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18 September 2014
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The Soldier's Trade in a Changing World

By Professor Richard Holmes
A duty to be different

Image of peacekeeping forces in Kosovo, 2000
Peacekeeping forces in Kosovo, 2000  ©
Modern society would find it hard to tolerate some of the restrictions imposed on conscripts doing their National Service as recently as the 1940s and 50s. And in past centuries there has not always been consensus within the army over the correct way to main a disciplined and efficient fighting force.

In the Napoleonic era, while arguments raged over the use of the lash, tactical changes came into play. The rifle started to replace the short-range musket, and a growing number of officers were persuaded that a new style of discipline was required, with ‘the thinking fighting rifleman’ replacing the unthinking obedience of the old redcoat.

'... the army has evolved to follow changes in society... '

Historians often find it hard to stand apart from the debate, and it is all too easy, where such grave matters are concerned, to apply the values of one’s own age to the past. I find flogging and military execution as intolerable as will many of my readers, but both punishments were less repellent by the standards of their own age.

In so many respects the army has evolved to follow changes in society, although there is generally a time-lag inherent in the process. However, the existence of military law, creating offences which are not crimes in civilian life, emphasises that the soldier’s trade is like no other, and underlines the essential difference between the profession of arms and civilian callings

The army will not be able to stand aside from changes in legislation and practice which will make it more open and accountable, and more obliged to justify what it does in all its spheres of activity - from recruit training to the conduct of operations.

If it is to continue to flourish it will have to define those key areas where has a duty to be different, and at the same time to ensure that it is properly understood by the society it exists to defend and from which it draws so much of its strength. It will need, in short, to stress the continuities that help its members to feel valued and valuable, trusted and trusting. It will also need to change, not to conform with fashion or political correctness, but to embrace real progress

About the author

Image of author Professor Richard Holmes
Professor Richard Holmes enlisted in the Territorial Army in 1965 and rose to the rank of brigadier. He was the first reservist to hold the post of director of reserve forces and cadets in the Ministry of Defence until he retired in 2000. Professor Holmes's books include The Little Field Marshal: Sir John French (Jonathan Cape, 1981), Riding the Retreat (Jonathan Cape, 1995), and The Second World War in Photographs (Carlton, 2000).

About the author

Richard Holmes is professor of military and security studies at Cranfield University. His books include The Little Field Marshal: Sir John French and Riding the Retreat, and he is general editor of The Oxford Companion to Military History. He enlisted into the Territorial Army in 1965 and rose to the rank of brigadier. He was the first reservist to hold the post of Director of Reserve Forces and Cadets in the Ministry of Defence, until he retired in 2000.


Published: 2005-02-28

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