In his thoughtful account of the closing days of the Second World War, Max Hastings argues that the character of the conflict in western Europe was determined by the character of the western democracies themselves. The armies of Britain, America and their associates, he suggests, may have lacked the ruthless military prowess and determination of the German and Soviet forces, but ‘fought as bravely and well as any democracy could ask, if the values of civilisation were to be retained in their ranks’.
When Churchill and Roosevelt invoked ‘Christian Civilization’ as the grand cause worthy of sacrifice, they were not so much making a religious statement as appealing to a shared sense of identity which they expected their listeners to understand and relate to.
Seventy-five years later, it is by no means evident that this shared identity still holds. In this series articles published by From Balloons to Drones and The Central Blue considering the possibility of high-intensity war in the future, it is worth pausing to reflect on this relationship between political culture and military sacrifice, and some of its implications.
As peace returned to the shattered remains of Europe in 1945, some positive developments followed in its wake. West of the Oder, at least, liberal democracy seemed to strike deeper roots than ever before, going hand in hand with a prosperity that followed a solid upward trajectory. Across the Atlantic, America abandoned isolationism and committed itself to be both the guardian and bankroller of freedom. The only primary rival in town, Marxist-Leninism, was seen off the stage after 1990 – it seemed as if the liberal democratic steamroller would flatten a global path for economic and personal freedom. However, all was not quite as it seemed.
Before considering just how the course of history unravelled after the fall of the Berlin Wall, it is useful to lay out – with a very broad brush – some of the presuppositions that had driven western society up to this point. From the Fall of Rome until the Enlightenment, religious horizons essentially bounded the world, symbolised most powerfully by the Holy Roman Emperor kneeling in the snow at Canossa. Architecture, art, and music all reflected this human concern about relating to the divine. Come the Enlightenment; the focus changed to working out what kind of world humans could create for themselves, relying on their unfettered reason and empirical discoveries. This was the age of science and developing democracy, which held out a dream of unending human progress. The waves of devastation which swept across Europe twice in the first half of the twentieth century cruelly mocked any such hopes. The last spasms of Enlightenment optimism at least gave birth to the liberal democratic project which seemed to triumph – and had been worth making sacrifices for.
However, the liberal democratic project rested on increasingly shaky foundations. Premodern people could find their certainties in religious truth. Enthusiasts for the Enlightenment could base their philosophy on a confidence that the truth was out there for any rational person to discover. Although these two views were divergent in almost every respect, they had this in common – a belief in a transcendent universe which provided a framework for understanding the place of human beings in the world.
As James Davison Hunter expresses it, there was a ‘common grammar for recognising the natural affections and moral sentiments shared by all humanity…the seeds of social solidarity could be found in human sentiments, the public good within private interests, the universal within the individual’. This is precisely the transcendent worldview assumed by Churchill and Roosevelt in 1945. One of the tragic ironies of recent history is that, just as the liberal democratic project appeared to triumph, its internal coherence began to dissolve.
To put it crudely, liberal democracy bifurcated into liberal and democratic elements. Regarding liberalism, this was not the classic liberalism that Adam Smith would have recognised. Instead, it is something new – neoliberalism. The underlying assumption behind this concept is that the market is sovereign – and not merely over economic issues. Based on the theory of Friedrich Hayek, nothing has a given and immutable value – even those aspects of human significance and meaning that previous generations would have treated as normative.
Objective truth is no longer ‘out there’ to be revealed or reasoned out but is determined by what the market will bear. As Stephen Metcalf points out, the old political processes of public reason – debate and thoughtful argument – are incongruent with this process, as in market terms they are simply opinions.
What happens instead is that the public square ‘ceases to be a space for deliberation, and becomes a market in clicks, likes and retweets’. There is no longer a shared, transcendent mise en scène for human existence. Virtues have transformed into values – individually held and formulated – but of no binding or enduring significance.
Regarding democracy, the individual now has an unprecedented status. Once seen in relation to divinity or wider society, human beings are now increasingly regarded as sovereign agents. As the public sphere has become eviscerated of a shared cultural story, the individual is now free to decide his or her path through life.
Alternatively, so the theory goes. Jackson Lears expresses it like this – ‘redefined as human capital, each person becomes a little firm with assets, debts, and a credit score anxiously scrutinised for signs of success or failure’. The individual may be freer to choose than ever before, but also carries an increasingly heavy burden for their destiny. Lacking the safeguards of a benevolent Providence – or a paternalistic society – the individual must shift for themselves.
The mantra that every schoolchild knows so well – ‘follow your dreams and you can achieve whatever you want’ has a darker side that few if any primary school assemblies ever spell out. Failure to achieve those dreams or ambitions will be your responsibility alone. In such a culture, the individual faces an unrelenting pressure to boost their own image and status above all else. For example, an intriguing textual analysis of Norway’s main national newspaper between 1984 and 2005 revealed that as the occurrence of self-referencing words such as ‘I’ and ‘my’ increased, instances of other-focused concepts such as ‘duty’ and ‘obligation’ declined.
What, if anything, does all this have to do with high-intensity warfare in the twenty-first century? Going back to where we began, the armies which liberated western Europe in 1945 did so against a broadly shared cultural outlook. Britannia, Marianne, and Columbia are hardly identical sisters, but bequeathed a remarkably similar legacy of shared understanding to their descendants – and the freedoms for which they gave their lives had a transcendent quality.
