Major-General Tim Toyne Sewell – The Development of Armies and their Use in Democracies

Major-General Tim Toyne Sewell was Commandant of the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst, 1991-94
Seminar on Wednesday 15 March 2006

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Banking establishments are more dangerous than standing armies
Thomas Jefferson


An army’s main purpose, either in a democracy or, indeed, in a dictatorship has changed little from that of the armed bands of our pre-historic ancestors who defended their territories against intruders. That is still the principal task of any army today.

But if life were that simple one could well ask why in countries with little or no external threat an army is necessary at all. Apart from Iceland I believe that Costa Rica is the only nation in the world that has been brave, or foolish, enough to adopt this attitude, which it did after its civil war in 1948 and which is now enshrined in the constitution. As its Ex-President Figueres remarked ‘Don Pepe was the only victorious general who disbanded his army. By doing so he enabled the state to dedicate more resources to education and health, and made it stand apart from the other Central American nations, which have been besieged by coups d'etat, dictatorships, military rulers, and civil wars’. One can hardly argue with that.

But I run ahead of myself. Perhaps I should explain why I am in the predicament of speaking to a distinguished group of people far more academically able than me to deal with such a complex subject. Russell Wilcox, a philosopher of note and with whom I would never start an argument, was a member of Goodenough College for many years and insisted that I should give this paper, however hard I wriggled on the hook and how ever many  much better qualified speakers I suggested. Perhaps I was the only one who came free of charge.

So do not expect an academic paper because I am neither an historian nor any other form of scholar. Nevertheless, I have had practical experience of a variety of armies over the years, from the British Army, to which I belonged for 35 years, to those of Malaysia, Zimbabwe, Mozambique and even the Falkland Islands Defence Force. However, I have now been retired for twelve years and have deliberately kept away from military affairs since then so my comments are very much my own.

I will tackle this by giving a brief outline of the development of armies and then go on to discuss tasks, both proper and improper, for armies in democracies before looking at some of the challenges and developments facing us in today’s operations.

Historical organisation

Montgomery, in his book The History of War, claimed that war is a basic part of history concerned with the essentials of life: food, a secure place to live plus the ability to find mates, wealth, power and prestige. Indeed, most wars, back in history or today, result from overcrowding or lack of food, water or other essentials of life.

Formed armies are a relatively new phenomenon. The first were arguably those of Egypt, Greece and Persia two and a half millennia ago, although perhaps the Assyrians would dispute that. Their armies were not too different to those of today: armour was represented by horse-borne cavalry, equipped for short, sharp intervention; the poor, bloody infantry, unchanged apart from equipment, did what its still does best, taking and holding ground; today’s artillery was represented by archers, able to hit from a distance but thereafter of little value apart from imposing a threat; there was even a sophisticated communication and logistics system, again represented today.

As nations acquired empires so they needed to develop larger armies to police and hold their acquisitions. The Persians are a classic example and to that extent perhaps Cyrus could be claimed to be the founder of the comprehensive military organisation, able to maintain, both logistically and in terms of trained manpower, an army of sufficient sophistication to impose stability on a multi-national organisation extending over a vast area of Asia.

This was fine in relatively peaceful times but when a king wanted to make war on his neighbours he needed reinforcements. These were frequently mercenaries and sometimes slaves, such as the Nubians who served the first pharaohs, or freebooters such as the Philistines. The great advantage of mercenaries was that their use provided an alternative to the loss of citizens who would be more valuable to the state elsewhere. There are parallels today on which I will touch later.

Finally there was the institution of the corvée or forced levy of troops from the ordinary population. This levy was often associated with public works but in wartime could augment the regular forces with lightly armed auxiliaries and road builders. Recent conscription in European armies, and elsewhere, in the 20th century and today, is the exact equivalent.

Growth of mercenaries

Following the demise of the Roman legions, which provided a standing army throughout the Empire, formal armies virtually ceased to exist in the Western hemisphere for a thousand years. Bearing in mind that the main business of the ruling classes was agriculture, campaigns were short-lived affairs, particularly in Europe where the limits of campaigning were prescribed by the annual 40 days service owed by vassals to their lords. The lords themselves could not be described as professional officers, indeed there was no general, long-service military class.

There were of course exceptions and I am conscious of the fact that I will be glossing over other great Empires, particularly the Mongols, who in the 12th century probably subjected a greater area of the world, than any other power then or later, to their military domination.

However, in Europe, because vassals were not available for long campaigns, the use of mercenaries became the accepted alternative. The foremost of the classical era was Xenephon, the Athenian who fought for the Persians, Thracians, and Spartans, but the mercenary profession in Europe really came into its own in the Middle Ages. The end of the Hundred Years War (1337-1453) saw Europe inundated with out-of-work soldiers anxious to maintain themselves by the only skill they had at their disposal, soldiering. This, too, was the common background of many of the waves of mercenaries which followed, the most obvious recent example, perhaps, being the French Foreign Legion which filled up with German soldiers immediately after the Second World War.

European history was dominated first by the Free Companies of mercenaries, which roamed through France, Spain and Italy in the 14th century, and then by the Condottieri, who followed them in Italy during the 15th and 16th centuries. Out of the Condottieri evolved the Swiss mercenaries, whose fame became legendary in the early 16th century. Indeed, it was on the basis of mercenary bands that the Swiss canton system grew and eventually resulted in the formation of the Swiss nation. However, wherever mercenaries sold their services they earned a reputation for brutality and licentiousness that is still reflected in the modern public’s distrust of the profession.

