Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History, Vol. 8 No. 2

Ted Crawford

Mutiny and the Cohesion of the Armed Forces

THE classical Marxist writers and thinkers were very often deeply concerned with the sociology of the armed services and military technique. One need only think of Engels, Liebknecht, Jaurès and Trotsky. This was not because of their wish to play toy soldiers, but because they were aware that the armed forces embodied the state – and the state in its sharpest and most brutal form. What is more, on the continent of Europe the universality of military service and its reserve obligations meant that from 1870 to 1918 – also a period of rising working-class consciousness – the whole male population had experienced such service, with all its social pressures and its brutality. Even in the interwar period, the Left Book Club produced a number of books by people like Tom Wintringham and Max Werner on military themes. Today this tradition seems almost dead, although during the period of the quarter of a century of anti-colonial partisan war during 1950–75, there was some interest by left-wingers in some politico-military guerrilla techniques. This period has now come to an end, and in any case ‘guerrillaism’ was always an orientation to the Third World and socially backward states rather than the most developed capitalist ones. To that extent it was quite different in the pre-1914 period. Yet it remains true that the state is still ‘armed bodies of men’, and in the final analysis the mode of production rests on them. The rest of this article is a very poor and preliminary attempt to show some social trends within the armed services in the last 100 years.

As far as military technique itself is concerned, Marxists have no more to say than other intelligent observers, but the direction in which society may be pushed as a result of the changing forces of military production, if I can coin this Marxist term, and the ways in which technologies alter the ‘relations of military production’ can perhaps be illuminated by the Marxist method. More important still is the fact that as society changes so will its armed forces reflect this fact, and such changes will not always be in the direction of greater military effectiveness. But whether this is so or not, it is important to be aware of what is happening. As in so many other non-military respects, there seems to be some convergence internationally.

I shall commence by considering naval mutiny, since the most striking and famous mutinies of the twentieth century were often naval ones. This arose in part because the events often occurred in major towns and seaports, and had a very concentrated dramatic impact which was impossible to keep secret, while mutinies of soldiers generally occurred in faraway places, colonial lands and distant military fronts. But there are other reasons, including the fact that naval warfare has been the most advanced technical form of ‘war production’, which is why, qualitatively speaking, there has been a more ‘progressive’ and political aspect in naval mutinies – sometimes of a class nature, and sometimes a nationalist one.

To make two preliminary points: Firstly, in naval warfare, since at least the middle of the nineteenth century, there has been no possibility of personal contact with the enemy, although this is also true of air warfare, and such contacts have diminished in land warfare too. The problems involved in the creation of a warrior leadership ethos in a bourgeois society were greatly reduced as sailors were carried into action against their will. Sailors cannot, as individuals, run away from the battle or desert to the enemy – their best chance of survival in action is to do their job as well as possible and hope that everybody else acts similarly. [1] Secondly, naval warfare has always been more technically advanced than land warfare, and has generally operated at the edge of the available technology. This was so in the sixteenth century (broadside galleons), eighteenth century men-of-war (dockyards were by far the biggest and most complex industrial units at that time), the Franco-British naval races in the late nineteenth century, the Dreadnought era, and the Pacific carrier battles fought at ranges of hundreds of miles and dependent on radar, cryptography, etc., or, in the last quarter of the twentieth century, submarine operations where the technical complexities (and expense) are as great or greater than space activities.

Thus the general level of skill required at sea (and now air) has always been greater than in the army, whether the topman in Nelson’s navy or the sonar operator today. Because of these skill levels, there was always more autonomy in the work process in these two services. The drilled soldier of the eighteenth century was the antithesis of this, and was flogged into becoming an automaton – or that was the aim. This meant that the mode of thought of the seaman was more akin to that of the skilled industrial worker, and he was more likely to consider the possibility of industrial action than was the soldier. This was recognised by the English ruling class, and the institution of marines (or naval soldiers) was invented for shipboard use. Their quarters always lay between those of the officers and the seamen, and they were designed to be used against possible mutineers. They lacked the sailor’s skills and were supposed to be unthinking automatons, and thus you will still hear naval officers joking about marines: ‘Royal Marines! On your heads! Bounce! One-two! One-two!’ Only since the Second World War have the marines been concentrated in infantry units for amphibious use and not posted on most RN ships, though there are still a few on their biggest vessels – the light aircraft carriers.

There have been no significant naval mutinies in fact since 1947 (Bombay), except perhaps Chile in 1972, where there was unrest on a large old cruiser. Before that, there were the early precursors in the Great Mutinies of Nore and Spithead in 1797, the biggest strikes ever seen in this country until then, the Potemkin mutiny in 1905, the Kiel mutiny, the French Black Sea mutinies in 1919, Kronstadt in 1921, the Invergordon one in 1931, and finally the Indian Navy Bombay mutiny itself in 1947. For Marxists, the ‘classical’ mutinies are therefore those in the short quarter of a century of 1905–31. [2] These mutinies of the Dreadnought era have in common the fact that fleets consisted of large, intensively manned, steel ships. The battleships were the naval analogues of a Ford factory, but in some ways even more inhuman. There was within them an immense and minute division of labour. The conditions when afloat had similarities to those in a prison, since everybody was locked into his narrow space. With some 1,000 or 2,000 men aboard, officers did not know the men, while isolation, alienation, gossip, rumour and sexual repression were rife. For instance, and unlike in the army, even today naval officers eat separately and have different food from their men on active service. (I was told by a Guards officer with wonderment that he got a de luxe menu (first class) on the QE2 sailing to the Falklands while receiving an active service allowance. ‘Asparagus on active service!’) In conditions of political or, as at Invergordon, economic crisis, this can boil up.

On the other hand, unlike in Nelson’s navy or even today’s army on active service, minimal comforts, food, shelter and warmth, are always available, and death rates are quite low, even in action, unless the ship is actually sunk, when, for a few minutes, at most an hour or two, conditions approximate to an appalling industrial accident such as the Piper Alpha affair. Indeed, in the Royal Navy, food on board ship is invariably of far better quality than on shore stations in order to encourage enthusiasm for a life on the ocean wave. (As the Potemkin incident showed, the Tsarist officers were not as perceptive as those of the Royal Navy.) It was noticed by the authorities that unrest was far less likely on small vessels where crews numbered 200 or less, where the Captain knew everybody by name, and where his own living conditions were nearly as uncomfortable. Despite the greater discomfort for all ranks, duty on small ships was invariably preferred because of the more human atmosphere. There is an analogy here with small firms, the more personal relations within them and the relative absence of industrial action in that sector.

These preconditions for naval mutiny have altered considerably in the last half-century. From a social point of view, there are basically two sorts of ships nowadays, firstly, aircraft carriers (or floating air bases), and, secondly, escorts and submarines. There are very few aircraft carriers. The escorts and submarines all have very small complements (submarines between 30 and 110, escorts between 160 and 300), and the crews are becoming much, much smaller still. Frigates now on the drawing board will be manned by a mere 80 or so seamen. Conditions on these escorts, which are the size of Second World War light cruisers, are far less cramped and more comfortable then ever before, while up to half the crews are officers and skilled petty officers. The Able Seamen just clean the lavatories, while their seniors fight the ship. Thus the conditions on small ships, which made mutinies less likely in the past, act with redoubled force today.

In the carriers, there is much more overcrowding, and, on the British ones, too, there are significantly still marines. But there are only three light carriers in the RN (900 men each), one much larger nuclear one in France, and one each in Russia, India, Italy, Spain, Brazil and Thailand – the last one very small and seldom leaving port, while the Indian one is over 40 years old and saw service in the Falklands. The USA has about 10 plus a dozen large amphibious ships which are similar. Compared with Dreadnoughts, where Britain alone had nearly 30 in 1914 together with a large number of big, heavily manned cruisers, there are very few, and, even though the complements of the nuclear powered Nimitz class in the USN are enormous, over 6,000 people, their social weight, as either a proportion of the population or of the armed forces, is much less significant than 85 or even 50 years ago.

There are certain analogies here with the development of the labour process in areas of productive technique. The concentration of skills in certain strata, the devaluing of manual labour – guns are all loaded automatically now, not by the brawny arms of Able Seamen – and the emphasis on ‘human capital’ or Marxist ‘variable capital’ in the form of training and psychological manipulation, are all areas where Braverman has interesting things to say. The real military competition can be summed up thus: ‘Yah-Boo! Our software engineers are better than your software engineers!’