This situation, it may be argued, no longer obtains. Evidence for this can be seen in a wide variety of forms, from Allan Bloom’s analysis of education to Robert Putnam’s influential work on the decline of social cohesion in late twentieth century America. As the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor observes, ‘the individual has been taken out of a rich community life and now enters instead into a series of mobile, changing, revocable associations’. With his or her small stock of human capital, each person makes their way through life via a series of short-term contracts, which run the gamut of human existence from car insurance to employment.
What matters most is the utilitarian and the instrumental – an epistemic ecology where traditional concepts such as humility, duty and sacrifice seem anachronistic surds. Moreover, as analysts of our neoliberal world have suggested, the promised blessings of prosperity and success have not trickled down universally, leading to a considerable degree of cynicism about public life – from fake news to the political establishment. This is not a development which augurs well for a strong common existence. If citizens withdraw from political and civic engagement into a private sphere of personal fulfilment, as Larry Siedentop remarks, liberal freedoms are at risk.
One of the founding principles of modern democracy is that the individual citizen surrenders certain freedoms and benefits to the state in exchange for protection and stability. This relationship is perhaps seen in its starkest form when a nation sends its citizens to war.
In the post-2001 operations, when the legitimacy of the campaigns was subject to intense public scrutiny, this affected the commemoration of those citizens who had given their lives. As Sandra Walklate, K.N. Jenkings and others have observed, repatriation ceremonies became ‘deeply political acts’ protesting against military action, where those who died were remembered as victims of government policy.
Anthony King, in his analysis of the obituaries of British service personnel, comments that the death of soldiers is not seen so much as an act of service for the nation as ‘the meaningful expression of a man who defined himself by his profession’. If the individual is indeed a small firm with a limited stock of human capital, a strong relationship of trust between citizen and society is vital should the citizen be required to sacrifice that capital for a bigger purpose.
Moreover, this is the nub of the argument. As Alexis de Tocqueville saw some two centuries ago, a society which favours atomism and instrumentalism undermines the very freedoms which it cherishes. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the freedoms that the western world enjoys have primarily been sustained without significant periods of high-intensity conflict – and the associated heavy demands of blood and treasure.
Future military operations may not follow this pattern, and free nations may have to pay a large price for such nebulous terms as liberty and democracy. A worldview furnished from the moral stockroom of utilitarian instrumentalism will offer little strength in such circumstances. To quote Taylor again, ‘high standards need strong sources’ – a stripped down public square does not provide the wherewithal to sustain a deep understanding of human meaning and purpose. Churchill and Roosevelt saw the battle that they were engaged in as something more than a struggle over resources and the possession of territory.
Alternatively, in other words, they understood the need for spiritual resilience – an awareness that human existence cannot be reduced to a profit and loss transaction. The free society which values the individual did not arise from an instrumentalist worldview – indeed Siedentop has recently published a fascinating volume which explicitly traces the development of modern liberal equality right back to Christian thinkers in the middle ages.
One does not need to share the faith of these scholars to appreciate their insights. Perhaps it is time to pause in our pursuit of relentless individualism to consider the bigger truths of the world to which we belong.
Davison Hunter remarks that our current cultural trajectory is likely set to bend us away from the very concepts of justice, freedom, and tolerance that we treasure. Before we are called upon to defend these convictions in intensive conflict, it is undoubtedly worth reflecting on why they are worth defending in the first place.
The Reverend Dr (Wing Commander) David Richardson is a chaplain in the Royal Air Force, initially ordained into the Church of Ireland. A graduate of the universities of Edinburgh, Dublin, Belfast, and King’s College London, he has served on a variety of RAF stations. His operational experience includes tours across Afghanistan and Iraq.
 Max Hastings, Armageddon: The Battle for Germany, 1944-45 (London: Macmillan, 2004) p. 588.
 James Davison Hunter, ‘Liberal Democracy and the Unravelling of the Enlightenment Project,’ The Hedgehog Review, 19:3 (2017).
 Stephen Metcalf, ‘Neoliberalism – the idea that swallowed the world,’ The Guardian, 18 August 2017.
 Jackson Lears, ‘The long con of Neoliberalism,’ The Hedgehog Review, 19:3 (2017).
 Jean Twenge and Keith Campbell, The Narcissism Epidemic (New York, NY: Free Press, 2010), p. 264.
 Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind (London: Penguin, 1987); Robert Putnam, Bowling Alone (New York, NY: Touchstone, 2000).
 Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), p. 502.
 Larry Siedentop, Inventing the Individual (London: Penguin, 2014), p. 363.
 Sandra Walklate, Gabe Mythen and Ross McGarry, ‘Witnessing Wootton Bassett; An Exploration in Cultural Victimology,’ Crime, Media and Culture, 7:2 (2011), pp. 149-65. K.N. Jenkings, N. Megoran, R. Woodward and D. Bos, ‘Wootton Bassett and the political spaces of remembrance and mourning,’ Area, 44:3 (2012), pp. 356-63.
 Anthony King, ‘The Afghan War and ‘postmodern’ memory: commemoration and the dead of Helmand’, The British Journal of Sociology, 61:1 (2010), pp. 1-25.
 Quoted in Taylor, Sources of the Self, p. 502.
 Ibid., p. 516.
 Siedentop, Inventing the Individual.
This article was republished with the permission of The Williams Foundation and was first published in their column The Central Blue.