Emergence of modern armies

However, within Europe, as nations grew richer and expanded their empires in the 17th and 18th centuries the feudal and free company systems began to fail and the growth of national standing armies became accepted. Although initially armies were raised for each campaign, during the latter part of the 17th century standing armies became the norm and were kept up to date with a regular influx of untrained recruits. The crown supplied the recruits and the money for maintaining the forces. At the same time warfare itself became more formalised, fought by professionals along regularly prescribed lines, which gave some relief to the civil population until the appearance of more modern, indiscriminate weapons of mass destruction, which hit soldiers and civilians alike.

The most dramatic change in tempo was bought about by Napoleon’s development of the concept of a nation in arms. Not since the Spartans, where every boy was trained and indoctrinated from the age of 7 and everything the nation did was in support of the army, had there been anything like it. Within a few months in the early 19th century he raised one million men to arms, a proportion of the nation’s population unknown since ancient days. It was not just the numbers involved that were important, more the idea of the ‘citizen’ and the army. Napoleon’s Levée en Masse was not revolutionary just because it transformed the army but because the soldiers were also citizens fighting not just for the honour of Napoleon but also for ‘the nation’ comprised of (in principle) equal citizens in an ideological and yet very real sense. This was perceived as a major threat by the other, conservative and royal, European powers.

From then on throughout Europe the role of the citizen was more closely linked with the army. The draft of manpower was the forerunner of the almost universal dependence on conscription, which lasted until the end of the Second World War. Some nations have retained conscription to this day but none amongst the major players on the military scene, which have gradually reverted to professional, volunteer armies. Apart from manpower the nation itself became totally involved in war-making, driven by nationalism and a desire to create an Empire.

The two World Wars which followed took this concept to the extreme but Rupert Smith, in his new book The Utility of Force, claims that inter-state industrial wars of this magnitude became a thing of the past on the first use of nuclear weapons in 1945 and that future conflict will be much more limited. He may well have a point: it was the nuclear threat that made the Cold War a non-war, bringing relative peace, if not freedom, to a large part of the globe for some forty years. Although since the Second World War we have had any number of relatively small or civil wars such as Korea, Vietnam, the Falklands, Iraq/Iran, Iraq 1 and 2, Mozambique, Afghanistan, Chechnya, we have had no major multi-national conflicts and it is hard to see one on the horizon today. Indeed, according to the Swedish International Peace Research Institute Yearbook of 2001, of the 56 major armed conflicts between 1990 and 2000 (those involving 1000 or more battle deaths per year) only 3 were even inter-state.

Basic Functions

So, today, when we look at the role of an army in a democracy we have a variety of models and scenarios to draw from. Nevertheless, from all that I have said so far, nothing can get away from the fact that any army is the physical reflection of a nation’s boundaries. It is the institution that metaphorically draws a line in the sand and says ‘no further’ to its enemies and is the legitimate authority of the people to defend those boundaries. I believe that is the basic role for an army in any democratic or, indeed, undemocratic state.

However, armies are also tools of state and it has been common in history for them to be used for subduing internal enemies of the state, terrorism and suchlike, particularly where a police force is ineffective. The Canadian use of its forces against the FLQ and the UK’s similar use of them in Northern Ireland come to mind. However, I will comeback to this later.

Should defence of its national boundaries be the limit of an army’s external responsibility? In the majority of cases I suspect that is the case and the size of the army should reflect the potential threat. An example: I remember having a long discussion with President Mugabe, when he was still running a quasi-democracy, about the size and shape of his Army. Zimbabwe had no natural external enemies, at least none which could mount a formal ground and air attack across its borders, apart from South Africa, hardly an enemy of Zimbabwe. However, the size and complexity of the Zimbabwean army was clearly more than the economy could afford.

I spent hours discussing this issue not only with Mugabe but also with his generals and, although agreeing fundamentally, they all found it difficult to translate into action. As a result they acquired a Chinese anti-aircraft system when there were no planes to shoot down, and tanks, when the nature of the country made their use impractical. Of course the real answer was that these weapons were a demonstration of strength, as was the size and potency of the army. The secondary reason, which was not apparent at the time but is blindingly obvious now, is that Mugabe needed his army for use within his own country.

A nation gaining its independence from a colonial master or having overturned a previous regime through guerrilla warfare, has the ideal opportunity to create a new army. However, the relationship problem faced by any new government and its army is not easy especially where the army has not traditionally been an instrument of the ‘nation’, but has instead represented oppression in the form of a dictatorship or colonial power. Some, like South Africa or Mozambique, have tried to integrate their old formal armies and the guerrilla troops used to overthrow the previous regime but this, too, can lead to difficulties.

Whilst I was trying to train and reorganise the Mozambique army a sticking point was persuading the government to pay and equip it. As President Chissano explained one night when I was remonstrating with him about yet another failure to pay his troops, when he was in the bush he did not receive pay and was supported logistically by the local population. He found it difficult to appreciate that a village might support a guerrilla band of 20-30 but that feeding and supplying a regular battalion of 1000 men was a different kettle of fish. Furthermore, I explained, a regular army only remains loyal to a government if it is properly paid and supported: there was ample evidence to show that his army had a huge desertion rate because it was easier for an armed soldier to support his family through the proceeds of crime than starve as a soldier. Zimbabwe is now, belatedly, learning the same lesson the hard way. More than two thirds of the army have been sent home on leave because, with 500% inflation, there is no money to support its soldiers. Large numbers have also resigned as a result of the operations of their own army against their friends and relatives living in the now demolished shanty towns.

Operations Outside Boundaries

However, merely guarding borders is clearly not the limit of an army’s responsibilities, subject as most nations are to treaties and coalitions. So, if we rule out anything more than self defence for nations without external areas of influence or empires to police, the next question should be in what circumstances should an army of a democratic state be able to operate outside its natural boundaries.

As we saw with the Persians and, later on, the British, French and Russians, some countries control more than one nation and therefore it is possible to extend the definition of a nation’s boundaries to include ‘the boundaries of its allies or dependencies’. That is certainly how the British army interpreted its role in the days of Empire; indeed, I was part of that last vestige of Empire, soldiering as a young officer in Aden and its hinterland. Whether such a role would be legitimate today is perhaps questionable since colonialism implies one nation imposing its will on another. Only a few nations, such as the Falklands and Gibraltar, voluntarily accept colonialism today.

Many nations, such as the UK, are part of alliances of one sort or another and I think that most of us would argue that their armies have a legitimate role as defenders of those alliances. Perhaps that becomes less clear when the alliance is also an empire, such as the Soviet or British Empires which, were themselves often the result of forcible acquisition. It becomes even murkier when the so-called empire is not a physical presence but an idealistic concept. One could say that the current US vogue for campaigning is a idealistic one, based on a quasi-religious belief in its own style of democracy and the need to spread it to all nations, whether it fits their national characteristics or not. This belief that a nation can do no wrong in its own eyes because it is creating an ‘empire’ of ‘freedom’ is, I believe, dangerous because it implies that it accepts no geographical or physical boundaries.

As an aside I was amused to read of the attitude of Vice-Admiral Sir John Fisher, at that time at the top of the leading world power’s navy, when debating the need for a Hague Convention in 1899: ‘The humanising of war! You might as well talk of humanising Hell! The essence of war is violence. Moderation in war is imbecility. Hit first, hit hard and hit anywhere’. He went on: ‘What you call my truculence is all for peace. If you rub it in, both at home and abroad, that you are ready for war with every unit of your strength in the first line and intend to be first in, and hit your enemy in the belly, and kick him when he is down, and boil your prisoners in oil (if you take any) and torture his women and children, then people will keep clear of you’! Perhaps the Americans have something!

Should a democracy be able legitimately to use its army to include suppression of its potential enemies and the spread of its moral and political code? Rupert Smith suggests that Industrial War, the Weinberger/Powell doctrine formulated after the Vietnam War, the all-out struggle between two economic or cultural giants, is a thing of the past. But is it? Recent events which have seen Russia imposing its economic will on Ukraine, and potentially on many European states, could well be interpreted as the first steps in a new power struggle which could end up in the use of military force. Oil, gas, or water in other areas, could be seen as vital interests over which multi-national conflict, in the last resort, might be necessary.

Internal use

Perhaps the most contentious use of an army is when it is used within a nation’s boundaries. Some instances are clearly legal: aid to the Civil Power during national emergencies such as earthquake, flood, fire or national strikes is well practised in this country, as it is in most democratic nations.

It is when the army is used as an armed force in support of the police that one starts to get into difficult areas. I do not suppose that anyone would find it hard to accept the use of soldiers to carry out search and rescue after a terrorist incident. Nor would it be questioned if called upon to provide armed protection of public buildings, cordon suspect areas or impose curfews following the breakdown of law and order in a civil emergency, such as occurred in New Orleans.

But to use the army as a force against its own population, as a political weapon is, I believe, undemocratic and illegal. The use of the Zimbabwe National Army to evict squatters, using armed force to do so, is clearly illegal. The Israelis removed from their houses in the West Bank might feel the same, although that, of course, opens up all sorts of other questions. In a democracy the police force has primary responsibility for upholding the laws of the nation. There is a very fine line between holding apart opposing parties, such as we found in Northern Ireland where the army’s role was and is to support the police, and being actively engaged against one side or the other. Anticipating this problem was why many of the army’s hierarchy were against being deployed in Northern Ireland in 1969. Many saw it as a job for the police and believed that, if the police in Northern Ireland were not adequate, or were viewed as sullied by the community, then police from other forces should have been deployed well before the army was brought in.

The UK is unusual in not having a formal ‘third force’, which can be used to contain internal disorder beyond the capacity of the regular police force. Perhaps, post 9/11 and particularly following the attacks in London last year, parts of our police force, for example the armed sections that are being deployed more regularly, are becoming a de facto third force. However, such forces are often despised and feared by the people they are meant to protect and can too easily be used for political purposes, to restrain comment or intimidate the opposition. I think we are wise to have avoided going down this route formally so far, and should be cautious lest we create an informal force of this nature.

It is interesting to ask when an army, or particularly its leaders, can say ‘No’ to what it sees as its illegal use by a government.  A soldier has a duty to obey but also the right to question an order if he or she thinks it unlawful, though it takes a brave soul to do so. It would be interesting to contemplate how the government might have reacted if the chiefs of defence had declined to obey and resigned en masse over the recent decision to invade Iraq. General Sir Michael Rose, on Martin Bell’s recent TV programme, said that the Chiefs should have taken such a stand and I have good reason to believe that this was, indeed, contemplated. But would that have been enough to persuade Blair to step back from his alliance with Bush? Perhaps the more interesting point about his remark is the indication of just how much law is incorporated in modern military doctrine. Soldiers are very nervous about carrying out actions that are seen as illegal. They know they will have to answer for anything that goes wrong – even if these actions were sanctioned by their civilian superiors. What is even more interesting is the thought that military commanders might be more inclined to follow the law than their civilian superiors. What does this say about a democratic check on armies?

Re-growth of mercenaries

There is one other group that I would like to return to. Recent years have seen the re-emergence of a complicating issue for regular armies. As I said earlier, the use of mercenaries in Europe came to an abrupt end with the onset of the French Revolution. At that stage it became accepted that a man should fight only for his own country, either voluntarily or as a conscript. Indeed it became an unwritten rule that mercenaries should not be used in Europe, although their use elsewhere was considered acceptable.

The 1960s saw the re-emergence of ‘true’ mercenaries. The first Belgian and later French mercenaries started to trickle into Katanga to support Moise Tshombe. The leaders of this campaign, and those they led, were involved in a series of campaigns for the next 25 years in Yemen, Angola, Nigeria, Rhodesia, Comoro Islands, Dominica and the Seychelles.

Mercenaries have always had an unenviable reputation and their behaviour over this period made them so unacceptable that they neared extinction. However, today, with the demise of conscription and plentiful manpower, armies have declined in size and find themselves more and more overstretched while governments try to reduce their spending by outsourcing ever more of their security commitments. Manpower-intensive tasks such as guarding vital infrastructure assets, power stations and pipelines or providing close personal protection for VIPs are being farmed out to Private Military Companies (PMC) or Private Security Companies (PSC) who depend on the employment of ex-servicemen in ever-increasing numbers. For instance Erinys Iraq, one of these companies, was contracted by the Coalition Provisional Authority to recruit and train 14,500 Iraqi personnel, the equivalent of two divisions, to provide static protection to 280 sites. And it is worth noting that in the first Iraq war the ratio of regular troops to PMC personnel was 50:1; in the Second Iraq War 10:1.

However, at present these firms are only loosely controlled, either by the host nation or by their home base countries. This need not be a bad thing; indeed the well-organised and disciplined PMCs can not only relieve the pressure on an army but also produce financial savings in the process. The joy of using mercenaries, and it is hard not to equate PMC personnel to mercenaries, is that they are often on short-term contracts and therefore come without the financial baggage of regular soldiers. Furthermore, they can be disowned by the nations they are drawn from whilst, at the same time, they carry out tasks that a home nation would not wish its own regular troops to undertake. For the country within which they are operating, however, there is some risk. Mercenaries are notoriously undisciplined, own no allegiance to the hiring nation and, if paid enough, can quickly turn against their original hirers. They can destabilise and then depart, leaving the host nation to pick up the pieces. There is no sign of current PMCs doing this at present but it is conceivable that if the situation in Iraq become totally unstable a PMC might have to withdraw at short notice leaving a vacuum behind.

PMCs can also have a negative effect on a regular army. If soldiers are overstretched and underpaid, as they normally are, the temptation is for them to become more responsive to chequebooks than democratic control. Our specialist forces (SAS and Parachute Regiment) are haemorrhaging personnel lured by the inflated wage packets of PMCs, and recruiting generally is also being affected.

It is not easy for governments today to disown the work of such firms, whose actions can have a direct result, for good or bad, on their home nation’s policies. For instance, the murder of four American civilians in Iraq led pretty directly to the US Army’s decision to ‘sort out’ Fallujah, and the film of Aegis civilian security personnel firing at a civilian car could well have been used as a recruiting agent for insurgents in Iraq.  There are now so many firms working in this field and they have so much influence that perhaps the time has come for governments to legitimise them in some way. In fact the Canadian and, more recently, South African governments now have regulations in place which mean that none of their citizens can work as armed security personnel, full stop. If they are found to have done so, they can be summarily arrested on their return to their homeland, though I believe that this is not happening yet in South Africa. There is some evidence that the UK Government is also starting to work slowly towards regulation


War should be the outcome of political failure and therefore a matter of choice: do we submit to a threat or is the only option left to fight? It is not obligatory nor, like marriage, ‘by any to be enterprised, nor taken in hand, unadvisedly, lightly, or wantonly; but reverently, discreetly, advisedly, soberly, and in the fear of God’. As fewer and fewer politicians have direct experience of war perhaps, as Michael Rose implies, they have become careless about how and when they resort to force whilst other options remain open.

The outcome of war is never as predictable as politicians would want: not so much the outcome of the war itself, perhaps, but the reconstruction and pacification of the defeated country afterwards. And can a country or a people be defeated today? Some of us would doubt that as the resources available to the guerrilla or resistance fighter have become greater. Look at the difficulties in the Balkans, Afghanistan and Iraq: politicians are only now becoming aware that ‘peacekeeping’ can create internal conflicts of its own as a result of over-reaction by peacekeepers against some faction or other, so creating even greater support of an insurgency.

Operating outside alliance-limited borders makes an operation of war much more questionable as to its legitimacy. Perhaps this has become a more openly debated matter since the Iraq 2 operation: I know it was of such concern to our Chief of Defence Staff that he asked for a formal legal ruling as to the legitimacy of the war, and, by extension, his authority to deploy our forces in the Gulf. Following the Iraq war and its political fallout it will take a brave nation to go to war with anybody except its direct neighbours without the full sanction of the UN or, perhaps, NATO. Some might say that the USA is now in the unique position of not having to bother about alliance approval although, personally, I think this is doubtful.