Mutinies, as in Vietnam, are perhaps more likely to be found in future in infantry battalions composed of impoverished or even lumpen elements which have been thinned out a bit by a real war. The prosperous working class and middle class decreasingly serve in such units, and, since ‘la misère est l’école du soldat’, the consumer society is a bad school. If it is the casualty rate that determines whether soldiers, rather than sailors, are nowadays likely to rebel, it becomes important to know the degree of sacrifice expected of the different social strata and the tensions likely to be set up within the armed forces and in particular the army, the land forces. It is these, after all, that are used for internal repression, rather than the navy or air force.

How far the upper classes among the fighting men suffer relative to those beneath them in war depends on two factors: the differential casualty rates of officers as opposed to other ranks, and the degree to which such officers come from the upper classes. Changes in either of these will have social and political effects. This has some importance for Marxists, as the degree to which the upper classes have a higher chance of dying in conflicts as opposed to the lower orders may effect their enthusiasm for war, and whether they remain enthusiastic for longer than the hoi-poloi. It is also important that the bourgeoisie control the armed forces, which have to act, if not in their name, then in their interests. Attempts to throw some light on this matter have been obscured, on the one hand, by the belief by the left that the poor always suffer most, and, on the other, the opinion of the British upper classes that their losses were disproportionately high in two world wars. Furthermore, statistics are not collected to provide details of the class origin of casualties, and some rough guesswork has to be done. [3]

There is no doubt that in the gunpowder age from about 1650 to 1900, the casualties of the rank and file in land forces were always much greater proportionately than among the officers. This was because the overwhelming proportion of such casualties were ‘non-battle’ ones, largely from disease, so that the superior food and living conditions of the officers, particularly while on campaign, meant that they fell ill less often, and, if they did fall ill, they were far more likely to be nursed back to health or sent home. In battle itself, infantry and cavalry officers tended to suffer rather more than their men, and medical aid, however costly, was often as deadly as neglect, but even so their losses were not too disproportionate because, as weapon accuracy was poor, deaths were distributed fairly randomly among those present on the ‘field of honour’. It was a matter of some comment that battles in the American War of Independence and in the American war of 1812 against frontiersmen, who were good marksmen with muzzle loading rifles, led to much heavier officer casualties in the British army relative to their men. [4]

A few statistics from the end of the eighteenth century onwards are of interest here, always remembering that before then, when the data are not so good, disease seems to have been even more deadly, and armies swiftly wasted away during European campaigns even when there was no fighting to speak of. The most disastrous campaign ever recorded in terms of casualties for the British army was that in the West Indies during 1793–99 when perhaps 75,000 men died of disease, comprising the vast majority who had been sent out, and including most of the officers. [5] A more micro example of this is shown in the regimental history of the Eighty-Fifth Foot which says that after a tour of duty in Jamaica in 1803–08 they came back numbering nine officers, 30 NCOs and 31 privates. They recruited heavily, and went to Shorncliffe to train as Light Infantry 600 strong. At Walcheren in August 1809, the Eighty-Fifth went out nearly 700 strong, and came back numbering about 120 of all ranks, though only one man had been killed in action. [6] Wellington, though a fearful reactionary, was very careful of the health of his troops, knowing that they were very difficult to replace by voluntary enlistment, but in the six-year-long Peninsular War two-thirds of the 24,000 dead were from sickness and not battle. In the Crimean War, in which about 25,000 British lives were lost, fewer than 4,000 were killed or died of wounds. The hospital at Scutari over which Florence Nightingale presided was full of sick – not wounded. The American Civil War, involving vastly greater numbers, had similar proportions of battle to non-battle dead as the British experienced in the Peninsular War, and the same was true 40 years later in the Boer War, with 7,000 killed to about 13,000 dead of disease. [7] Indeed, the first prolonged war in history in which the battle dead outnumbered fatalities from sicknesses was as late as the twentieth century in the Russo-Japanese war of 1904–05. And in all cases, sickness was far deadlier to the rank and file.

