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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Charlottesville: a town haunted by the far right

Locals fear a bitter far right will return.

On 12 August, a car ploughed down pedestrians in the street where I used to buy my pecan pies. I had recently returned to London from Charlottesville, Virginia – the scene of what appears to have been an act of white supremacist terrorism – having worked and taught at the university there for four years. While I unpacked boxes of books, the streets I knew so well were full of hate and fire.

The horror began on the evening of Friday 11 August, when thugs with torches marched across the “Lawn”. Running through the heart of the university, this is where, each Halloween, children don ghoulish costumes and trick-or-treat delighted and generous fourth-year undergraduates.

But there were true monsters there that night. They took their stand on the steps of the neoclassical Rotunda – the site of graduation – to face down a congregation about to spill out of St Paul’s Episcopal opposite.

Then, on Saturday morning, a teeming mass of different groups gathered in Emancipation Park (formerly Lee Park), where my toddler ran through splash pads in the summer.

We knew it was coming. Some of the groups were at previous events in Charlottesville’s “summer of hate”. Ever since a permit was granted for the “Unite the Right” march, we feared that this would be a tipping point. I am unsure whether I should have been there, or whether I was wise to stay away.

The truth is that this had nothing to do with Charlottesville – and everything to do with it. From one perspective, our small, sleepy university town near the Blue Ridge Mountains was the victim of a showdown between out-of-towners. The fighting was largely not between local neo-Nazis and African Americans, or their white neighbours, for that matter. It was between neo-Nazis from far afield – James Alex Fields, Jr, accused of being the driver of the lethal Dodge Challenger, was born in Kentucky and lives in Ohio – and outside groups such as “Antifa” (anti-fascist). It was a foreign culture that was foisted upon the city.

Charlottesville is to the American east coast what Berkeley is to the west: a bastion of liberalism and political correctness, supportive of the kind of social change that the alt-right despises. Just off camera in the national newsfeeds was a banner hung from the public  library at the entrance of Emancipation Park, reading: “Proud of diversity”.

I heard more snippets of information as events unfolded. The counter-protesters began the day by drawing on the strength of the black church. A 6am prayer meeting at our local church, First Baptist on Main (the only church in Charlottesville where all races worshipped together before the Civil War), set the tone for the non-violent opposition.

The preacher told the congregation: “We can’t hate these brothers. They have a twisted ideology and they are deeply mistaken in their claim to follow Christ, but they are still our brothers.” Then he introduced the hymns. “The resistance of black people to oppression has only been kept alive through music.”

The congregation exited on to Main Street, opposite my old butcher JM Stock Provisions, and walked down to the statue of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark – the early 19th-century Bear Grylls types who explored the west. They went past Feast! – the delicacy market where we used to spend our Saturday mornings – and on to the dreamy downtown mall where my wife and I strolled on summer evenings and ate southern-fried chicken at the Whiskey Jar.

The permit for the “protest” was noon to 5pm but violence erupted earlier. Between 10.30am and 12pm, the white supremacists, protected by a paramilitary guard, attacked their opponents. As the skirmishes intensified, police were forced to encircle the clashing groups and created, in effect, a bizarre zone of “acceptable” violence. Until the governor declared a state of emergency, grown men threw bottles of piss at each other.

At noon, the crowd was dispersed and the protesters spilled out into the side streets. This was when the riot climaxed with the horrific death of the 32-year-old Heather Heyer. Throughout Saturday afternoon and evening, the far-right groups marauded the suburbs while residents locked their doors and closed their blinds.

I sat in London late into the night as information and prayer requests trickled through. “There are roughly 1,000 Nazis/KKK/alt-right/southern nationalists still around – in a city of 50,000 residents. If you’re the praying type, keep it up.”

No one in Charlottesville is in any doubt as to how this atrocity became possible. Donald Trump has brought these sects to group consciousness. They have risen above their infighting to articulate a common ground, transcending the bickering that mercifully held them back in the past.

In the immediate aftermath, there is clarity as well as fury. My colleague Charles Mathewes, a theologian and historian, remarked: “I still cannot believe we have to fight Nazis – real, actual, swastika-flag-waving, be-uniformed, gun-toting Nazis, along with armed, explicit racists, white supremacists and KKK members. I mean, was the 20th century simply forgotten?”

There is also a sense of foreboding, because the overwhelming feeling with which the enemy left was not triumph but bitterness. Their permit had been to protest from noon to 5pm. They terrorised a town with their chants of “Blood and soil!” but their free speech was apparently not heard. Their safe space, they claim, was not protected.

The next day, the organiser of the march, Jason Kessler, held a press conference to air his grievances. The fear is that the indignant white supremacists will be back in greater force to press their rights.

If that happens, there is one certainty. At one point during the dawn service at First Baptist, a black woman took the stand. “Our people have been oppressed for 400 years,” she said. “What we have learned is that the only weapon which wins the war is love.”

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear