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Britain’s imperial armies come to the rescue of its modern forces

David Cameron visits Commonwealth soldiers’ graves in Tourgeville Military Cemetery, France. Stefan Rousseau/PA

Speaking as part of a commemorative celebration of the importance of the Commonwealth in WW1, David Cameron had this to say about the participation of colonial troops from all over the empire:

They fought together, they fell together, and together they defended the freedoms that we enjoy today.

In this soundbite travesty of the historical record, the principle of transnational, transcultural co-operation in times of war was hailed as a cornerstone of the country’s diverse postcolonial citizenry in the present. Military service in support of the British cause, the willingness to shed blood on “our” behalf, was cast as a timeless qualification for membership of what has become Britain’s national heritage.

Confident that the public would look favourably on military labour as an honourable and heroic pursuit, Cameron called the centenary a chance to:

Come together to understand not the only the scale of the sacrifice, but also the individual stories behind the statistics … stories that show you the strength of the bond between soldiers of all faiths, colours and races.

The speech, which endorsed a government-supported initiative called The Commonwealth Contribution, was undeniably a public relations exercise. It was no doubt written with one eye on the fact that one in five new voters at the 2015 election will be from an Asian, black or other minority ethnic background. It was also a recruiting pitch for the armed forces, since it remains a matter of some concern that UK-born minorities, historically under-represented in the military, are now a significant proportion of the demographic that the forces need to attract.

But above all, it was testament to how much the British state has to gain from rooting modern cultural diversity within a mystified version of imperial military culture. The prime minister was not speaking just to the British people, or even particularly to Britain’s minority communities; he was also addressing the governments of Commonwealth countries in a crafted act of cultural diplomacy.

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The World War I centenary provides a new opportunity to promote Britain’s imperial past as a history of shared suffering and sacrifice. The job at hand is to persuade the British-born descendants of those soldiers drawn from the colonies and dominions that military service belongs to a venerable family tradition, and is therefore part of their heritage.

The phrase “all faiths, colours and races” is a safe way to do this, to assert an inclusive notion of citizenship in the context of a collective national project. It perfectly illustrates the concept of “militarised multiculture” – by which I mean the way that diversity acquires a particular value when dressed in military clothing.

Cultural and ethnic diversity within the armed forces is rarely talked about outside the realm of PR, and the question of institutional racism is kept well out of sight. Indeed, the story of the British Army’s modernisation is not widely known. But like all other public institutions subject to equality and diversity law, the armed forces have been forced to make substantial reforms since the late 1990s.

The army’s level of ethnic diversity rose steadily from 1998 to 2013 after a five-year UK residency requirement was suspended. As a result, thousands of migrants from Commonwealth countries have entered (and passed through) the ranks, with the result that around 60% of black and minority ethnic soldiers today are not actually UK citizens.

This process of reform has also entailed a degree of secularisation, accompanied by the provision of multi-faith chaplains and the formation of faith-based organisations within and across the different services.

Meanwhile, the army in particular has been able to project its multicultural workforce as a mark of professionalism and corporate proficiency. It can claim to be reflective of British society – as long as no-one asks too many questions about precise demographics.

Two birds, one stone

For instance, a “news” story released by the Ministry of Defence in April 2014 announced, “The number of Islamic recruits in the UK armed forces has risen by well over 40% since 2007.” There was no mention of the reasons behind this remarkable increase, or the fact that roughly two thirds of those who recorded their faith as Muslim would not have been UK citizens at all; instead, they were born in many other parts of the world, from the Gambia to Bangladesh.

The increased presence of Muslim soldiers in the British Army is relevant both to a national security agenda and to the acute recruitment crisis under the newly privatised regime run by Capita. Given the UK security forces’ widespread and politically explosive surveillance of young Muslim men, and especially after the murder of Drummer Lee Rigby in May 2013, the visibility of loyal Muslim soldiers provides a counter to the spectre of the “home-grown” enemy within.

And these ideas are by no means the province of government departments alone.

Remember who?

In its report Remembering the Brave: the Muslim contribution to Britain’s armed forces, the Muslim Council of Britain argues that military service performed by British Muslim citizens proved it was possible to be both a patriotic Briton and true to one’s faith.

24-year-old Jabron Hashmi, a British soldier of Pakistani heritage who died in Afghanistan in 2006, is cited as a prime example of an individual who remained committed to his faith as well as his country.

But the Muslim Council’s report also addresses the fact that the UK military has been engaged in wars that have been strongly contested at home – not least by those who have focused their rage on British soldiers. The foreword acknowledges:

The operations which the Armed Forces are engaged in today are deeply controversial. But that is not simply a concern amongst Muslims, it is shared by other British people also.

What’s more, the report’s title, “Remembering the Brave”, refers not to the recent disasters in Iraq and Afghanistan, but to a much longer history of Muslim participation in wars fought by Britain’s multi-ethnic and multinational armies.

So although David Cameron and his government might try to appropriate multiculture for their own militaristic ends, they can never fully overwrite the true history behind their rhetoric – the long-lasting connections between war, colonialism, foreign policy, racism, securitisation and the divisive politics of immigration.

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