What would Britain be like if it was at peace?

Since 1945, Britain has almost never been at peace. These conflicts have preoccupied the military and legitimised spending and facilities that would cause major problems if we stayed away from war.

It may be a little peculiar to speculate on this on a balmy British summer day. The Proms are in full swing, the Edinburgh Fringe is getting under way and there has been no summer riot so far - if one ignores the Northern Ireland marching season. About the most bellicose anyone is getting at present is over the Ashes, and for once the Australians have done the right thing and allowed themselves to be licked.

So why this quixotic preoccupation? I wonder just how often most readers give a thought to the British troops who are still serving and dying in Afghanistan? There are some 9,500 members of the armed forces in the country, to be reduced to 5,200 next year and to be fully withdrawn by 2015. That is the current intention.

Even if the Afghan war (which has been going on for the past twelve years – far longer than either World War) sometimes makes the headlines, what is seldom recalled is just how regularly Britain has been at war since 1945. In fact, the country has almost never been in some conflict or other, declared or undeclared.

At the bottom of this blog is a table kindly supplied by the Ministry of Defence, with the warning that it should not be considered ‘official’ since there was in the past no central record of every military action, and that until recently the Army, Navy and Air Force each held their own records. What it does indicate is that Britain has been involved in fighting of one kind or other almost every year.

The National Memorial Arboretum records the names of some 16,000 servicemen and women who have died for their country since 1945. Indeed, the Ministry of Defence says there has been only one year since that time when they did not lose someone in ‘combat operations’ – and that was 1968.

Even this almost certainly does not record the total number of conflicts in which Britain was involved. Some, like the SAS operation in Oman and Dhofar between 1969 and 1976, is not officially recorded. There may well be others.

All of which brings me back to the question I first raised: what would Britain be like if it was really at peace? George Orwell declared in “England Your England” that: “The gentleness of the English civilization is perhaps its most marked characteristic.”

He argued – rightly, it seems to me  - that “all the boasting and flag-wagging, the ‘Rule Britannia’ stuff, is done by small minorities.” Even Godfrey Bloom and his ‘Bongo-Bongoland’ outburst is no more than quaint and mildly embarrassing, rather than threatening in any way.

Yet Britain at peace could be a very different beast. What exactly would the country do with its armed forces? Some, no doubt, would continue to be stationed on the 9 bases Britain maintains around the world (not forgetting that Diego Garcia is British, even if it is leased to the United States and its ownership is disputed by Mauritius.)

But the rest would have to come home and then what would be done with them then? They might gradually moulder away, exercising in the Brecon Beacons or in Borneo from time to time. They might be even more rapidly run down. How would the public cope with so many troops regularly going about their daily business, on the streets and in shopping centres?

Peace – real peace – would pose as many questions as most conflicts for the military. A member of the Royal Navy once pointed out to me that getting rid of Gaddafi in 2011 provided a golden opportunity to fire off all the obsolete ammunition that had been accumulating since the Falklands, with the Treasury picking up the bill. Without a conflict the military would have to find money from its budget for this kind of thing. Officers would lose combat experience, squaddies could become soft.

But all this may be premature. Syria could easily suck in British forces (who knows if some are not there already?) and the world is by no means at peace. Memories of Afghan casualties will fade, just as the First, Second and Third Anglo-Afghan Wars of 1839 – 1919 gradually left the public mind. Some incident or hostage situation will, no doubt, escape the grasp of the Foreign Office and spiral out of control. Who, after all, would have thought that London would nearly come to blows with Paris over the village of Fashoda in 1898? Who can even point to it on a map?

It seems to me that after the withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2014 Britain will take a short breather and then get back to its natural condition: it will find another war to become involved in; preferably a small one. 

British military action since 1945

Greek Civil War 1944-49 (direct UK involvement was more in the earlier years)

India, prior to independence and partition 1945-8 (both traditional colonial policing and incidents such as the Indian navy mutiny)

Palestine / 1st Arab-Israeli War 1945-48

Corfu Incident 1946

Malaya 1948-60

Yangtze Incident 1949 (not pictured)

Korea 1950-1953

Canal Zone 1950-54

Mau-Mau in Kenya 1952-1960ish

Cyprus 1950s until Treaty of Establishment in 1960

Suez 1956

Borneo 1960s

Aden 1964-67

Radfan (Yemen) 1960s (not pictured)

Northern Ireland 1969- present day (last military fatality was L/Bdr Restorick in 1997)

Dhofar late 60s to mid 70s (not pictured)

Iranian Embassy 1980 (no military fatalities)

Falklands 1982

Gulf campaign 1990-91 (bear in mind that although “combat ops” did not start until Jan 1991 we lost several aircrew in training accidents in theatre during the build-up of forces in the autumn/winter of 1990)

No Fly Zones Iraq 1991-2003 (no fatalities, but emphasis on 1999-2003, when Iraqi air defences attacked Coalition aircraft routinely and fire was returned)

Bosnia 1992-5 (and continued operational deployment with IFOR/SFOR for years after the cessation of hostilities)

Desert Fox Iraq 16-19 December 1998 (no fatalities but “combat” op) - not pictured

Kosovo 1999 (then continuing operational deployment with KFOR afterwards)

Sierra Leone 2000

Afghanistan 2001 to present

Iraq 2003-9

Libya 2011 (no fatalities)

All photographs: Getty Images.

British troops in Afghanistan - a conflict which has far outrun both world wars. Photograph: Getty Images.

Martin Plaut is a fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London. With Paul Holden, he is the author of Who Rules South Africa?

Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Danila Tkachenko
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Ruin porn: the art world’s awkward obsession with abandoned Soviet architecture

Deserted fairgrounds, disused factories and forgotten military bases may look cool, but are we fetishising the remnants of such a cruel history?

