“Send in the Army”: Oppression and the Hunger for Authority

The following is an excerpt from Empire’s Endgame: Racism and the British State, an upcoming book co-authored by British academics Gargi Bhattacharyya, Adam Elliott-Cooper, Sita Balani, Kerem Nisancioglu, Kojo Koram, Dalia Gebral, Nadine El-Enany, and Luke de Noronha. Published by Pluto Press, Empire’s Endgame engages with recent political movements such as Brexit and Black Lives Matter in order to provide a new and much-needed analysis of the confluence of race, government, and the media during these turbulent times. 

Although Empire’s Endgame is primarily a study of events in the United Kingdom, this chapter, “Longing for Authority,” touches upon an issue that is very much present in the United States: the willingness of the ruling elite to support the oppression of the minority using violent and military methods. This tension has been thrown into sharp relief in 2021, with the same police force that brought out tanks and tear gas against Black Lives Matter protesters allowing a Trumpist mob to smash its way into the United States Capitol with little resistance. “The call to enable the military to act with impunity,” the chapter goes, “signals a wider wish to institute an authority beyond any accountability.” 

Empire’s Endgame will be published by Pluto Press on February 20. For more information, or to pre-order the title, click through to the book’s detail page on the Pluto Press website. 

“If these thugs want war, let’s give it to them. Either send in the Army to sort them out, or better still, put them in the Army and arrange for them to be sent to Afghanistan and bring our brave troops home.” – P. Adams, Bexhill, East Sussex, letter to the Daily Mail following the 2011 riots

“Ministers have drawn up plans to send in the army to deliver food, medicines and fuel in the event of shortages if Britain crashes out of the EU without a deal.” – Sunday Times, 29 July 2018

“The UK armed forces ‘stand ready’ to intervene in the knife-crime epidemic, the defence secretary has said. Gavin Williamson said military personnel ‘would always be ready to respond’ to calls for help, while the Ministry of Defence ‘always stands ready to help any government department’.” – Independent, 6 March 2019

“Up to 20,000 military personnel are being put on standby in a new Covid Support Force and could ‘backfill’ police counter terrorism roles, act as prison guards or help with Border Force checks.” – Daily Express, 20 March 2020

“The military will support the Home Office in their work to combat Channel crossings.” – Ministry of Defence source, BBC News, 10 August 2020

In the last few years, calls to ‘send in the army’ have become recurrent and increasingly insistent. This reveals something important about our present crisis. The demand to ‘send in the army’ points to a popular desire for authority and order—a desire that blurs into the enraged will to contain, constrain and ‘order’ those untidy Others who seem to threaten the nation. In other words, calls to ‘send in the army’ reflect the intensity of the anger reserved for racialised ‘illegal immigrants’, ‘terrorists’ and ‘gangsters’, those internal enemies we discussed in the first chapter. At the same time, calls for paramilitary intervention to deal with social problems, or perceived social problems, are reinforced by a widespread, social obligation to honour the armed forces and official versions of their history. What, then, might we learn about racism in Britain through reflecting on these intensifying calls to ‘send in the army’?

If ‘criminals’, especially racialised figures such as ‘terrorists’ and ‘gangsters’, are defined as failed and unwanted citizens, who deserve nothing from state and society, and who should be excluded and expelled, then soldiers are their polar opposite. Soldiers—our boys (and for progressive nationalists, our girls)—put their lives on the line for queen and country, and by extension for us, the people. British people, therefore, owe them a debt which is to be paid in unlimited, unwavering support. Soldiers, we are constantly told, understand better than anyone else the importance of the nation, its security and its interests. The compulsory requirement that we honour, respect and remember ‘our boys’ constructs the soldier as the model British citizen, which is a central tenet of militarisation. In this way, the soldier-citizen could not be further from the ‘terrorist’ or the ‘gangster’, even as both groups are imagined as working-class young men engaged in collective violence. The British citizen who chooses to join the armed forces, and so to serve queen and country, thus reminds us that the ‘terrorist’ and the ‘gangster’ also choose not to serve but to defile this great nation.

But why do people long for the intervention of the military, rather than the police or non-coercive forms of state intervention? In part, it is because the basic requirements of life are not in place for many and are only uncertainly accessible for others. The army stands in here as an effective authority, unlike the failing and ineffectual post-welfare state. The longing for authoritarian intervention belongs to this sense of disempowerment: things have always been like this and there is nothing we can do—but there is someone stronger than us, if only they can be called upon. The call for the army is also a refusal of the niceties of human rights and the assorted procedural conventions of civil society. So, despite the worrying acceptance of violence and violation, the call of popular militarism is a call to be saved from the disorder and over-indulgence of modern life; a call for protection from the enemies that exist in foreign lands, at our borders and on our streets. Alongside these appeals to patriarchal authority, summoning the army is also an admission of weakness and frailty. It concedes to the desperate and lonely existence of the false promise of fulfilment and autonomy we had all been told could be achieved through the (technologised and hyper-mediatised) market. For all the rhetoric of choice, the call to send in the army reveals the fear that there are no meaningful or effective social agents in sight. Not me, with my personal brand and my atomised existence, nor anyone else. For all the talk about doing for oneself, there is a pervasive uncertainty about how the world might be shaped and a doubt about our ability to make any mark on it.

This is also a time in which the state, if acknowledged, is regarded as weak or failing or corrupt. ‘The people’ cannot rely on this broken machinery. Instead, we are encouraged to imagine another non-democratic state that can really meet our needs, unencumbered by the procedural politics of quangos, red tape and ‘experts’. Into this terrain, the army enters as a forgotten agent from an earlier time. This is the agency of the state, but instructed by emergency and therefore regarded as above the corruptions of political life. The army wields state power, but deals in matters of life and death, emerging to defend the nation in times of existential crisis. Importantly, it is regarded as above and apart from the political class. When it acts, it is not based on self-interest, but on the national interest. The army becomes the vernacular term for ‘the law’, the real law beyond the ugly skirmishes between competing groups, the law writ large that cannot be escaped. The deployment of the law may be violent, even to the point of death, but it is not unfair. Consequently, embodying both the law and the nation provides the army with impunity and protection from government, courts and national culture.

There are, unsurprisingly, a number of racialised elements to this formation. The army suggests an underlying ability to distinguish between full citizens and hidden enemies. If the structures of entitlement are in disarray, the army promises to be among the last institutions to ‘know’ who is the us that deserves protection, and who requires exclusion, expulsion or incarceration. Inevitably, militarism is a reassertion of the nation. The army is the martial expression of the nation and the ability of the army to act, as the last standing effective political agent, rehabilitates the nation. The rush to militarise everyday life through incursions into schools, television and high streets, as well as celebrations of military endeavour and guilt-trips about what the government is and is not doing for ‘our heroes’, are all attempts to resurrect a kind of national backbone. These martial overtures allay the deep-seated fears that we are alone, weak and unable to do anything to defend ourselves against the multiple threats we face. The enactment of state violence upon the bodies of variously racialised groups serves as a kind of distraction from the extent of political decline. This is everyday militarism as spectacle, at once designed to reassure and threaten, doling out punishments to those who do not quite belong as a counter-intuitive method of quieting the fears of others.

However, this longing for the intervention of the armed forces cannot be explained without a close interrogation of the policies designed to inculcate this very longing. In other words, it is not simply that the British people currently long for military authority because of state failure and economic woe, but also because lots of money and resources have been committed to positioning the armed forces in particular ways over recent years. Military values are not organic and bottom-up, and policies surrounding the armed forces also reflect the specific actions of military leaders and elites who have lobbied successive governments into taking particular positions. There is a complicated story to be told here about the relationship between military leaders, the government and the state, and different sections of the public.

In more general terms, we may consider war and army-worship to be central to all processes of nation-building, but in the UK we can observe since the 2003 invasion of Iraq a very concerted effort to ensure the armed forces are honoured, memorialised and made visible. For example, in 2007 Gordon Brown ordered a review of the armed forces which made tens of recommendations that were subsequently implemented. These included recommendations for: the wider wearing of uniforms, a British Armed Forces Day, improving contact between the military and civilians, and encouraging support for servicemen and women through military and veterans’ cards and military discounts. The review also suggested efforts to increase engagement with the armed forces among young people, for instance via the expansion of Combined Cadet Forces in state schools, putting military topics into the national curriculum and bringing soldiers into schools (for example, in 2012 the government introduced the ‘troops to teachers’ scheme, designed to support people leaving the armed forces and to promote military values in schools). Furthermore, the centenary anniversaries of the Great War, celebrated in 2014 and 2018, carefully curated the memorials so as to edit out the anti-war sentiment that ran through so many of the cultural offerings of those who lived through the conflict. Instead, the centenary exhibitions romanticised the sacrifice of the soldiers of yesteryear through over 2,500 memorials across Britain (there are now so many that Historic England is unable to keep count) as well as temporary installations such as a sea of poppies covering the grounds of the Tower of London.