Many would question why we in the UK need an army more powerful than that needed to counter any perceived threat to our boundaries, which have not been under physical attack for over 50 years and have not been invaded for almost a thousand. It could be argued that there is no discernable direct threat to us, other than terrorism, now that the Soviet Union has collapsed and if one discounts the idea of nuclear strikes from Korea or Iran. The next superpowers would appear to be China, with India some years behind, and both are of little threat to us.

However, the fact is that the UK now sees itself as part of a global army defending democracy wherever it is found outside our boundaries. Sierra Leone would be a good example; Iraq a bad one! And to that end it will maintain an army rather larger than perhaps is needed only to guard our boundaries and those of our allies. Whether this is right or wrong I leave to you to debate.

Major-General Tim Toyne Sewell has been Director of Goodenough College, a residential institution for international postgraduate students in London  for the past eleven years. He was Commandant of the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst, 1991-94, and before that trained President Robert Mugabe’s army at a time when Zimbabwe was heavily involved in Mozambique’s civil war.




Alexandra M. Dias: As a student of International Relations investigating interstate war in the post-Cold War era, I am very fortunate to have the opportunity to speak here today. My intention is to highlight points raised by the speaker that appear in theoretical debates about contemporary patterns of warfare.

It has often been highlighted in literature that the use of mercenaries is fundamental to the transformation that we see today in warfare. The combination of irregular combatants with conventional armed forces is best understood by taking into account a long historical perspective. If we look at the relationship between war-making and state-making in Europe, we find that a key feature of state creation is the prospect of external threats which highlights the importance of using armies to defend territories. On the other hand, if the Western Modern Sovereign State model is expanded to the rest of the world, one would find situations where in fact, there are no external threats.  

We see this in the process of creating national armies in Zimbabwe and Mozambique where the patterns of warfare in Africa reflect a very low saliency of interstate wars. This is because one of the key central tenets of the international relations of post-independence Africa is to stick to what you have at the time of Independence (the principle of uti possidetis). As such, territorial integrity in Africa has been one of the key components of sovereignty and the ruling elite are not faced with the same kind of external threats that accompanied the process of state formation in Europe. Clearly, the role of national armies in these countries would also be different. 

Some might argue – as Jeffrey Herbst does – that one of the reasons African nations are weak is that they do not face any external threats. However, the relationship between warfare and state formation is very complex and in most circumstances, the outcome is uncertain. One cannot assume that the way the process evolved and unfolded in Europe will repeat itself in other parts of the world.

Another point that I would like to highlight from the speaker’s presentation is the theoretical assumption that the concept of the state existed in Africa (and other parts of the world) according to the Western Modern Sovereign State model. It is clear that the situation in many African nations is one where the state does not have a monopoly of the legitimate use of violence. As such, national armies do play a key role in quashing the various insurgency movements that spring up within the country . Bear in mind however – and this I feel is a key deficiency in the speaker’s paper - that with the decrease in interstate wars after the Second World War as well as the decrease of the importance of territory as a main cause of war (based on the stable empirical observation that democracies do not fight each other); the role of the army is now uncertain.

There is a second part to the literature that emerged at the end of the Cold War that emphasised an observed decrease in saliency and importance of territory. In reality, although there are not as many cases of interstate war in the Northern Hemisphere today, territory is still considered to be sacred. Similarly in other parts of the world, territory is still a central component of sovereignty as case studies in my research have shown. 

The three cardinal rules of international society are the non-use of force, sovereignty and non-intervention. A state is only entitled to recourse to the use of force for the purpose of self defence (under Chapter 7 of the UN Security Council Authorisation) as well as the more controversial challenge of humanitarian intervention. During the Cold War period, we had only three circumstances of the use of force for humanitarian purposes. These are: the case of India intervening in Pakistan which led to the creation of the state of Bangladesh; the case of Tanzania intervening in Uganda because of the atrocities perpetrated by Idi Amin; and the Vietnam-Cambodia conflict against the Pol Pot regime. Although the outcomes may be considered to be legitimate, they were perceived – in some quarters – to be illegal.

After the end of the Cold War, there has been a greater emphasis on human rights as an ethical orientation for foreign policy. For instance, Nicholas Wheeler from Aberystwyth University has defended the obligation to save strangers and to use force to prevent mass killings.


General Discussion

Dr. Andrew Hegarty: In the light of the distinction between a citizen or conscript army and a volunteer army, I should like to raise the question of the kind of discipline that can be imposed. Wellington, I think, once made the point that the then French army – being a citizen army – could afford to have lighter discipline, while the volunteer British army – being full of what he considered ‘the scum of the earth’ – required the sanction of flogging which he defended to the very end.

There would appear today to be a major diminution of harsh discipline (no longer flogging, of course) in the British army, often on grounds of human rights. Can volunteer armies be kept under control without a relatively strict regime of discipline?

Major-General Tim Toyne-Sewell: A situation that clearly illustrates your point is the feeling of young officers returning from Iraq who, only partly in jest, suggest that it is sensible to consult a solicitor prior to taking aggressive action. This caution is inhibiting the use of legitimate force.