Armenia, where one side of my family is from, was one of the first members of the USSR, annexed by Russia in 1922. A few years ago, when I visited this little country that perches precariously in the south of the Caucasus, I was struck most by its Soviet architecture.

Although its landscape is a hotchpotch of medieval Orthodox churches, a smattering of Persian-era domes, and brutalist concrete, it was the latter that particularly stuck out. From unfelled statues of Stalin to giant tower blocks spelling out the letters “CCCP” from a bird’s-eye view (well, half spelt-out – construction stopped partway through, with the fall of the Soviet Union), I’ve never forgotten it.

Perhaps it was so compelling because such stark physical symbols make recent history all the more tangible. A history still profoundly affecting the country of my ancestors (and all post-Soviet and communist states). But also, it just looked really cool.


Mixed air corps, Mongolia. Photo: Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Eric Losito

It’s a bit passé now to mock the hipster obsession with reclaimed industrial detritus, exposed pipes and bare concrete. An aesthetic – that of a post-industrial wasteland, but a chic one – which has gripped western cities for years, and crept worldwide.

But it could be this tendency to find disused stuff visually intriguing, and a morbid fascination with cruel regimes, which has led to the art world’s obsession with abandoned Soviet architecture. A whole wave of artists and photographers have been poking around the eastern bloc’s architectural graveyard in recent years.

Late last year, we saw the hugely popular disused Soviet bus stop series by photographer Christopher Herwig, echoing photographer Sergey Novikov’s equally absorbing collection of abandoned Soviet cinemas from 2013.

Following Russian filmmaker and photographer Maria Morina’s “Atomic Cities” project four years ago, London-based artist Nadav Kander explored the “aesthetics of destruction” in his exhibition, Dust, in 2014, snapping “radioactive ruins” of secret cities on the border between Kazakhstan and Russia. The same year, Moscow photographers Sasha Mademuaselle and Sergey Kostromin travelled to the disputed region of Abkhazia, capturing fragments of its deserted infrastructure.


Fighter aviation regiment, Mongolia. Photo: Eric Losito
 

And photojournalist Anton Petrus’ now iconic pictures of Chernobyl’s abandoned amusement park have long been an internet favourite, as have numerous haunting images of Pripyet – the city famous for lying deserted following the nuclear disaster.

Jamie Rann, a lecturer in Russian at Oxford University, has written that the quality and technical accomplishment of most of this photography make the style more “ruin erotica” than “ruin porn” (the tag being used by some critics), but argues: “The enormous online popularity of this genre . . . combined with their voyeuristic, almost exploitative feel, certainly has something porny about it.”

The latest exploration of Soviet society’s skeletons can be found at the Power & Architecture season at London’s Calvert 22 Foundation. In an exhibition called Dead Space and Ruins, we see abandoned military bases and formerly mighty monuments, forgotten space ports freezing in the tundra, the ghost of an entire unused, unfinished city in Armenia lying derelict.



The unfinished "ghost city" built in Armenia to house earthquake survivors (water added by artist). Photo: Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Vahram Aghasyan

The works are beautiful, but do they feed in to this zeitgeisty lust for Soviet ruins?

One of its curators, Will Strong, laments this trend. “I was keen that this didn’t become like a kind of ‘ruin lust’, ‘ruin porn’ thing; this slightly buzzwordy term that there is at the moment, this kind of fetishisation of dead space,” he tells me.

“This history is incredibly loaded, and it did not end in 1991. To sort of fetishise it in the very bourgeois western way of, ‘oh yeah, look at all this wonderful Soviet architecture, isn’t it fantastic?’ Obviously a lot of people who lived in that time hated it . . . a lot of people were very miserable under these regimes, so it’s important not to forget that.”


Gym at the Independent Radar Centre of Early Detection, Latvia. Photo: Eric Losito

He adds: “It’s more a point of reflection on how buildings were designed, what their legacy is, what their narrative is, and who the people are who live with that story. This show looks at the aftermaths of when utopia hasn’t been delivered.”

This view is echoed by the Moscow artist, Danila Tkachenko, whose work is featured in the exhibition. “It is rather a metaphor for the future, not the past,” he says. “It represents an image of a possible future. When there is a visualisation of this issue [utopia], it evokes a response in people; they see this utopia in their lives . . . There is disappointment in all utopias.”


The world's largest diesel submarine, in Russia's Samara region. Photo: Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Danila Tkachenko

His Restricted Areas series explores great behemoths of European communism left to lie forgotten in the tundra of remote regions in and around Russia and Kazakhstan: the world’s largest diesel submarine, like a beached whale in the snow; a giant satellite, thatched with antennae, built to communicate with Soviet bases on other planets some day; the deserted flying saucer-like communist headquarters in a region of Bulgaria. The structures hover in blank, white space, making the photos appear black-and-white.


Deserted observatory, Kazakhstan's Almaty region. Photo: Danila Tkachenko
 

Anton Ginzburg is an artist who grew up in St Petersburg in the Eighties as the Soviet Union was disintegrating. He believes studies like his film, Turo, of disused modernist constructions in the post-Soviet bloc, appeal to people’s connection to history. After all, picking through the architectural carcasses of former societies isn’t exactly a new thing:

“Russian culture is still haunted by its Communist past, and constructivist architecture is a decaying shell for its ghosts. It is an active reminder of the recent history,” he reflects. “Perhaps [its appeal] is a mixture of memento mori, with its thrill of beauty and destruction, along with a Romantic tradition of contemplation of Greek and Roman ruins.”

(Anton Ginzburg Turo teaser from Visionaireworld on Vimeo.)

The Power & Architecture season is on at the Calvert 22 Foundation, London, from 10 June-9 October 2016. Entry is free.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.