Michael Fallon, the new Defence Secretary, plans to institute military cadet corps in schools. The idea, apparently, is not only to provide future recruits for the British Army, but also to instil discipline and ‘British values’ in our youth. Yes; that last claim is so problematical as to be almost ludicrous. I don’t need to waste time arguing the emphatically non-military nature of the ‘British values’ that I most respect. (Or the case against calling any of them, military or non-military, ‘British’ in any exclusive way.) The only point I want to make here is that Fallon’s plan might be counter-productive. It was with me.
School cadet corps started up in the later nineteenth century in order to encourage national and imperial patriotism. Most Public schools had them; state schools refused to, out of anti-militaristic principle. (That was one reason why Baden-Powell founded his Boy Scout movement.) So far as I know the Public schools have them still. So do, or did, the Grammar schools that liked – pathetically – to ape the Public schools, such as mine. At my ‘direct grant’ school ‘Corps’ was compulsory, parading in uniform every Thursday afternoon, going on soggy, chaotic camps, and practicing shooting on a rifle range on the Rainham marshes. The only way of getting out of it was with a note from your parents to say they were pacifists, and even then you didn’t entirely escape it, but had to go into a ‘Medical’ squad, still in uniform, but with bright white webbing rather than the usual khaki to show up your cowardly nature to the other boys. I was too genuinely cowardly to risk that. Everyone hated the Corps, except for a few fascist-minded boys; who formed the ‘Right Wing National Party’ in our school ‘mock’ elections, and went around with little polished sticks shouting themselves blue in the face. Many of them went on to Sandhurst, one of them after being expelled from school for his part in a gang-rape. The rest of us resented them, and the whole business of Blancoing our webbing, Duraglitting our brass, ironing neat creases into our tunics, and shining our boots ‘so you can see your faces in them’.
I hated Thursday afternoons, especially the mechanical waving your arms about and marching up and down in lines. ‘Squad, atten – wait for it, wait for it – shun!’ On the other hand I quite liked – and was good at – the shooting. Even there we could be easily distracted – on one occasion, I remember, by a sheep wandering across. We all turned our rifles to blow it into a ball of wool, bones and blood. ‘Sorry, Sarg, I missed.’ God what a farce. I learned nothing, except perhaps how to strip down a 1914 Bren gun, and even then I couldn’t put it together again. I was only promoted at the very end because they thought it would look bad if I went up to university still a private. I was jumped up to colour-sergeant on the last day of school.
I’m sure Corps prejudiced most of us against the Army: unfairly, as I came to realize later. Most soldiers aren’t militarists. Notoriously, that’s left to draft-dodgers, like George W Bush. I’ve met some very reasonable and even liberal military men. (No military women yet, I’m afraid.) But my school cadet corps played no part at all in this realization; and in fact only made me appreciate more, through aversion to it, the non-military ‘values’ in British history and life. Maybe – though I doubt it – that’s what Michael Fallon intends.
[An edited version of this also appears on the LRB Blog (http://www.lrb.co.uk/blog/2016/11/01/bernard-porter/sorry-sarge/), corrected to take account of one of Andrew Rosthorn’s comments, below.]