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Do we still have the moral fibre, as a nation, to fight a Total War? Yes, we do


War hero: UUP MLA Doug Beattie in his Army days

War hero: UUP MLA Doug Beattie in his Army days

Mike O'Neill

War hero: UUP MLA Doug Beattie in his Army days

War hero: UUP MLA Doug Beattie in his Army days


War hero: UUP MLA Doug Beattie in his Army days

As Armistice Day approaches, there will be some who may ask could we do it all again? Does the country have the moral fibre to fight another protracted war, where every last one of our nation's efforts, from the home front to the battlefield, would be co-ordinated and dedicated to military victory?

Thankfully, the chances of such a conflict on the colossal scale of the Great War, which left 40 million either dead, wounded, or missing, are slim. That is not to say serious conflicts are not just around the corner, for, depressingly, they are.

Global frictions in our geopolitical space mean that conflict is virtually inevitable and the only question is one of scale.

Therefore, the question to be asked is: do we have the means and the will to fight a war that could ultimately result in the demise in our way of life? For me, the answer is clearly yes. And this is why.

Many people think that fighting power is about the delivery of technology on the battlefield. Of course, this plays a crucial part and can act as a force multiplier in any given conflict.

Indeed, battles are already being fought daily in cyberspace and their outcomes can be as lethal as any direct military action and possess the capacity to topple governments, countries and coalitions.

However, on the traditional battlefield - if there is such a thing anymore - fighting power is made up of three main, balanced components: the physical, the moral and the conceptual, each complementing the other.

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The physical component is about who we are, our people, their training, the equipment they use and how it is resourced. The moral component is about our ethical foundations, leadership and morale, while the conceptual component is about knowing how to fight.

Yet, doctrine definitions don't tell the whole story. For those who think the youth of today - much criticised in society - are soft, I can tell you categorically that they are not. I served with young men who, straight out of training, found themselves in the heat of battle, showing that same grit and determination that was to be found in the mud of the Great War.

In 2012, I wrote about the experiences of my young soldiers thus:

"In the middle of winter in southern Helmand, the fighting and killing is done in the open, in mud-heavy fields, freshly ploughed and irrigated.

"There is nowhere to hide, the irrigation ditches that could give cover have been seeded with IEDs (improvised explosive devices), the bare tree-lines no longer providing cover from view, or fire.

"The mud is everywhere, it clings to your boots like glue and sucks the soldiers' legs into the saturated terrain.

"It is a scene and experience that would not be alien to those who served in the Great War. When the bullets come, there is no quick dash to safety, the mud rooting you to the spot.

"As the enemy engages, the cursing and high-pitched screaming of men starts. But, very soon, the training and the adrenaline really do kick in and the job of war truly begins."

The young men - for it was mostly young men - who fought on the battlefields of Ypres, Mons, The Somme and Gallipoli are the same young men who fought in Korea, the Falklands and Afghanistan. They are now joined by extremely brave and dedicated young women, whose courage I have also seen at first-hand.

Many will argue that today's armed forces are professional, well-trained, well-resourced, but small, and this is true - certainly when compared to the size of the standing armies of Russia, or China, for example.

Any major conflict would require a conscripted, or volunteer citizens', army, as it did in 1914 and I see no signs that an increase in the armed forces density could not be achieved in times of national crisis.

Is it simply jingoistic to say such a thing in the colloquial sense of the word? Maybe it is. But maybe that kind of self-belief is what makes countries victorious.

There have undoubtedly been huge changes in society in the last century and, for many, we now appear to live in a more selfish, materialistic and consumer-based society, where national pride, patriotism and even sovereignty are dismissed as outdated and unfashionable concepts by many.

I disagree, because for me the United Kingdom retains that same will to fight and win today as they did 100 years ago.

As a nation, I believe - even as divided as we are today - that we would come together yet again on the home front and the battlefield in the face of an existential threat, to ensure our way of life continues.

Let us hope and do all we can to ensure that such a situation never presents itself and that the industrial slaughter and unimaginable suffering of 100 years ago is never repeated.

  • Doug Beattie MC is Ulster Unionist MLA for Upper Bann. He was awarded the Military Cross for his actions in Afghanistan

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