We saw this in Northern Ireland as well. In the early days, when there was street fighting every day, the Army was relative free to retaliate. However, as the number of incidents decreased the freedom to react became more difficult because soldiers feared that they might be wrongly accused of over-reaction and therefore took the soft option of doing nothing. The fear of the law leads to hesitancy which is not healthy in soldiers facing uncertainty.

This situation has been made worse in Iraq and while I do not deny that soldiers should be under the rule of law, I believe that the law is sometimes not very practical in appreciating situations that soldiers can find themselves in. Certainly, it makes the job of a commander much more difficult if he has to constantly worry about ending up in court as a result of an immediate reaction to a violent action against him or his people. 

With regards to individual discipline, it is undoubtedly a much more difficult situation now as well. Soldiers today are not as attuned to extreme discipline and they are more likely to question the reasoning behind the orders they are given. This was never the case when I was a young officer; soldiers usually did what they were told without question, whatever their private reservations. Soldiers today are much better educated; one finds soldiers with university degrees at the lowest ranks of the army.

Certainly, I would not want to be a young officer in ten year’s time because discipline is going to become more difficult to impose. In my day the penalties for minor misdemeanours were harsh. If a soldier passed wind in the wrong direction, he would get twenty eight days in the regimental jug and no one batted an eyelid! Today, one has to go through all sorts of red tape before a misbehaving soldier can be properly disciplined.

Some people think that discipline in the Army is there for its own sake. In my view discipline is there to protect the individual and the group that he or she is working with. Without discipline, it would be very difficult to keep the cohesion necessary in any armed unit. 

Dr. Andrew Hegarty: I take it then that you think it a serious problem?

Major-General Tim Toyne-Sewell: It is a very big problem. 

Dr. Andrew Hegarty: Could mercenaries be – in some ways – more disciplined? 

Major-General Tim Toyne-Sewell: I doubt if mercenaries are more disciplined. After all, the ultimate sanction for a mercenary is to send him packing. Generally, mercenaries are loyal to one thing: money (much like working for a large firm in the city!).

Today, the more reputable mercenary companies have a very strict disciplinary regime. For instance, I know of an incident involving the videotaping of some private security personnel shooting at a car that was approaching them in Iraq. The public was outraged at the apparent lack of discipline. However, this incident was investigated by a Queen’s Counsel who concluded that, while the actual incident (the shooting) was justified, the commentary that accompanied the video recording (which was intended by one of the men to be a funny film) was not. In other words, the shooting was deemed to be a legal use of force and the company’s disciplinary rules were adequate.


Prof. Dennis O’Keeffe: I am inclined to ask you whether you think that the concept of having an army is dying off in so -called advanced societies. There is such a deep repugnance for military activity of any kind in these societies, which is often unjustly and unwisely expressed. It does seem that in all these advanced capitalist societies, we have now ended up with populations who do not want to go to war and do not want to see their sons coming home in body bags. They simply are not willing to face the fact that there is a lot of unfinished business and the so-called ‘free world’ still has many enemies.

Clearly, the totalitarian states were not subject to the processes which produced peace (or an inclination towards it) in the advanced market economies. However, they are all gone now one way or another. On the other hand, Third World Countries generally do not share this repugnance for war. In fact, they seem devoted en masse – particularly in Africa – to murdering each other in very large numbers.

Having said that, they do not threaten us very much either. The thing that does threaten us is a non-nationally based religious ideology like Islam which can move everywhere so that one cannot get a fix on where it is.

Major-General Tim Toyne-Sewell: I can see what you are getting at. Armies are getting smaller and smaller particularly as other professions appear to be more attractive in this day and age. The Forces are an essential national service but fewer and fewer people are getting involved. For instance, there are, I think, only two ex-servicemen in the House of Commons. It is becoming more difficult to recruit people into the army. We are currently 105,000 strong on paper (or meant to be) but I think we are still five or six thousand short.

Prof. Dennis O’Keeffe: Imagine having to fight the Second World War with reporters near the frontline in Germany making sure that not too many Germans are killed! That is exactly what it would be like if there was another war of that magnitude today.

Major-General Tim Toyne-Sewell: I think that is right because the media plays a huge part on the ability of a country to go to war today. The first body bags that are sent home are the biggest deterrents to those who want to join the army (not to mention to their mothers!). Of course, this is a fairly new situation; soldiers used to be buried where they fell and therefore fatalities were not as visible as they are today.

Rupert Smith’s new book is interesting because in it he forecasts that the conventional army of today is really a thing of the past. He argues that major wars will be fought much more by irregular forces, maybe even irregular police forces, with surrogate armies playing the role of today’s conventional forces.

If this is indeed the case, all Western democracies are going to have to completely rethink the reorganisation of their armies and to reconsider the role that they will play as well as their allocation of material resources. Furthermore, the situation today is very likely to be different in ten years time and will need regular, rigorous review..


Alexandra Dias: I would like to highlight here that the privatisation of warfare through the use of private military companies (which is a key characteristic of the situation in Iraq today) is one of the general concerns in the literature. It raises many complex questions about the role that they play and the accountability of these companies.

Neil Pickering: In this era of globalisation, there is a lot of shifting of spheres of influence specifically in Africa (where Mugabe recently said that the sun is setting in the West and rising in the East) also with China, whose growing influence in various areas is related to the demand for oil. How much do you see this influencing and handcuffing America’s desire to assert itself in the area of in human rights, using sanctions and even military force?

Major-General Tim Toyne-Sewell: As I mentioned earlier, I went to Zimbabwe in November and the flight from Johannesburg had over forty Chinese on it. They were not carrying briefcases and it was quite evident that they did not intend to do business in Zimbabwe. Most of these people were going to work on the farms, displacing African labour, and this is another way that Chinese influence will continue to spread rapidly into Africa.

Although Chinese influence did not spread deeply into Tanzania when Nyerere came to power, despite fears that the influence of China as well as his own influence would become a permanent fixture in Africa, there is a real concern today that the human rights practices of China will infiltrate parts of the Third World where China has growing influence. Undoubtedly, China is progressing extremely strongly at the moment and Africa is its target for new materials. Eventually China will restrict America’s influence, particular in Africa.

Neil Pickering: One would probably regard the United States of America as the only real superpower left in the world. Nevertheless, Chinese influence in Africa has become so strong that the U.S.A may think twice about putting pressure on Africa. In that respect, I wondered what your feeling is on potential problems, for instance the Taiwan issue.

Major-General Tim Toyne-Sewell: Well, you are expert on China. I would be fascinated to hear what your response to that would be.

Neil Pickering: It is said that any statement of Taiwan’s independence from China presents serious problems because of the stance of America and Japan. However, it is very difficult to imagine the prospect of war over Taiwan in the future. China has always regarded the issue of Taiwan as an ‘internal problem’. The One Country Two Systems approach was really meant for Taiwan, not Hong Kong. One way for the situation to develop is for this system to work as well in Taiwan as it has in Hong Kong, alongside China’s own approach evolving satisfactorily over the next fifty years. 

Major-General Tim Toyne-Sewell: I do not think the size of the Chinese and Indian armies have decreased very much over the last few years and both are huge relative to the rest of the world. These vast armies are still potent and should not be underestimated.

Prof. Dennis O’Keeffe: It is interesting to note that while the West won the war – first of all the Hot War against the Third Reich and then the Cold War against Communism – the societies which we defeated still have a similar military structure vis-à-vis social control. For instance, their police are a lot more military-like compared to our police. As for China’s army, it is mostly about retaining control for the élite is it not?

Major-General Tim Toyne-Sewell: If you look at the Soviet Army, it has gone from being held in the highest possible regard to its situation today where it is denigrated by almost everyone. It is no exaggeration to say that the Russian military services are living in appalling conditions. I visited a Russian military academy in Stalingrad, just before it became St. Petersburg, and the commander was almost crying into his whiskey at the thought of the conditions that his soldiers were having to live in.

Conditions have not improved enormously since then but the Russians are now moving towards a professional volunteer army. This is a better situation for their soldiers because at least they will be properly paid, fed and housed


Peter Brown: Did you say that 105,000 was the strength of the British Army? 

Major-General Tim Toyne-Sewell: Yes, I think so. However, I have not checked the exact figure. [Afternote: Whittaker’s 2006 quote the strength as 107,800 in 2005]

Peter Brown: If you were doing an analysis for the British Army as you mentioned you were doing for Mr. Mugabe, would you come up with the figure of 105,000? 

Major-General Tim Toyne-Sewell: That is difficult to say. With the operations that the British Army is currently committed to, I would say that we are between four to ten battalions short; and this is just infantry. Certainly, a bigger army is needed to take on current commitments so that personnel can be allowed time to recover from one operation before they go back on another.

Peter Brown: How does our army compare in size with the armies of similar European nations such as France or Germany? 

Major-General Tim Toyne-Sewell: France has also given up conscription fairly recently and is moving towards a professional army. I cannot say anything about the German army as I am not up to speed on recent developments


Russell Wilcox: My questions are for both the speaker and the discussant. Do you think that the process that was described as having peaked in the Second World War is moving us away from a ‘total’ war to a more ill-defined type of conflict? Do you think that that is a part of a broader historical process by which coercion, suppression and even physical repression are being gradually internalised or made more subtle?

Alexandra Dias: The events that followed 9/11 and the American War on Terrorism clearly illustrate this situation. Not only is the definition of the War on Terrorism very controversial, it is also very difficult to identify the nature of the enemy because of the emergence of non-state actors and involvement of irregular combatants. One of the key challenges in Iraq is the establishment (from a legal perspective) of the distinction between conventional combatants and civilians or non -identified combatants who participate in armed violence. How can the enemy be identified when there is such a diverse insurgency movement?

Russell Wilcox: One of the legal experts in the British Army gave a talk in London about two weeks ago and he said that the situation we see today is the effect of the inadequacy of the present framework of international law. One of the things that he pointed to was the difficulty the soldiers face working under a framework of law which is becoming increasingly unrealistic and he suggested that there is an emergence of a new hybrid type of conflict which is unlike the older models of armed conflict. The theoretical categories of international law will have to be expanded to deal with this new situation.

Major-General Tim Toyne-Sewell: I think that is probably right; there is huge confusion in the army, especially from the legal perspective. Take for instance, the identification of your enemy; thirty or forty years ago, a soldier would not even have to think about it. Today, if the enemy is even identifiable as such, a soldier has to decide whether or not to intervene; whether to respond positively or remain passive. I do not think that the law can cope with the current situation.


Oliver Bloor: Perhaps some of the problems that have arisen from the American interference in Iraq (essentially, someone else’s conflict) arise from their enthusiasm to outsource some of their fighting capability and their reluctance to see body bags with American soldiers coming back. I wonder if there is a risk of Britain being regarded as part of this outsourcing process and its role perhaps taking on a mercenary quality.

