Several years ago, while packing my bag to go back to Afghanistan, I got to wondering about war. It seemed to me that war was a lottery which you won if you came out alive or without being turned into a living vegetable. By staying at home, I could win without having to buy a ticket. What I was getting at was the lack of tangible material benefit resulting from putting your life and health on the line for sake of Queen and Country.
In ancient times, the risk to life and limb of going to war could be set against the chance of plunder. There were tangible pay-offs. Now we fight for the advancement of abstracts such as “democracy” and the interests of the nation/society in general. This would be easier to stomach if the whole country was pulling together and no-one was making a profit. But it’s a sad fact that the end of the Second World War was greeted by a big fall in the value of stocks in New York.
Imagine my surprise when I learned from old regimental history that soldiers in Queen Victoria’s time often earned a healthy gratuity or pension if they won an award for bravery. I think the Victoria Cross still comes with a financial award but it’s token. Plundering defeated enemies, or in real life civilians who happen to be on the wrong side, is wrong. But so is expecting our men and women to perform feats of courage with no real reward. It could be said that “a good war” enhances promotion prospects and that should be enough in the way of tangible benefit. But promotion in any organisation is seldom linked to merit or a job well done. And let’s not forget that some of the bravest men in the front line, who may have changed the course of battle by storming a machine-gun post singled handed, were drunks in peacetime who couldn’t be trusted to remember what day it was. Promoting them would not be doing them any favours.