Naval service, which invariably involved far fewer people than land service, was, before the middle of the nineteenth century, always characterised by very high death rates among sailors, and in the Great War with France of 1793–1815 80 per cent of the deaths among British sailors were from sickness, 15 per cent from accident (including wrecks), and only five per cent in battle. Seamen had a far, far greater chance of dying from disease and falling out of the rigging than did officers. In battles such as Trafalgar, senior officers, including Captains, Admirals and captains of marines, had very high casualty rates [8], much higher than the seamen, but battles were few and far between. Earlier than Trafalgar, non-battle losses were an even larger proportion of the total. In more modern times, death rates on board ship are generally very low, even in action, unless the entire vessel disintegrates in a horrible sort of industrial accident. There is not much distinction therefore between the losses of officers and men on board ship in a modern naval battle, but, as in the eighteenth century, naval losses are a very small proportion of the total deaths in war.

As the twentieth century opened, the accuracy and deadliness of modern weapons on land meant that when the fighting did occur officer casualties were getting proportionately higher, and the accuracy of the Chassepot rifle led to frightful casualties among the Prussian Guard officers at Gravelotte and St Privat in 1870. It was very noticeable at the battle of Spion Kop in the Boer War that the proportions of officers to other rank dead among the colonial troops, Australian and South African, were similar, for the Boers could not distinguish between them, and simply aimed at the tallest men in the unit. Unlike the colonials, who had been fed on a decent diet in their youth, the stunted offspring of the slums among the British regulars were pygmies compared with their officers, so the officer losses were proportionately double. This provided an excellent rationale for the upper classes to support health and welfare reforms in the period of 1902–14.

Thus when the First World War opened, there was an historically new situation. Because of medical advances, losses from sickness were very small in Western Europe in 1914–18, although much worse in ‘side-shows’ like the East African campaign. [9] The socially prestigious corps were the infantry and the cavalry, which suffered far more in battle than the artillery and engineers, particularly the infantry, though cavalry frequently had to take a turn on foot in the trenches too. [10] Troops even further back than the gunners, the non-combatant corps such as railway troops, had grown in the nineteenth century, but by the First World War the ratio was still about 9:1 in favour of the front-line. As a result, the many literary and historical accounts of this period do accurately reflect the fact that the upper classes suffered even more than the poor. In Britain, it has been said that of those members of the aristocracy who served in the military, one out of five was killed, as opposed to one out of eight of the general population. [11] A brief glance at the war memorials of the great public schools tells the same story. Indeed, not since the Wars of the Roses had there been such a kill-off of the English nobility. [12] The social, technical and tactical situation was similar in all European countries, and so the ancient aristocracies paid a terrible price – as too did the aspiring middle classes who sought to emulate their style and coveted junior commands in the ‘smart’ regiments. If there was any group that suffered rather less, it was probably the skilled workers who were held back for essential war work, but in the First World War the importance of these for total mobilisation had often not been realised, and they were frequently called up to be duly mown down, with unfortunate effects on the production of munitions and therefore the war effort as a whole. Sometimes industrial workers in Russia and Germany were not called up because they were considered politically unreliable – the peasants were preferred, but this option was not open to the British, as there were not enough peasants here – though Scottish Highlanders served in relatively large numbers. Proportionately fewer Irishmen served, as they were never conscripted. [13]

The Second World War was not very different for the British, save that the period of time when great armies were in combat was very much shorter, and so casualties as a whole were that much smaller, even if the rate of casualties over any given time was much the same. [14] Once more, the officers in the infantry, and this time the cavalry as well, who were frequently burnt alive in their tanks, suffered disproportionately, but with this difference that the proportion of rear echelon troops was growing and the more mechanised and therefore the more mobile the armies became, the bigger did the proportion supplying them. But officers in such corps as the RAOC, RASC and REME were less socially elevated members of the lower middle classes, and once more the war memorials of the public schools repay study. The losses among the general male population of that age range were about a third of World War One, but Eton had more ex-pupils killed in the Second than the First World War [15], while my own rather less prestigious old school had about 50 per cent of the slaughter in the previous conflict, 278 as opposed to 578. [16] It is true that staffs [17], which were disproportionately of higher rank, became relatively larger and amounted in total to a division or two on the main fronts, but to balance this there were huge losses in the RAF, so that 40,000 air-crew of Bomber Command, mostly commissioned but generally of middle-class or lower-middle-class rather than upper-class origin, died over Germany.

