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25 January 2024

A British “citizen army” is something Russia should fear

Gen Z squaddies are more likely to be terrifying killing machines than snowflakes.

By Clive Martin

So you really thought you were safe in your cosy, North-West-European world? You just cruised through life, assuming the ghost of Lord Kitchener would never jab his finger at you, that remote drone bases and Ant Middleton would be enough to defeat those intent on undermining Anglo-American supremacy.

Think again, sucker. Because yesterday, the collective timeline woke up to the previously unthinkable notion that military-age Brits could be pulled from the safe edges of global conflict and forced to dance in the bloody, geopolitical school disco. 

At first, it seemed like the story could have been a bad prank, pulled by some Simon Brodkin-style “comedy provocateur,” or it may have been a Johnny Mercer tweet blown out of proportion, but no, the source was totally legitimate. The quotes stemmed from none other than General Sir Patrick Sanders, the Chief of the General Staff, who warned that “within the next three years, it must be credible to talk of a British Army of 120,000 – folding in our reserve and strategic reserve.” “But this is not enough,” he went on to say. “We will not be immune, and as the pre-war generation, we must similarly prepare – and that is a whole-of-nation undertaking. Ukraine brutally illustrates that regular armies start wars; citizen armies win them.” 

There were soon thousands upon thousands of memes, reactions, and takes on General Sander’s call for a mass draft of British teenagers. Some discussed elaborate draft-dodging strategies; others lamented a generation of snowflakes and said they hadn’t a hope in hell against the Russians. 

Others went a step further, suggesting who exactly should be recruited. One account said: “The UK army should conscript anyone with these in their profile (pointing to a Ukrainian flag, an EU flag, and a syringe). They all profess to care deeply about protecting others – the people of Ukraine and their beloved EU. Let’s see how they get on first.” Even the threat of war, it seemed, was a good time for cheap culture war jabs. 

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However, within hours, there were moves to dampen Sanders’ war cries, with Downing Street issuing an official denial, stating that “The British military has a proud tradition of being a voluntary force. There are no plans to change that.” 

Still, this brief brouhaha captured the imagination and raised plenty of questions in the process. Namely, who would get called up? How would we fare against the numerous but badly-equipped Russians, the even more numerous but out-of-practice Chinese People’s Liberation Army, or the chaotic but bold Houthis? But mostly, it begged the question: why is somebody in General Sanders’ position throwing out this kind of rhetoric? Is he preparing for a hot war or a talking head gig on GB News? 

One interesting sub-question is that of age. The last time Britain introduced mandatory conscription in 1939, the initial age range demanded men between 18 and 41. By the middle of the war, when losses started to mount, the government increased the male age to 51 years old, and began to draft women between 20 and 30 into non-frontline roles. In the Vietnam War, conscription was a murky and controversial issue, but mostly it was men between 18 and 35, and since that debacle, we haven’t seen much conscription in the West.

But in a day and age when you see people in their 50s completing sub-three-hour marathons, when life expectancies are rising year-on-year, and Gary Lineker is currently seven years older than Des Lynam when the BBC binned him for being too old, age is an increasingly confused concept. We could yet see the day of the “boomer squaddie,” with their rumpled copies of James O’Brien’s book in their service-issue backpacks and yoga knee pads under their fatigues. 

Then, of course, there are the exemptions. The British Army has long since banished the homophobic practices that banned many LGBTQ+ people from their ranks (which in turn became the perfect ruse for canny draft-dodgers), but how would it contend with the self-diagnosis culture we live in today? Would a quick online form prescribing a case of climate anxiety, narcissistic disorder, or selective ADHD be enough to keep you out of the trenches?  

The chances are, probably not. Indeed, the intelligence community in the US and UK has been actively trying to recruit neurodiverse people, playing on the “superpower” cliche often found on social media. In a similar way to how you might avoid a charity fun run, your best bet is probably declaring a dodgy knee from 5-a-side, or freelancing-related spinal curvature.

Judging by the discourse spewed by union-jack-in-bio types on social media, there is a belief that Brits of military age are more interested in vaping, moaning, gaming, and Instagram-induced vanity than fighting for their country. People believe that we’ve well and truly lost the spirit of ‘The Tommies’ for good now and instead have reared a generation of content creators and scroungers. 

Yet, I would suggest a counterpoint to this: that lost young people who spend their lives in the gym, staying up all night, and consuming dehumanising digital content, may be the perfect modern soldiers. War is changing rapidly, and a breed of tech-savvy, non-thinking human drones with immaculate trap muscles might create a formidable force. Also, as anyone who’s seen some of the Adam Curtisian content produced by Israeli and Ukrainian soldiers recently will tell you, a case of internet brain doesn’t preclude you from becoming a killing machine. 

War games aside, it is still worth asking: What on earth was General Sanders playing at? The truth probably lies in the moment and the venue at which he made his remarks, a keynote speech at the International Armoured Vehicles Conference, a trade event that happens at Twickenham Stadium every year, and this week saw protests by pro-Palestinian activists, enraged at the presence of Israeli military customers. 

Sanders was no doubt there to convince nations to buy more armoured vehicles and weapons, and perhaps, by slyly raising the prospect of a Gen Z infantry force, he hawked a few more tanks to terrified officials that day.

It was probably more of a marketing strategy than a recruitment drive. 

[See also: VAR has worsened football]

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