These efforts to consolidate the standing of the armed forces must be situated in the context of the long and difficult wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The war in Iraq was unpopular from the beginning, while the war in Afghani-stan became increasingly so as the number of troops dying in Helmand increased markedly from 2006 onwards. Indeed, while the armed forces are overwhelmingly venerated in public opinion, war is often not. However, as these wars became less popular, soldier worship only intensified (at least as a policy, if not necessarily in the public imaginary). It is in this context that we might interpret the calls to ‘send in the army’ at home. The army should be sent in not only because it is above and outside both politics and political correctness, but also because soldiers themselves will be much safer when deployed at home. A win-win scenario emerges in which the absolute authority and overwhelming force of the army can be channelled to restore order and neutralise the nation’s outlaws, while ‘our boys’ will be invulnerable to death and maiming. Expensive and pointless wars abroad should be aborted and the armed forces should be redeployed here, as and when necessary. We see similar arguments made in relation to ‘aid’: why are we spending all our money abroad when we can’t look after our own? This extends the meaning of those calls to ‘bring our troops home’. The troops, once home, might remain troops, fighting in wars they cannot lose against the nation’s internal enemies.

In the context of fears surrounding the UK crashing out of the European Union without a trade deal, the armed forces were again called upon to deliver food and medicine, to assist with traffic problems at ports and to deal with shortages of fuel and other essentials in the event of Britain withdrawing without a deal. It was notable that some supporters of the UK’s departure from the EU turned to the (fabricated) memory of rationing to argue that the British people could easily weather any shortages inflicted by a no-deal Brexit:

I was born before the start of World War Two and brought up during the war … we all suffered from extreme food rationing, fuel shortages, cold houses, clothes rationing, walking everywhere, and the rest. Folks moaned a bit but, generally speaking, we got on with it. We kept our freedom from foreign domination, and that’s all we want now. (Letter to Derby Telegraph, 21 December 2018)

The latest absurdity from the renewed Project Fear is that a no-deal Brexit would lead to serious food shortages. Quite apart from the fact that we managed perfectly well before we joined the European project, I remember that, in my early childhood, we lived with food rationing, and did not suffer unduly. We did so because we valued our democracy more than we feared any temporary inconvenience. This is true today, as we struggle to regain our freedom to control our own affairs. (Letter to Daily Telegraph, 8 August 2019)

The EU referendum created the conditions for a resurfacing of an all-too-familiar British imperial nostalgia, although one that works most often without any explicit reference to empire. The narratives on what a vote to exit the European Union could offer Britain were expressed in terms of ‘taking back control’ over our laws and borders. Clearly, discussions of reclaiming sovereignty and putting the ‘Great’ back into Great Britain invoke the history and loss of imperial greatness, even if this cannot be spoken. This is why the Second World War is made to carry the apparently great and noble history of this white island nation. As Valluvan argues, the ‘pivot towards the Second World War circumvents the ghosts of colonial brutality that otherwise threaten to haunt Britain’s past’. In this way, the invocations of Second World War triumph—with its Keep Calm and Carry On spirit of rationing and the Blitz—hark back to a time when the nation knew itself, before mass migration, ‘Islamic terrorism’ and ‘black street crime’, a time when Britannia ruled the waves, not in the name of naked imperialism but in the service of civilisation, liberty and development.

In comparison to the romanticised tragic glory of the world wars, the era of imperial Britain’s global supremacy is remembered in far less detail. Culturally, the world wars have been immortalised as the essential moments of Britain’s self-image. From the cinema of The Dam Busters and Dunkirk, to the literature of The Railway Children and Birdsong, the experience of enduring the world wars is so seared into the national consciousness that Winston Churchill was voted the greatest ever Briton in a 2002 BBC poll for his inspiration as a wartime leader. By contrast, the key figures and details of the British Empire are hazy within our collective memory. The East India Company or Royal Niger Company attract nowhere near the same level of memorialisation, and once famous imperial folk heroes like the missionary David Livingstone or Charles Gordon (the martyr of British Sudan) have largely disappeared from the British public consciousness. Even Churchill’s own history as an imperialist was hardly mentioned in his celebration as the greatest Briton.