But it was the American armed services which perhaps heralded the future. In their drafting process, skilled workers were funnelled into those sectors of the services where their skills would be of use, the most striking example being the engineering troops composed of construction workers who constructed airfields, even if occasionally under fire, at the most amazing speed on Pacific islands. In this respect, at least the United States was far ahead of anywhere else in military effectiveness. The technical arms, the navy and the air force ground staff, had the first choice of the draftees (aviators were all volunteers), while the infantry had the worst-educated and socially-deprived recruits, and often the less well-educated junior officers as well. The more upper-class Americans went into the Intelligence Services, the more flash parts of the staff, perhaps the navy which maintained its social prestige, and sometimes the air force or naval aviation, though these last two did suffer severely. [18] Both in the United States and Britain, war mobilisation was far more efficiently run than in the First World War, and, as a result, skilled workers, engineers, electricians and so forth were as far as possible slotted into civilian or military tasks where their abilities would be useful, and which, coincidentally, were either totally out of danger or were much further back than the fighting arms. In both countries it is probable that unskilled workers lost a much higher proportion than the skilled, but in Britain as opposed to the United States the upper classes suffered far more than the average. [19]

In the 57 years that have elapsed since 1945, a longer period than that from the Boer War to the Hiroshima bomb, we have seen no all-out war. The experience of the USA in Vietnam and, on a more Lilliputian scale, the New Zealand and Australian contingent in the same conflict, is however very suggestive. In such colonial-type wars against technically inferior opposition, the technical troops, the air force ground staff, the men on board ship and the enormous planning and administrative staff suffered very little indeed save boredom, fatigue, traffic accidents, the disruption of their lives from military service, and venereal disease. To a considerable extent, this was true of the artillery too, but the overwhelming proportion of losses fell on the infantry, and even within battalions tended to fall on the rifle companies – a tiny minority of the whole army. The wireless operators and those in the support companies suffered a great deal less when the enemy lacked much artillery support. It was for this reason that such a disproportionate number of American casualties were black soldiers, but, I suspect, no more than the general percentage of the ill-educated and unskilled, for both Mexican and American Indians suffered disproportionately as well. [20] White ‘blue collar’ workers lost a great deal too. Vietnam was truly ‘a rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight’, and this broke the army, which eventually disintegrated and forced a withdrawal. There was no explosion in a great mutiny, but rather a disintegration and collapse and a massive number of small rebellions.

There was no land fighting to speak of in the Gulf War, but those who did die often did so as a result of accident – rather more than the official statistics suggest. [21] In the Korean War, 33,000 Americans died as a result of enemy action and 20,000 in accidents. I have not seen the figures for Vietnam. In any case, large numbers of not very mature, very young men who would not be able to get insurance in civilian life, driving very heavy and dangerous vehicles, frequently extremely tired and often under the influence of drugs or drink, are a recipe for a massive accident rate. The accident figures would also tend to be over-represented among the other ranks rather than officers – a trend back to the eighteenth century pattern of non-battle casualties.

Any prolonged war with heavy losses would mean conscription, and this will be difficult, if not impossible, for present-day Western societies. Conscript infantrymen who got killed today would be more inclined than ever to mutiny, so in every wealthy society there is pressure for smaller volunteer armed services, and they are becoming steadily more general. This trend will continue, but this may not be sufficient to create an effective and loyal bodyguard for capitalism. The skilled arms can be recruited by the incentive of training to those with aptitude but who are poorly qualified, while the infantry who will have to do the messy boot and bayonet work will get the merely poorly qualified. There are far fewer air force pilots today in their expensive but highly effective machines, but increasingly the risky job of aerial fighting will be delegated to nerveless machines, drones, cruise and stand-off missiles. Unlike the poor and fit young infantryman, the educated and the manager will not be much at risk in such a scenario. So the first 50 years of the last century may be the exception that proves the rule, a period of mass armies and mass production where class differences in battle casualty rates as well as living standards tended to narrow greatly in the areas of developed capitalism. This era seems to have come to an end.

As far as the cost to the rank and file is concerned, all this has analogies with the widening class differentials as regards wages, security of employment, conditions and general welfare in civilian society. In the past, the difference between the armed services and the productive labour force was that a section of the managers, the officer class, had to put themselves into danger, many of them into even more danger than those whom they commanded, and, since in the last analysis such managers had control over the application of force and violence in society, they had to be utterly loyal and committed to the existing ruling class. To some extent this is still true. The question of how this has been guaranteed in the past and how it is to be guaranteed in the future is, however, an interesting one and perhaps one of considerable difficulty for present-day international capital. Before moving on to the question of the class origins and interests of the present-day military officers, let us turn to some historical sociology.

The ideas of an anti-Marxist but a most fertile thinker, the economist Joseph Schumpeter, repay study. In Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy, he remarked in the chapter The Destruction of the Protecting Strata [22] on the fact that the processes of capitalism itself destroy the pre-bourgeois military classes. By this he meant that, faced with a threat from outside its society (presumably the Soviet Union or, as he thought, the anti-bourgeois Nazi Germany) or a non-bourgeois one within it (presumably the working class), capitalism was doomed. He said that the old land-owning aristocratic classes provided the steel framework within which capitalist relations could flourish, and here he was obviously thinking of Hohenzollern Germany and his own Habsburg Austria, but not only there. This framework was undermined and rotted away by the market, which destroyed the landed classes with their traditions of military command. His metaphor is that bourgeois society destroys its own entrenchments, and is left defenceless. This consequence, of course, has not happened, or not yet anyway, and to be fair it does not look like happening in the near or medium-term future, so it is interesting to see why. Weapons of mass destruction have meant both that all-out warfare between nuclear armed states has ceased to be in any sense a rational policy, and the carrying out of such a nuclear strike does not need a warrior class, so the question of mass destruction will not be dealt with.

But Schumpeter’s forecast that the values of bourgeois society were profoundly antipathetic to military virtue seems to me to be true. It does seem the case that the armed services of capitalist states are most effective when their tone is determined by pre-capitalist social formations. It is difficult to be an individual welfare maximiser and win the Victoria Cross. I do not think that it is a trivial point that Mark Thatcher, the epitome of self-seeking capitalist (rather than noble) youth, was not a Harrier pilot in the Falklands. The experience of this century has shown that the armies and populations of advanced capitalist states seem less and less willing to accept casualties as the pre-capitalist formations within them become less and less important. Consider the declension of the First and Second World Wars, the Korean and Vietnam Wars, and finally the political fear of casualties in the Gulf. In each successive war, the blood-tax became more and more unpopular. That itself cries out for an explanation, which may arise in part from the smaller size of family, so that the death of an only child or son is unendurable [23], in part from a general mood when death is not expected among the young and the more resented when, for whatever reason, it does occur.

There is no difficulty in recruiting poor and even lumpen elements for the rank and file, so long as not too large an army is required. Capitalism creates these strata quite plentifully, in fact more plentifully than it would like in strictly functional terms. Falstaff’s cynical comment, ‘Food for powder Hal, food for powder, they’ll fill a grave as well as any man’, must be the unspoken thought about the poor on the part of many of our rulers – if unexpressed openly in these mealy-mouthed and politically correct times. There are masses of them on the Millwall terraces. It is also perfectly possible to get officers for the support elements; the job has many civilian analogies (technical training can be offered as a bribe), and even in wartime the casualty rate here is relatively low. Any shortage arises from the demand for similar skills in civilian life. It is in the creation of officers for the front line units that there is a problem. There is an element of primitive blood sacrifice in this. For 600 years, the Spartans never lost a battle without losing their commanders – the kings. Often when they won a battle, they also lost a commander or two. Unless the ruling class are there being slaughtered with the rest, there is an insufficient sense of solidarity and community, so the phalanx will not go forward. Capitalist development, of course, increasingly breaks down this sentiment, and this is most noticeable when the social system contains even fewer tribal or aristocratic elements, as in the USA compared to Europe. Schumpeter would not disagree with any of this.

The solution to this problem by the developed world is that of a technical fix. An increasing proportion of both the personnel and material of the armed forces is devoted to air power, where only a small minority of individuals are put at risk, unless there is a counter-bombardment of the air bases, and today even this task of aerial attack is increasingly delegated to robots and nerveless machines. In land warfare, there has been a move to put everyone into armoured vehicles which will move forward regardless of the wishes of those within the machine. The compulsion of the soldier is as least as much the cause of the mass of armoured vehicles as the need for protection. It has done so for a long time in naval warfare, where the trend reaches its apogee, and a sailor is carried into battle whether he wants to go or not. Sea operations are now increasingly automated, and the most extreme example is the bombardment of Iraq by cruise missiles launched from nuclear submarines in deep waters many hundreds, if not thousands, of miles away. So with these technologies, the political problem of casualties in advanced capitalist countries can be dealt with, and there arises the need for small, technically competent and reliable regular armed services. Such forces are relatively small, if only because the military machines are so expensive that few people can be afforded to run them. But such forces also reflect their own changing social structures as well as their external needs, which seem, at the moment, to be post-colonial policing and the deterrence of other great powers by weapons of mass destruction, rather than mass warfare. But these small forces still need a reliable managerial class at the sharp end, which is increasingly difficult to generate.

Schumpeter’s was a brilliant insight, even if the growing automation of war has prevented quite the military collapse of capitalism before a non-capitalist conqueror that he prophesied. But his insight does have implications for predictions as to how imperialism will behave. The Beast will, I envision, be far more fearful of war with anybody who could inflict a butcher’s bill. And this, as we can see in Kosova and elsewhere, will enormously hamper any attempt to impose any valid political solution, since a few thousand dead citizens, and in the case of the United States mostly black citizens at that, cannot be endured in the messy task of conquering populations and creating a stable postwar political structure – not just massacring them from afar. The inability to impose solutions has important implications, though a purely military solution can still be imposed by a wealthy state on an economically backward enemy. I say nothing one way or another of the justice of any solution imposed on Kosova, or anywhere else, I would simply emphasise that whether just or unjust such a solution must be stable, and this will involve lots of people on the ground for some time, and therefore casualties.

So even if Schumpeter may have been wrong in thinking that capitalist societies were not driven to war, he was correct in thinking that their social tone and style were increasingly anti-warrior. There is a distinction. He did not predict that technical change would make this less important as mass armies became less affordable – as has occurred. Recent experiences are moving many countries in the direction of small regular armies, though it is interesting to note that De Gaulle’s book in 1936, Une Armée de Métier, was denounced at the time as a call by a right-wing royalist to destroy the republican tradition of a ‘nation in arms’. Today this denunciation is far more muted on the politically correct left, and only in Germany have the Social Democrats expressed great concern about the move to all-regular forces. The more vegetarian elements on the left are delighted not to have to serve with sweaty football hooligans from the lower orders. This trend must have implications, both for imperialist intervention in the Third World, and for an eventual socialist insurrection. The problems of creating a reliable officer corps under present-day capitalism would move us too far in directions not simply relevant to that of mutiny, but the extreme fragility of the armed services of their armies is sensed, if not openly stated, by the political leaderships of the great capitalist powers.

They will therefore desperately avoid direct military confrontation, and against an enemy will increasingly use diplomatic pressure, bribery, blockade, even the mining of harbours, internal coups d’état, and, if a military clash is finally unavoidable, they will, as in Bosnia and the Gulf, seek to use precise air attacks to destroy military and communication centres, and will rely for the messy part of the fighting on irregular auxiliaries whose mothers have no votes within the imperialist centres. Thus far, that is what they have done against Third World and economically weak opponents. If things get of hand and they have to bring in masses of their own troops, their political strength, though not their economic muscles, would prove very feeble. But out of such an unforeseen political crisis opportunities for the working class might arise. Honesty makes me add that if the shape of such events is unforeseen by the intelligence, journalistic and academic agencies of the great powers, it is unlikely that I will be able to predict them except in the most general terms – the future is unknowable in detail. But this fragility can be noted and is tending, I believe, to increase, so that some optimism of the will can be engendered to counteract the deep pessimism that our intellect must feel today. At the backs of their minds, the thought of mutiny still haunts our rulers.


1. But see Keegan in The Face of Battle, pp. 315–7, and how this is increasingly true of soldiers at the forward edge of battle.

2. Thirty years ago during the Vietnam war, there was considerable disorder and a number of racial affrays on some of the US carriers and large cruisers (the latter are now scrapped), but these seem to have been directed less against the officers than the crew members of a similar rank but of a different race, and perhaps petty officers. On naval mutiny during 1910–50, see also Mutiny of HMNLS Der Zeven Provincien: Unions and Recruitment in the Royal Netherlands Navy 1890–1950, New Interpretations of Naval History, Ninth Naval History Symposium, Annapolis, 1991.

3. John Ellis has provided interesting data in The Sharp End of War on living conditions at the front and casualties by arm in the Second World War.

4. An Irish great-great-grandfather of mine, a Lieutenant Maunsell of the Eighty-Fifth Foot, was badly wounded at New Orleans in 1814 just before the main assault, although another Irish great-great-great-grandfather, Captain Spaight, survived Bunker Hill.

5. Those of a literary turn of mind will remember that Cassandra Austen, the sister of the novelist Jane, lost her admirer in present-day Haiti where whole regiments were wiped out by disease. See Michael Duffy, Soldiers, Sugar and Sea-Power, OUP, 1987.

6. C.R.B. Barrett, Eighty-Fifth Kings Light Infantry, Spottiswode, London 1913. The Eighty-Fifth was commanded when disembarking in England in 1808 by the step-father of a great-great-grandmother, a Major Hill, who perished in the Walcheren campaign the following year. The Eighty-Fifth (along with the Fifty-Third) was later the KSLI.

7. To be precise, officers lost 716 killed or died of wounds and 408 dead from disease, while the soldiers’ ratio was 7,010 to 12,699 (Times History of the War in South Africa, Volume 7, p. 23). In the Canadian, Australian and New Zealand contingents, which were probably much fitter to start with, the losses from disease and enemy action were equal. The relatively low battle loss was also due to the fact that the fighting was not very severe.

8. Nearly 20 per cent at Trafalgar, and of course 50 per cent of the British Admirals present. See Keegan, The Price of Admiralty, pp. 113–4.

9. Rupert Brooke died of disease on a Greek island awaiting the Gallipoli campaign.

10. The difficulty of the Woolwich exam for the gunners and sappers was always far greater than for the Sandhurst one, but such middle-class officers could live on their income (their Mess was cheaper) and had some small supplements to their pay.

11. See David Cannadine, The Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy, 1992, pp. 72–84.

12. In the Wars of the Roses, fighting was almost invariably on foot. On the defeated side, the archers easily ran away, while the gentlemen were slaughtered in their heavy armour. In such a civil war no ransoms were taken – only estates.

13. What data we have suggests that the frequency of volunteering in the present Irish republic was a consequence of social class rather than religion or political allegiance, so more labourers served than prosperous farmers. Though the old Ascendancy gentry suffered severely, lower down the social scale for this reason Catholics were slightly more likely to be killed than Protestants.

14. Duncan Hallas told me that in the 10 months of fighting from the arrival of his infantry platoon in Normandy to the end of the war, there was almost a complete turnover of personnel. He went from a young private to a senior sergeant in the period. See Ellis, op. cit.

15. A high proportion of cavalry and Guards officers might account for much of this.

16. And 43 dead in the Boer War, in proportionate terms enormous. A school like Wellington, of comparable size but with an even stronger military tradition, had 68 killed in South Africa, 707 in the First World War, 502 in the Second, and has had 42 killed since 1945.

17. Typically this was where characters like the brothers Ian and Peter Fleming both served. My father told me that Peter, a great ‘explorer’ and ‘tough guy’, used to walk around Delhi festooned with Tommy guns, grenades and bowie knives, but always several hundred miles away from any dangerous Japanese, while of Ian (of James Bond fame) it is said that he always got his Wren (generally at the Ritz) while serving comfortably in London.

18. President Kennedy’s elder brother was killed as a pilot. President Bush was shot down, and Kennedy himself served in the Navy MTBs and was shot up.

19. In the Second World War, US blacks were often used in more ‘menial’ rather than fighting rôles, so their battle losses were proportionately lower than in Vietnam, and lower than those of the white working class.

20. About a third of the New Zealand dead were Maori, who comprised one tenth of the population.

21. I have heard it said that an individual in a unit was killed by a ‘sniper’ or more accurately a ‘stray bullet’. Nobody is going to check and search out precisely where the shot came from. The man is dead, distress would be caused, and no purpose would be served.

22. Joseph Schumpeter, Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy, Allen and Unwin, 1959, pp. 134–9.

23. In some countries with conscription, such as Spain or Latin America, the only son of a widow or even the eldest son was always exempted.

Updated by ETOL: 16.10.2011