David Cameron sends militarism trojan horse into our schools under cover of first world war centenary
The UK government announced £1m to set up 100 new army cadet units in state schools "to ensure that as many young people as possible can benefit from military themed activities."
It was a summer much like this one, 100 years ago, July 1914. Vera Brittain remembers it in her Testament of Youth, as "the one perfect summer idyll that I ever experienced".
The location was Uppingham School, Rutland, where Brittain was attending her brother's speech day – though the real pull was his best friend, Roland Leighton, with whom she was falling in love. In that year's speeches, the headmaster, the Rev Harry McKenzie, reminded his pupils: "Be a man – useful to your country; whoever cannot be that is better dead."
Within months, Brittain's brother and lover were mobilised through the school's Officers' Training Corps (OTC) and thence to France where they were eventually to meet their deaths, along with one in five of their classmates.
One student described an air of "appalling jingoism" that permeated Uppingham. Not sharing the school's attitude to war, he was "kicked, hounded, caned, flogged, hair-brushed, morning, noon and night".
As the historians Alan Bishop and Mark Bostridge explained, the OTC "provided the institutional mechanism for public school militarism … and [schoolmasters] contributed to the generation of 1914's overwhelming willingness to march off in search of glory". It's unsurprising that Old Uppinghamian Stephen Fry gave us Blackadder's General Melchett.
Brittain's Testament of Youth charts the increasing disillusionment with public school militarism when faced with the reality of the trenches. Despite his initial enthusiasm for the nobility of war, Leighton was soon writing to Brittain about the "fleshless, blackened bones of simple men who poured out their red, sweet wine of youth unknowing, for nothing more tangible than honour or their country's glory or another's lust [for] power".
Brittain became a Christian pacifist. The only way I remember her book being used at school was not as a warning against the horrors of war but as puff for the glories of school speech day. I also recall singing the school hymn Rank By Rank Again We Stand, and the obligatory years spent in the Combined Cadet Force – successor to the OTC. I was, I'm proud to say, a terrible cadet. Because I never mastered the ridiculous art of wrapping puttees, my job was to count used shells out of sight in the school armoury. Undisturbed, I would happily puff away on my Bensons while sitting on a case of live ammunition and humming along to the Jam's Little Boy Soldiers.
You might think these days were long over. But last month the prime minister announced a £1m commitment to set up 100 new CCF units in state schools by 2015, with more to follow. The defence secretary, Philip Hammond, explained: "The cadet expansion programme will help schools grow cadet numbers to ensure that as many young people as possible can benefit from military themed activities."
I'm sorry, is this really the best way to mark the centenary of the beginning of the first world war?
And what's remarkable is how little fuss has been made about this. There is always bother about faith schools, but who has been speaking up against the Trojan horse of militarisation of our schools? Yes, if faith schools are run by the Rev McKenzies of this world, I'd be the first to want them closed. But give me a faith school infused by the values of Brittain's Christian pacifism over a school with "military-themed activities".
Indeed, it was only in chapel that I remember hearing anything that pushed against Uppingham's ingrained militarism. One visiting preacher memorably satirised the Sun's zest for the Falklands war by quoting a Private Eye front page: "Kill an Argie, win a Metro." It was long way from McKenzie's dulce et decorum est pro patria mori bullshit.
Source: The Guardian