- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 23, 2003

Tacitus, describing outmanned British warriors his father-in-law Agricola had defeated in the Second Century, observed, not without admiration, that they "had been framed to obedience but not to servitude." And towards their fighting forces the British people may be said to have been framed to admiration without adulation.
Lawrence James' majestic "Warrior Race: A History of the British at War" is less a history of campaigns and battles than it is a consideration, sometimes even meditation, on the nature and culture of British militarism, on the behavior of the British people during wartime and on the long evolution of British national self-consciousness as a consequence of war.
These remain topics of undiminished fascination, sustained on this side of the Atlantic by the same things that make Americans gape at the passing of the Household Cavalry or the Changing of the Guard, and keep them watching the History Channel's apparently inexhaustible store of documentaries about the British fighting Rommel in the desert or clambering over the tops of trenches to close with the Germans on the Western Front.
For if the British way of war is admirable, even inspirational, it is also, to American eyes and tastes, attractive for its singularities and eccentricities, indeed for its cultivation of idiosyncrasy in its fighting men and their leaders, in the nonchalance affected for so long that it is no longer an affection and style with which they shoulder the most awful and dangerous of missions.
That culture is a durable one. It lives vigorously in popular history, in film and fiction. Its characteristics are a singular blend of understated, stolid courage courage sustained over long periods of privation and danger; of "pluck" and "dash"; of singular feats of individual heroism (often characterized by clever or unexpected improvisations) and, finally, an ingrained reluctance to take it all very seriously or to talk much about it.
"A gentleman is a man who never complains" Harold Nicolson is reported to have said; as a wounded Guards subaltern in France he lay in no man's land for more than a day, diverting himself by reading Aeschylus. He might have been seen as an exemplar of the tradition of Victorian and Edwardian junior officers, representative of an enduring type, graduates of the public schools that reliably produced "Christian gentlemen … sturdy chaps, pure in thought, who possessed character: that is to say, (they were) truthful, felt a responsibility for the less fortunate, were daring and endured adversity without complaint."
What Eton had sent out to Waterloo, to the Crimea, to South Africa, and France, was a young leader who knew how to "behave," who was bred to the field, to the rugby pitch, who had learned to subordinate his own ambitions to the needs of the team.
If to be known as a gentleman is the highest and best attainment, why should one indulge a vulgar ambition for individual distinction? Such educations perfectly prepared officer-recruits for the requirements of living and working on warships, in World War II, just as in Horatio Nelson's or John Rushworth Jellicoe's time, for a "general state of wellbeing and purposefulness was the key to the fighting efficiency of the ship … harmony, mutual dependence, competence."
These things together could not fail to produce the Happy Ship celebrated in such wartime films as Noel Coward's "In Which We Serve;" in which the tricky striations of class are happily negotiated because of the captain's great compassion for his men.
"Warrior Race" ranges over 2,000 years of wartime history: from Boadicca and Hadrian and Arthur (whom the author identifies with the 5th-century Romano-British general Ambrosius Aurelianus), through the Black Prince, Henry V, William Wallace and Rob Roy, ultimately to Wellington, Raglan, Douglas Haig, and Bernard Law Montgomery.
But his interests are not focused on leaders such as these. Like Lytton Strachey he has preferred to row out over a vast body of historical information and dip buckets down, here and there, at various depths, as inclination prompts. The consequence is unevenness of focus and pace.
If war has been the principal instrumentality in the development and evolution of the British character and culture, it is not, Mr. James argues, wartime's "pugnacious patriotism" that is its main agent. Rather, whether the enemy is Napoleonic France (or the France that regularly allied itself with Scotland in an earlier time) or Nazi Germany, the culture has always responded with "fresh expositions of Britishness abstraction(s) that (were) attractive and would bind the nation together."
Britain habitually defined itself as the moral antithesis of its enemies; more potent have been reflexive images and depictions of the countryside, "dear, snubbed, English countryside," evoked in tender scenes of sun-dappled lanes, Cotswold villages, fresh May mornings. "There'll always be an England while there's a country lane/as long as there's a cottage small beside a field of grain," etc.
The calm, unhurried, unpretentious aura which was made to represent British life and living was what malignant enemies wanted to destroy: was what had to be saved.
"Warrior Race" is a very long book. The narrative is diverted into deep eddies which the author explores according to expertise and inclination. A fictional comparison: the Aubrey-Maturin series of Patrick O'Brien novels, in which long considerations of African fauna, South American birds, disquisitions on 18th-century medicine and music suddenly obtrude themselves not so much as displays of recondite knowledge as contexts within which to locate the action.
The history finally carries down to the great postwar debates about the nuclear deterrent, to NATO, the continuing struggles in Northern Ireland, and the Falklands: none of which is examined with much conviction or enthusiasm; the grim battle of Culloden, which ended Bonnie Prince Charlie's abortive campaign in 1745, and its even nastier aftermath, occupy some 20 pages; the Falklands, one. The Arthurian Legend is lovingly, carefully, explored; the nuclear debate, barely.
Instant, total, communication "all news all the time," the full professionalization of the Royal Navy and the British Army, and finally the nature of early-21st century wars all together will deny future combats whatever romance and excitement the national "character" and culture may find in them. Low-intensity conflict, as it was once called, is rarely prosecuted in a way that makes a citizenry proud of its special domestic quality and heritage. History of the kind Mr. James so compellingly narrates has, surely, no future.

Josiah Bunting III is chairman of the National Civic Literacy Board at Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI), in Wilmington, Del.

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide