When soldiers are migrants: more questions to ask about culture, the military and migration

An essay in Roland Barthes’s book Mythologies (1957), a landmark in the study of myths and symbols in Western industrial societies, uses the image of a black soldier in French military uniform saluting, probably towards the national tricolour, on the cover of Paris-Match. Barthes interpreted the image as signifying something of much more social and collective significance beyond the photograph of the individual man: ‘that France is a great Empire, that all her sons, without any colour discrimination, faithfully serve under her flag, and that there is no better answer to the detractors of an alleged colonialism than the zeal shown by this Negro in serving his so-called oppressors’ (p. 115, 1972 trans.).

I was reminded of Barthes’s discussion of the black soldier’s photograph recently on reading a new book by Vron Ware, Military Migrants: Fighting for YOUR Country (2012), on the recruitment of thousands of Commonwealth soldiers, mostly people of colour, into the British military since 1998. Her book, which has much to say about British nationalism and war memory as well as the cultures of the military itself, begins with a vignette from 2010’s public commemoration of the Armistice Day silence in Trafalgar Square (a new commemorative ritual instituted by the Royal British Legion in 2006). At this ceremony, the end of the two minutes’ silence was signalled by a video reel containing images of politicians, celebrities and wounded soldiers. Among them was the Royal Marine Commando veteran Ram Patten, who had founded a fundraising march after being diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder: ‘But for the vast majority, he was likely to be a symbolic figure performing another role […] He appeared to be an ordinary serviceman doing his job, but he was also black’ (p. xiii).

Ware’s argument weaves together official understandings of British national identity in recent years – covering the defence reforms of the first New Labour government, the requirement on the military to fight wars of counter-insurgency in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the drive for national ‘cohesion’ after the 7/7 bombings in 2005 – with an in-depth account of soldiers’ experiences through recruitment, selection and service. Governmental multiculturalism and the practices of equality and diversity management produced a demand that the composition of the military should reflect the ethnic balance of the country that it was supposed to defend. In practice, however, a significant amount of this visible diversity seems to have been provided by troops recruited from other countries in the Commonwealth, who became eligible to join the British military after a review of nationality issues for armed forces employment early in 1998.

Over the next ten years, until recruitment was curtailed by the 2008 financial crisis, the British Army would send dozens of Overseas Pre-Selection Teams to Commonwealth countries, concentrating on Fiji and the Caribbean. Soldiers’ motivations for joining up had much to do with their economic prospects at home and the opportunities to qualify in a trade during their Army contract, though a number found themselves re-routed to infantry regiments in need of extra troops before their foreign deployments – at a greater rate, Ware suggests, than UK recruits who had also expressed preferences for a different corps. Ware’s interviews and focus groups with soldiers from UK and Commonwealth backgrounds and a range of ranks explore how the military’s new diversity policies were implemented, or sometimes undermined, in practice – and how immigration policies coming from a different part of the state could seriously affect the lives of migrant soldiers and their families.

Reading the book, I rather wished Military Migrants had existed when I began working for the Languages at War project in 2008. During this project, I developed the interest in language intermediaries’ work which has since developed into a longer-term interest in the socio-economic impact of international intervention and peacebuilding, and also interviewed approximately 15 British soldiers about their experiences of language support during the UN/NATO peace operations in 1990s Bosnia. (Some of this material has appeared in my articles, and is rounded up in a new co-authored book, Interpreting the Peace.) There are several more research questions and interview questions we could have taken further with the help of this book.

Some of them relate to the military’s understandings of ‘culture’, which we did explore, particularly in the first edited volume that came out of the project, also called Languages at War. As Ware describes, the so-called ‘cultural turn’ in response to counter-insurgency turned ‘awareness’ of the culture of foreign populations into a military asset, supported through training exercises in simulated Iraqi/Afghan villages, through information cards and apps, and in the US case with the controversial incorporation of social scientists into military ‘human terrain’ teams:

Cultural knowledge was seen as something that could be learned and preferably kept in the pocket in the event of face-to-face encounters with local people. These measures were replicated in some of the NATO forces which began systematically to acquire linguistic and cultural expertise. (Ware, p. 117)

Language, in the words of a new article (£) by Vicente Rafael, was ‘weaponized’ in order to fulfil military objectives. There are precedents for this ‘cultural turn’ in the – initially rushed and improvised – training for troops deploying to Bosnia and Kosovo that several interviewees for Languages at War retold, and in the handbooks and phrase books developed by the Allies in preparation for the liberation of Western Europe in 1944, discussed in this (currently free) article by Hilary Footitt. ‘Heritage speakers’ – troops whose ethnic background has given them knowledge of languages required by the military (in this case Arabic, Pashtu and Dari) – have experienced even greater difficulties during the War on Terror than in previous operations, yet simultaneously have never been so valuable to their commanders.

Military Migrants, however, prompts me to ask more about ‘the concept of culture as something that had to be “managed”‘ (p. 114). I’d like now to have pursued it in more depth during my interviews with British soldiers. Was the concept as it manifested in the 2000s one of the ‘lessons learned’ through peacekeeping deployments in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo? Did it go back further still – perhaps, as Brendan Simms suggested in Unfinest Hour (2002), to the military’s explanation for the conflict in Northern Ireland – and structure the way in which the military made sense of ethnopolitics in the former Yugoslavia? Should I be looking to ‘the dubious theory of martial races’ (Ware, p. 121), that is, the colonial belief that certain groups such as the Gurkhas, the Zulus and the Ashanti had inherent racial characteristics that made them suitable as soldiers, as a direct antecedent of contemporary cultural essentialism in the military? Although I’ve discussed foreign understandings of ethnic identities in Bosnia in some depth during one chapter of Interpreting the Peace, I feel now I could have said more about the history of British military culture.

Military Migrants also makes me wish I had more data on hand about my own interviewees’ experiences of immigration procedures and border control. Ware achieves something that I also appreciated in Thomas Carter’s book In Foreign Fields: to ask what happens when we think about people such as sports professionals or soldiers as migrant workers, as well as thinking about the symbolic functions that the people in these occupational groups necessarily take on. ‘Foreign travel,’ she observes (p. 235), ‘is a basic premise of military work’ (a perspective I’ve tried to bear in mind when writing about soldiers’ interviews as the narratives of military travellers). In the case of Britain’s military migrants, the Ministry of Defence seems not to have thought through the visa implications that would arise when, for instance, non-UK soldiers were posted to Germany (where visits by a non-EU spouse would require a Schengen visa) or sent with a training team to a country with different entry regulations for citizens of their state. Tighter regulations for UK residency and citizenship caused the families of Commonwealth soldiers great anxiety. I didn’t ask systematically about migration experiences like these in my interviews, although sometimes they appeared (one Bosnian interpreter, visiting the UK as part of a group who were to participate in pre-deployment field exercises for soldiers, related problems at Heathrow because the MOD had not obtained the type of visa that the Home Office expected them to have). I’d like now to have asked much more about interpreters’ experiences and aspirations with migration and how far their jobs might have provided resources and contacts for settlement abroad.

The cuts to military recruitment after 2008 mean that the wave of Commonwealth recruitment may turn only into a statistical bulge, rather than an institutionalised practice on the scale and length of the recruitment of Gurkhas from Nepal. By the time Ware was interviewing successful recruits, the Overseas Pre-Selection Teams had already been wound down and potential recruits were now asked to travel to the UK for selection at their own risk. Military Migrants nonetheless illuminates a significant factor in contemporary British military history, and opens up new questions for thinking about the UK’s military past.