The Political Role of the Military: An International Handbook

By Constantine P. Danopoulos; Cynthia Watson | Go to book overview
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made by their enemies, then it follows that they can be unmade by the disappearance of their adversaries. NATO appears to be a declining asset, and the British army in Germany may not be long for this world. And, the new generation of nuclear weapons platforms (Trident) may simply be too expensive for the United Kingdom. By the turn of the century or sooner, Britain's nuclear force could be obsolete and its conventional forces so reduced in strength and capability that the country could no longer project power. UN roles, such as the guarding of food convoys in Bosnia, will be a poor substitute.

It is likely that the army will be operating in Ireland for some time. One has to worry about the impact on morale and professional values of a service dominated by policing and counterterrorist operations in a political environment where the best one can hope for is to prevent the other side from winning. A long experience of covert operations involving ambush and, some would say, assassination, for which there is little accountability, will do little good for the British army or political life in general.

On balance, the odds are good that Britain will continue the system of civilmilitary relations that it has enjoyed so long well into the next century. Nothing lasts forever in politics, but the very age of the British system gives to it a legitimacy inferior to none in the developed world. Officers who might seek to supplant or displace the civil government would have to shift the burden of more than three centuries of tradition. Only genuine revolutionaries could do that, and the British army is unlikely to produce another Oliver Cromwell. It would take some great crisis of legitimacy in the regime to produce any great change in the behavior of the military. For some societies, history may weigh, as Marx once wrote, "like a nightmare upon the brain of the living." That may be true of Britain in Ireland but, elsewhere in the country, history is one of the chief supports of a stable regime of civil-military relations and, therefore, of a civilized politics.

Some clarification of terms is in order here. We use the term "military" in the American sense, that is, we mean by it any one or all of the armed services.
S. E. Finer includes Britain among his examples of states with a "mature political culture," in his The Man on Horseback: The Role of the Military in Politics, 2d ed. ( London: Penguin, 1975), p.79. In those states, "the intervention of the military would be regarded as a wholly unwarrantable intrusion," and "public sanction" for that kind of behavior "would be unobtainable."
J. Sabine, "Civil-Military Relations", in J. Baylis, ed., British Defence Policy in a Changing World ( London: Croom Helm, 1977), p. 230.
Adam Roberts, "The British Armed Forces and Politics: A Historical Perspective", Armed Forces and Society 3, no. 4 ( August 1977): 531-32.
See three works by C. Townshend: The British Campaign in Ireland 1919-1921: The Development of Political and Military Policies ( London: Oxford University Press, 1976); Britain's Civil War: Counterinsurgency in the Twentieth Century ( London: Faber


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