Major-General Tim Toyne-Sewell: That is an interesting thought. I suppose you could say that we have outsourced to a certain extent with the use of the Ghurkhas. Also, you could say that the French have outsourced with the French Foreign Legion as it is made up of various people from all parts of the world. Nonetheless, I am certain that we are not actually paid by the Americans to do their work and hope that we will not come to that. You could say however, that we are being used more than perhaps we should be.


Prof. Dennis O’Keeffe: I thought what Russell said about coercion was very interesting. There has not been a great deal of work done in the sociology of coercion but I think it is a key factor in all this. Recently, I have been doing some work on the French Catholic economist Frederic Bastier who lived between 1800 and 1850. He said – in a number of brilliant essays – that the characteristic of all the previous historical eras that he had read about is the fact that their control structures relied very heavily upon coercion. Further to that, he said that the development of the market economy for the first time introduces the possibility of having a control structure based on agreement.

This of course, is the novelty of modern capitalism; the change in the structure of social control moving from coercion to agreement and consensus. The situation today is such that almost all aspects of life (vis-à-vis marriage, school and religion for instance) have become consensual so much so that it is difficult for us to contemplate people for whom these rules are not present. Al-Qaeda does not try to persuade; they use bombs and other threats to coerce.

In the long run – assuming the consensual societies outlive the coercive ones – the whole world could live in predominantly consensual societies. There is a problem today however of a coercive insurgence that is demanding and looking for its own nuclear weapons.

Major-General Tim Toyne-Sewell: You could say that our navy is coercive as well. If the captain of a ship hears the sound of guns he goes to war and no one else aboard can do anything about it! In the army however, you have persuade each individual soldier to get out of his foxhole, despite a natural inclination to remain in safety, and then provide the inspiration for him to follow you.

Russell Wilcox: I do not think that all previous societies prior to modern liberal democratic societies were coercive.

Prof. Dennis O’Keeffe: Yes, tribal societies were often consensual.

Russell Wilcox: Of course many people – for instance, reconstructed Marxists-humanists – say that we live in a different type of coerced society, perhaps one even more profoundly so. It just happens to be more subtle.

Prof. Dennis O’Keeffe: That is typical of the Marxists; they fall down on the British philosophical rule that everything is what it is and not some other thing. If it looks like a free society, it is very likely to be one.

Major-General Tim Toyne-Sewell: I did find that it was remarkably consensual in Zimbabwe back in the 1980s. Proposals or suggestions were never acted upon straight away; lengthy discussion had to take place before any decisions were made.

Prof. Dennis O’Keeffe: Perhaps the populace has now worked out how evil that man really is.  

Major-General Tim Toyne-Sewell: That could be a question for another time, perhaps. Certainly when I was there, he was regarded as the great man of Africa. After all, Mandela was still in prison and Zimbabwe had done some quite remarkable things since independence.


Prof. Christopher Martin: If we take the market as the model for consensual kinds of society, and if we take the context of the use of violence and the army, then we should be pushing towards the use of mercenaries because that is a purely market arrangement. However, I think there is something faulty about this reasoning and that the old definition of a state has some value. Clearly, there are some occasions and aspects within society which – as on a ship – have to be coercive. We should not aim at looking for a purely consensual model; particularly not the consensual model of market and particularly not in the realm of warfare.

Major-General Tim Toyne-Sewell: As you rightly say, market forces are playing a tremendous part in the growth of private companies and this situation has to be thought about very seriously at the top levels. The subject has become hot in the past two or three years but Iraq has really been the catalyst for its recent popularity. All of a sudden, people are starting to consider the role of these private companies but I do not think we have got any answers yet.


Alexandra Dias: I would just like to reinforce again the importance of regulating, reflecting and advancing research on the role of private military companies, not only in humanitarian intervention but also in providing security for humanitarian agencies and NGOs.

Russell Wilcox: Do these companies play a significant role in the Horn of Africa (which I know is your particular specialty)?

Alexandra Dias: Not in the cases that I have been studying. The 1998-2000 war between Ethiopia and Eritrea exclusively involved conventional forces.

Dr. Andrew Hegarty: I would like to follow up what you, Alexandra, said about the nature of Islamic societies. A classic example for me is the old Army of India, which in 1948 was divided into what are today the national Indian and Pakistani armies. I think it is true to say that the Indian army has never really intervened in politics, while the military in Pakistan has scarcely been out of it! I should like to know if you have found in the Horn of Africa any similar reluctance to ‘compartmentalise’ politics, religion and the use of military force.

Alexandra Dias: In the two cases that I have been studying, the statistics are downplayed to some extent so that the percentage of Muslims in these societies is far more expressive than what actually comes out in the numbers. In both Ethiopia and Eritrea, we are dealing with very diverse societies where the elite come from ethnic groups who identify with the Abyssinians (who are from a Christian Orthodox tradition). Of course, other groups from different ethnic and religious backgrounds also play a role.

 In these cases, we have some of the best-armed armies in Africa. The Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF) and the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) inherited huge contingents of soldiers and arms from the previous Communist régime which was supported by the Soviet Union.

In other parts of Africa, the military has also played a very important role in politics. We see this in the various coups d’état that have been carried out in this region as well as the takeover of various African governments by the military.