Are you ready for World War 3?
Our sabre-rattling elites need to take a deep breath.
Get ready. Assorted generals, politicians and officials think World War 3 is almost here. NATO higher-ups have been engaging in pumped-up war talk for a good while now. Britain’s military and political establishment has been particularly excitable, too.
A fortnight ago, Grant Shapps, currently temping as the UK defence secretary, announced that war is coming. He told an audience at Lancaster House that we are moving ‘from a post-war to pre-war world’. Army chief General Sir Patrick Sanders continued this theme during a speech at a military conference last week. First, he characterised the British people as a ‘pre-war generation’. Then he urged us to lay ‘the foundations for “national mobilisation”’. He even hinted at the possibility of conscription.
One of Sanders’ predecessors, General Sir Richard Dannatt, joined in with a Times column. He likened Britain in the 2020s to Britain in the 1930s. Then, as now, we are a nation unprepared for the coming cataclysm, he said.
This war-is-coming rhetoric has been so over-the-top that both No10 and the Ministry of Defence have since had to publicly distance themselves from the comments of their own military top brass.
To be clear, no one doubts that we live in an increasingly turbulent era. The relative stability of the post-Cold War order, dominated by a hegemonic US, is undoubtedly long gone. China and others are seeking to establish a new balance of power. War rages between Russia and Ukraine. Conflict once again roils the Middle East. With geopolitical tensions running so high, we certainly can’t afford to be complacent.
Yet the interventions this month from generals, ministers and right-wing pundits go beyond a sober recognition of the risks facing Britain today. They amount to a kind of military apocalypticism, with a fair bit of deranged wishful thinking. They are talking about a ‘major war’ with ‘Moscow or Beijing’ – which, let’s face it, means World War 3 – as if it’s an inevitability, or a welcome test of our collective mettle. It’s as if everything that we do from now on must be in preparation for the cataclysmic confrontation to come. Hence the talk of conscription and national mobilisation and citizens’ armies.
There’s a strange disconnect between the rhetoric and the reality. While every military bigwig seems to be eagerly talking of preparing for World War 3, Britain’s actual military capacity continues to shrink. The army now stands at just 76,000 soldiers, a third less than it had even just two decades ago. And such is the British Navy’s shortage of sailors that it has just had to mothball two warships. Whatever it is that Britain’s generals are rattling, it’s more a toothpick than a sabre.
Perhaps the current round of war hype would mean more if it wasn’t coming, in the main, from those in the media and military who have been spoiling for a conflict with Russia since the end of the Cold War. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine seems to have fuelled their pre-existing fantasies, providing these armchair and actual generals with a renewed sense of mission.
No doubt some of this martial catastrophism is a funding ruse. A not-so-subtle demand for a bigger military budget. Yet even if defence spending does rise, it will do so at a time when the British state is otherwise running down its capacity to produce much of anything at all. Just this month, the UK government backed Tata Steel’s decision to close two blast furnaces at the steelworks at Port Talbot. These were the last remaining furnaces in Britain capable of producing the virgin steel from which any prospective tanks, artillery and warships would have to be built. Quite what the war-is-coming brigade think a citizens’ army will fight with is unclear.
Then there’s the military higher-ups’ headline-grabbing talk of conscription and reviving national service. National service was a hard enough sell in the 1950s, when the defeat of the Nazis still cast a warm patriotic glow over these isles. It would be a near-impossible sell today. Not least because our cultural and political classes conjure up Britain’s past as a source of imperial guilt, and portray its Brexity present as overwhelmed by xenophobia and racism. Many of them would like our nation to be reabsorbed, at the nearest opportunity, into the globalist structures of the EU. The idea of reviving national service seems faintly ridiculous when our elites exert so much energy on telling us that the nation is not worth serving.
Little wonder that recent polling has revealed that nearly 40 per cent of under-40s would refuse to serve in the army, even in the event of a world war. The dearth of patriotism is alarming. But we can hardly be surprised, can we? After all, if our ruling classes don’t value the nation, why should its would-be conscripts?
The British Army acknowledged this problem with its now infamous 2019 recruitment campaign. Nodding to the famous ‘Your country needs you’ recruitment posters of the First World War, the new campaign directly addressed itself to today’s youthful archetypes. ‘Snowflakes’, it said, ‘your army needs you’ for your ‘compassion’. It told ‘selfie addicts’ it needed their ‘confidence’. And so on. There was no mention of nation, or country, and no appeal to any sense of service or duty. Joining the army was presented as a form of personal development in camo gear. It’s difficult to imagine creating a formidable fighting force out of would-be social-media influencers and identitarian activists.
Make no mistake, these are precarious times. But war fantasies, dreams of conscription and martial apocalypticism are not helping us rise to the challenges of the moment. They are the unserious thoughts of an unserious elite – an elite that, for far too long, has not taken the nation, foreign policy or our collective future anywhere near seriously enough.
Tim Black is a spiked columnist.
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