. When I see where she’s taking me I wonder if she plans to leave me there. The play is called Don’t Leave Me Now and is written by Brian Daniels. It is, to keep it simple, about the effects of dementia on the families and lovers of sufferers. I am not, in all honesty, expecting a good time. It is a reading only, the actors sitting in a long line like a board of examiners, and the audience hunched forward in the attitude of the professionally caring.  My wife is a therapist so this is her world.

Here, unlike in my study, an educated empathy prevails and no one is furious. I fear that art is going to get lost in good intention. But the play turns out to be subtly powerful, sympathetic and sharp, sad and funny; and hearing it read engages me as seeing it performed might not have done. Spared the spectacle of actors throwing their bodies around and singing about their dreams against a backdrop painted by a lesser, Les Mis version of Delacroix, you can concentrate on the words. And where dementia is the villain, words are priceless.

Mixing with the proles

In Bloomsbury again the next day for a bank holiday design and craft fair at Mary Ward House. I have a soft spot for craft fairs, having helped run a craft shop once, and I feel a kinship with the designers sitting bored behind their stalls, answering inane questions about kilns and receiving empty compliments. But it’s the venue that steals the show, a lovely Arts and Crafts house, founded in the 1890s by the novelist Mary Ward with the intention of enabling the wealthy and educated to live among the poor and introduce them to the consolations of beauty and knowledge. We’d call that patronising. We’re wrong. It’s a high ideal, to ease the burden of poverty and ignorance and, in Ward’s words, save us from “the darker, coarser temptations of our human road”.

An Oscar-winning argument for Zionism

Speaking of which, I am unable to empty my mind of Ken Livingstone and his apologists as I sit in the cinema and watch the just-released Academy Award-winning Son of Saul, a devastating film about one prisoner’s attempt to hold on to a vestige of humanity in a Nazi death camp. If you think you know of hell from Dante or Michelangelo, think again. The inferno bodied forth in Son of Saul is no theological apportioning of justice or deserts. It is the evisceration of meaning, the negation of every grand illusion about itself mankind has ever harboured. There has been a fashion, lately, to invoke Gaza as proof that the Holocaust is a lesson that Jews failed to learn – as though one cruelty drives out another, as though suffering is forfeit, and as though we, the observers, must choose between horrors.

I defy even Livingstone to watch this film, in which the Jews, once gassed, become “pieces” – Stücke – and not grasp the overwhelming case for a Jewish place of refuge. Zionism pre-dated the camps, and its fulfilment, if we can call it that, came too late for those millions reduced to the grey powder mountains the Sonderkommandos were tasked with sweeping away. It diminishes one’s sympathy for the Palestinian cause not a jot to recognise the arguments, in a world of dehumanising hate, for Zionism. Indeed, not to recognise those arguments is to embrace the moral insentience whose murderous consequence Son of Saul confronts with numbed horror. 

This article first appeared in the 05 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The longest hatred