Last week, members of the Cambridge Union voted to reject the motion that "This House Would Fight For Queen And Country" after speeches from Dan Jarvis MP, Kevan Jones MP, Michael Codnor of RUSI among others.
In arguing that this house would not fight for Queen and Country, Ben Jones calls for self-reflection rather than unquestioning patriotism for those who might support such a notion. Ben Jones is a second-year Politics and International Relations student at Homerton College, Cambridge. He spent time in Benghazi during the Libyan uprising and has experience of post-conflict environments in Iraq and Lebanon.
This house would not fight for Queen and country, just as this house would not fight for the Supreme Leader, the Fuhrer, the Great Overlord, the Heavenly King nor anyone else who claims the right to potentially dispense with my life without sufficient justification. It is not sufficient to say 'I would die for a country', for it is never a country that sends people into battle. It is politicians - people - who are often immoral and frequently incorrect.
Practically, to say that I would fight for my country is to say 'I give my morality to whoever happens to be in charge, and I am prepared to kill - and be killed - depending on their decisions.' It is to mask a political act with a patriotic veneer. Political acts are often subject to moral scrutiny. The unreflective patriot, however, never subjects love of country to moral scrutiny.
How many tragedies could have been prevented if no one was unthinkingly loyal? If people had said not 'Heil Hitler', but 'So then Adolf, why exactly is it that I should follow your orders?' Unreflective patriotism entails a willingness to unthinkingly obey the representative of your country. The unreflective patriot does not ask 'why', but 'how'. If soldiers never question 'why' then the most immoral and irrational leaders find their orders obeyed unflinchingly. How many people have died because no one ever asked 'why'? If we say that we will fight for Queen and country, we imply that it is good enough, when the battle is over or the genocide complete, to declare 'I was just following orders'. Sometimes, it is right to disobey orders.
Now, there are cases when soldiers are sent into combat for causes which are worth fighting for. The soldier, however, does not choose the terms of his or her deployment. It is not the soldier who decides whether the deployment is to Berlin or Baghdad. Soldiers do not choose their leaders. Nor do they choose their orders.
Furthermore, only a tiny number of internationally mobile people have the opportunity to choose their country of allegiance. For the vast majority of people, to affirm one's country is to affirm any other characteristic which you have no control over. It is no more logical to say 'I am proud to be American' than it is to say 'I am proud to have blue eyes' or 'I am proud to be of the Nuer tribe' or 'I am proud to be white' or 'I will be proud to fight for whatever politician, ostensibly representing my Queen and country, may send me into battle in 10 years time'. It is irrational to unconditionally declare allegiance to any of these things, as none of them are chosen.
If it is not morally right to fight for someone you have no control over and to obey orders unflinchingly, then when is it right to fight? There are of course times when it is absolutely necessary to fight. I would fight for liberty, for example. I would fight for education. I would fight for the rights of the persecuted. The exact values for which people will fight for will differ. I may fight for freedom whilst you are more inclined to fight for equality. However, if we all made a commitment to fight not for Queen, nor country, nor tribe, nor Fuhrer, but for chosen values - then how many more wars could have been prevented?
For when people are willing to choose what they will fight for, and think critically of what they value, then people are willing to debate and engage one another. I want a future of fighters. But if we choose what we fight for, then it is far more likely that that fighting can be kept within the domain of the negotiation table, the press, and civil society - and not on the zero-sum arena of the battlefield. We will be able to understand the concerns of others, rather than fighting simply because your perceived national interest does not align with mine. Unconditional patriotism opposes my national interest with your national interest. Our human interest dictates that we should seek resolution through dialogue, not conflict.
The conscientious objectors of World War One were largely condemned. Some were even executed for choosing to not fight for what they did not believe in. Nowadays, many applaud their courage. Fighting for Queen and country may well coincide with fighting for fine values critically reflected on for causes which are as virtuous as they are considered. Remember the millions of brave men and women who gave their lives to fight the evils of totalitarianism in World War Two. Regardless of their individual reasons for fighting, they nonetheless fought for freedom from tyranny. They would not have had to give their lives, however, if the adherents of those regimes they fought against had valued only sentiments critically and rationally reflected upon, and not instead followed a national ideology with some degree of unconditional patriotism.
If, therefore, you are willing to answer yes to the question 'would you fight for queen and country', then at least make sure that you can answer 'why'. By all means be a patriot if you wish. But please, don't be unreflective.