Fight for queen and country? Military service today

Saturday 3 November, 11:0012:00, National Library of Scotland, George IV Bridge, Edinburgh, EH1 1EWUK satellites

This debate is part of Battle of Ideas Edinburgh – buy tickets here.

November 2018 marks a century since the end of the Great War. In the eyes of many, the First World War marked a turning point for attitudes to military service. Where the war started with a poster campaign announcing that ‘Lord Kitchener wants you’, the conflict is remembered as a brutal war of attrition in which more British service personnel died – nearly 900,000 – more than in all wars involving the UK since, combined. While the Second World War has been widely seen as a justifiable war against fascism, the UK’s military entanglements since have often been the source of great controversy, from Suez in the Fifties to Iraq and Afghanistan today.

Today, the Ministry of Defence is struggling to recruit enough service personnel to replace those leaving. In the year to April 2017, 12,950 recruits joined the regular armed forces, but 14,970 service personnel left. While initiatives like Help for Heroes and the Invictus Games laud injured veterans, they are also reminders of the casualties of unpopular contemporary conflicts. Millennials, it seems, are less interested than earlier generation in notions of patriotism or defending the realm. Even emphasising self-improvement over the reality of fighting – with slogans like ‘Be the Best’ and ‘Made in the Navy’ – is seen by some as elitist and the services are viewed in some quarters as non-inclusive.

In response to this, the Army has produced more Millennial-friendly campaigns that answer questions about being gay in the Army, whether it is okay to feel emotions and so on. But many current and retired officers criticised the change of emphasis. Retired Colonel Richard Kemp told BBC News that the campaign would appeal to the core recruitment pool, pointing to the need ‘to fill the Army up with people who want to fight and want to be soldiers. And this, I don’t think, will do that.’

Has the ideal of serving your country disappeared? With the ongoing debate about independence, are too few Scots willing to see the UK as ‘their’ country? Why are Millennials apparently reluctant to sign up? Does the struggle to recruit new soldiers and sailors reflect cynicism with modern conflicts that seem remote and pointless? Are there better ways to serve our communities today? Should the UK follow French president Emmanuel Macron’s lead and reintroduce national service? What are the consequences for society if we are not prepared to fight?