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Queen and Country: Ordinary people who pay an extraordinary price

Michael Clarke
Commentary, 4 March 2010
Art, Culture and Literature, Europe
Soldiers don't talk very much about the dead, or the disfigured, or the battle stressed; except quietly to each other, not to the rest of us who will never really understand. Exhibitions like the work by the artist Steve McQueen go some way to redressing the balance between those who protect, and the rest of us.

There are many definitions of a soldier. Over 20 million people in the world wear the uniform of a soldier and there are many more irregular forces who do some of the things that soldiers do. One of the best definitions is that a professional, legitimate soldier is there to protect those who are weaker than him, or her, self. The words are important. A soldier may protect the weak by either defensive or offensive action. And soldiers must be both professional, in that they are properly trained; and legitimate, in that they are employed by a legally constituted state. The objectives of war are fundamentally political, so the cause for which soldiers fight may be called into question. But a soldier's calling is an honourable one, even in a dishonourable cause.

We ask a great deal of the soldiers who protect the rest of us; all us individuals weaker than them, protected by those on whom we confer the right to wield a monopoly of legitimate force. 

Some give their lives - through death in battle, through injuries and illness on operations, through accidents in theatre where there are more everyday hazards than the rest of us would ever tolerate.

Other soldiers give up normality for the rest of their lives, through injuries and amputations; changing forever the prospects of a young and fit man or woman and demanding heroic stoicism, mental adjustment, and a lifetime of adaptation.

Still others - many more than we would like to think - give up part of their sanity for their soldiering. A good deal is known about battle stress these days and the effects it can have, both clinically, on the synapses in the brain to produce anger and frustration; and perceptually, on the view a soldier thinks that society takes of him or her as they carry out their duties. Battle stress, measured in time spent on the front line - the area where high physical danger is ever present - is like radiation. It never leaves the body and after a certain level it will affect the health of the individual.  'A man's courage is his capital, and he is always spending it,' as the saying goes. Soldiers may become far more experienced and canny with every battle they fight, but they do not become more courageous the more of it they do. 

There is a wealth of medical evidence dating back to the Second World War which has sought to measure the extent of battle stress that soldiers can normally stand. General averages contain big individual variations, of course, but it is fairly clear that most soldiers begin to suffer perceptible battle stress after somewhere between 120 and 150 days on the front line - and that experienced during a soldier's entire lifetime. Many of our soldiers now absorb that many days on the front line in a single deployment.

There are any number of books these days about wars and battles; hot and immediate, with a journalist's eye for the detailed and the human. But soldiers don't talk very much about the dead, or the disfigured, or the battle stressed; except quietly to each other, not to the rest of us who will never really understand.

Queen at Country at RUSI Photo by Adrian Johnson aExhibitions like this work by the artist Steve McQueen go some way to redressing the balance between those who protect, and the rest of us. It's a clever piece of work. It embodies the art that conceals the art. It is a solid piece; an installation. Unremarkable at first glance, functional and static. We know it contains photographs so we abstractedly pull out a couple of the big slides that make up the solid block. Yes, it contains photographs, as we anticipated. But not big photographs. Each slide looks like a raft of stamps with the face of one of those soldiers who gave their lives in Iraq on each stamp; looking at us, once, ten times, a hundred times. The miniaturisation of each image, and the repetition of it, is both a jolt and a prompt. They do not stare out accusingly at us, or beseeching pity, or even pathos. They look at us as normal young people. Their ordinariness is what is striking. Ordinary people trained and equipped to do an extraordinary job. And in their cases, they paid an extraordinary price, as have their families and loved ones. The repetition of their image, stamp after stamp, speaks for the others as well; the disabled, the stressed, all those who will never lead the normal life they might have anticipated. There is no judgement here, no overt pain. Just the fact expressed in the face - the disruption to normal life that wars always cause.

Should we best remember them at ceremonies with muffled drums, military honours and bowed heads? Or every day in a thousand repetitions of letters and packets passing through a million hands? In an age where cataclysmic wars have been replaced by nasty little regional wars, how should ordinary society recognise those who undertake extraordinary roles to protect it?

This is one of the big questions in which RUSI is deeply engaged; the role of the armed forces and the security services in relation to contemporary UK society in all its multi-cultural and evolving forms. That is why we are so pleased to have the Steve McQueen art work at RUSI and to invite our members and friends among the general public to view it here before it opens formally at the National Portrait Gallery. We urge you to come and see it and reflect upon the most appropriate forms of remembrance we should offer to the young men and women who gave up everything in the willing performance of the duty we put on them.


Professor Michael Clarke
Distinguished Fellow

Professor Michael Clarke was Director-General of the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) from 2007 to 2015 when he retired from... read more

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