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

By Professor Richard Holmes
Image of soldier in front of a Union Jack
A British Tommy guards his national flag, 1916  ©

To become a soldier is to kill or be killed for a purpose in which you may have no interest - and barrack life can be intolerable and unfriendly. So, why would an aspiring officer pay for a commission?

Contract of unlimited liability

Someone who becomes a soldier is crossing a legally defined boundary. A soldier gives up some individual rights (such as the right to withdraw his labour), accepts collective standards which contribute to the common good, and undertakes, in the last analysis, to kill or be killed for a purpose in which he may have no personal interest.

'... society ... is never static, and what was acceptable this year may not be so next.'

General Sir John Hackett called this ‘the contract of unlimited liability’. However closely the army may come to resemble society, and however rarely it is called upon to apply lethal force, the essential characteristic of this contract still remains.

The process of turning a man into a soldier and the discipline that underpins it has changed over time, and is complicated by the fact that society, too, is never static, and what is acceptable in any one year may not be so the next. An age in which men were deferential towards those they saw as their superiors, were inured to hardship by a tough upbringing, and had low expectations of life, produced raw material quite different from that of the present day, where prospective soldiers can be non-deferential, litigious and inclined to question of authority.

Published: 2005-02-28

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