Furthermore, what is notable about all of the books and films that have built up Britain’s ongoing fascination with the world wars is that they reimagine both wars as a primarily domestic story, making Britain the site of the conflict. Britain never endured an invasion during either war but this doesn’t stop them operating as popular touchstones for imagining the consequences of not aggressively policing Britain’s borders. The popular memory of the Second World War goes straight from Dunkirk, the Battle of Britain and the Blitz in 1940 to the D-Day landings in 1944. Major British operations in the intervening years—such as the Battle of Cape Matapan fought off the Mediterranean coast in 1941, or Operation Torch in North Africa from 1942—barely get a mention in these cultural representations of the Second World War, perhaps because they would underline the global scale of both the war and the British Empire. They might also disrupt the self-image of Britain by showing how it spent the majority of the war years defending the empire as opposed to saving Europe from the Nazis. The (warped) memory of the war does a great deal to reinforce the feeling that Britain—the country that has invaded the most nations on earth—is a land haunted by an ever-present threat of invasion. Those who promise to prevent such invasions, the brave British armed forces, remain peerless national heroes.

This psychic structure reveals a deeply set imperial amnesia which allows Britain to be constructed in political discourse as an isolated island-nation, standing small and alone in the face of threats to its sovereignty from the imperial EU.3 Britain’s perceived loss of sovereignty to the EU is symptomatic of a politics that is articulated and enacted as a zero-sum game, wherein one individual or group’s political gain is necessarily understood as another’s loss. Such thinking seems to resonate because of its alignment with a well-worn common sense in the practice of international relations and diplomacy: that the conditions of security for one nation are by necessity the conditions of insecurity for other nations; that the national interest, understood as security and survival, is never the same as that of other nations; and that authority can only be legitimately practised within the boundaries of the nation.

That this ‘realism’ has re-emerged in the last few years with exceptional popular vigour is telling. It articulates a distrust of a ‘globalist’ political class that has supposedly prioritised liberal cosmopolitanism over the nation (for example through the EU, market integration, standardisation of laws and norms, and freedom of movement). Against these ‘globalists’, our new realists insist on pre-serving the priority and sanctity of the nation as the most desirable, indeed the only possible, form of political community and authority. This produces an ideological alignment between demands for sovereignty and a politics of racism articulated through various perceived threats to the nation: the loss of authority to the EU and ‘globalism’, but also the migrants the EU brings, the terrorists whose travel the EU facilitates, the human rights legislators of the European courts that protect various gangs from punishment or expulsion. Appeals to sovereignty animate British racism with renewed legitimacy while appearing to offer the solution to various racialised ‘problems’, namely the authority to put up borders against external threats and punish or expel internal ones.

This is perhaps why for Britain the unforeseen cataclysm of Brexit funnels pre-existing tendencies—colonial nostalgia, distrust of the political class, disengagement from democratic processes and mainstream media, loss of employment stability and the ability to plan one’s life-course, and the all-round decline of some regions—into a political rhetoric that appears to centre almost exclusively around the question of sovereignty. Our view is that sovereignty here functions as a kind of fetish-object, collapsing a range of desires and anxieties, but is never itself the thing at issue. Instead, it might be more helpful to think of this as a moment of longing for someone else to take power. Despite the calls to take back control, what is being enacted is a deep desire to be controlled, to be under control, for someone to make the situation controlled. It should come as no surprise that the military (sexy uniforms, a flair for violence) repeatedly appear as one possible candidate for this job.

As the state retreats from much of its former biopolitical role, and the landscapes of everyday life are remade as dangerous spaces of contest between increasingly desperate populations, the call for violent state intervention enters the repertoire of populism. It infects the discourse of both left and right as well as an everyday populism with no established political home. Anti-politics might be a global phenomenon, but in contemporary Britain it is racialised in a manner which reflects both a colonial past and a declining imperial present. This is why calls to send in the army resonate most clearly when the sources of disorder are marked by ‘race’, alien religion and a stubborn foreignness.

The call to enable the military to act with impunity—articulated as a response to human rights gone too far, particularly in relation to attempts to hold British military personnel to account for war crimes against civilians—signals a wider wish to institute an authority beyond any accountability. Such fantasies of authoritarianism are only a hair’s breadth away from other dangerous fantasies of the supremacist nation. Even when ideas of nation and race are not referenced explicitly, the desire to replace inadequate, corrupt civilian institutions with efficient, honourable military ones becomes tied to other illiberal tendencies that enable a revamped state racism. This includes the view that political institutions do not ‘work’, that is, do not deliver the basics of life or security. Instead, we are persuaded that forces unconstrained by the niceties of political accountability are more effective and, because of this, more able to give us what we want and need. In this context, state racisms against recognisable racialised folk devils serve to answer the popular call for an effective authoritarianism, demonstrating the coercive power of the state and repositioning the population as grateful recipients of unquestionable authority.