We’re in the Army Now

We are witnessing the Fringe, with the support of Summerhall and Creative Scotland, become the latest creative partners to support the mainstreaming of militarism within UK culture argues Catrin Evans.

The Edinburgh Fringe is here, and for all the aspects of the Fringe that I find difficult –inaccessible ticket prices, domination of white middle-class (male) voices, and hyper commercialisation, to name a few – I know that I will always experience work that astounds, challenges and inspires me. But this year I feel a deep discomfort with the presence of a new venue run, resourced and managed by the British Army.

Advertising itself as a space to explore ‘what the Army is and what it stands for in 21st Century society’, at first glance the ‘cutting-edge performance programme’ looks thematically pretty challenging. It includes shows dealing with PTSD, and there are some impressive artists and companies lined up to present work. It is only in reading more about Army@The Fringe that my disquiet really sets in.

Located at a ‘real life Army Reserve’ with at least two of the shows developed in direct partnership with the Army itself, the venue will be staffed by serving soldiers. The pieces presented seem focused on the experiences of ‘our’ soldiers past and present, (and in one instance, the police), with little or no space for the narratives of the people affected by, or in opposition to, the actions of the armed forces. How can we genuinely have an in-depth critical debate about what the army stands for if the shows, the staff, and the entire atmosphere of the venue are being stage-managed by the military itself? At least the Tattoo is transparent in its celebration of all things military. It doesn’t purport to be anything other than what it is. Army@The Fringe on the other hand is presenting itself as something quite different; that is, a progressive, accessible institution willing to talk. However, the intention for this space is clearly less about debate and more about making the military familiar, promoting a positive image of the armed forces and impressing Fringe audiences with its ability to put itself under scrutiny.

We are witnessing the Fringe, with the support of Summerhall and Creative Scotland, become the latest creative partners to support the mainstreaming of militarism within UK culture. With their assistance, the Army is strengthening what oil and gas companies refer to as their Social License to Operate; we are being invited into a live advert for the military, rather than a discussion about its role. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if Army@TheFringe is part of the current armed forces recruitment campaign – This is Belonging – which exemplifies how the military is being cleansed of its associations with the horrors of warfare. Bella covered it back in January. Instead, it is being marketed as a way for young people to find a sense of home in an alienating world, whilst also working to recruit wider society into being what David Gee refers to in his excellent book Spectacle, Reality and Resistance as ‘casual militarists’: the average civilian who – out of respect for the troops – has come to accept wars in foreign lands as a natural part of contemporary culture, but neglects to scrutinise the agendas, geopolitical drivers and material consequences of our participation in these so-called necessary conflicts.

Cultural militarism is just one of aspect of a wider militarist agenda currently being driven by the MoD who focus large amounts of time, energy and resources into strengthening the relationship between civilians and military personnel. This has manifested in Armed Forces Day, in soldiers at high-profile events (from sports to reality TV), and in Education projects like Troops to Teachers, which is just one of the ways the government is working to reignite a military-ethos in schools. The ultimate marker of this agenda is the re-branding of Remembrance Day, from Never Forget to Support Our Troops. This has so successfully conflated past wars with current ones that critical debate around ongoing military action is increasingly met with accusations of disloyalty towards those who died in WWI and WWII. The key strategy is to humanise personnel and to make us respect and honour all soldiers – because every soldier is now labelled a hero by default. This is a means of distancing and distracting us from what it is that they actually do. We are all being recruited all the time in a variety of ways. It’s a quiet bombardment and the Fringe is the latest frontline.

The UK is the second largest arms trader in the world and our armed forces have been unceasingly engaged in conflicts around the world for more than a hundred years. There is a vested interest in normalising the armed forces, in helping it be accepted as an intrinsic part of society, rather than an ideological and/or economic choice.

So, where are the raised voices against this cultural propaganda? Is it that we have now reached a point where militarism is so insidious that it can seamlessly be thrown into a traditionally liberal, anti-establishment set up like the Fringe and not only go unnoticed but actually be welcomed by major creative players? Surely this is a moment for the theatre sector to take a long hard look at itself, have some difficult conversations about the ethics of our partnerships, and interrogate why we have become spectators and cheerleaders for this deadly UK hobby.

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Catrin Evans is a Theatre Maker and PHD researcher based in Glasgow. Her work includes Leaving Planet Earth (2013, Grid Iron/Edinburgh International Festival) and Thank You (Oran Mor & BBC Radio Scotland). She is the Artistic Director of A Moment’s Peace Theatre Company.

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Comments (33)

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  1. Tam Dean Burn says:

    What a disgrace. Have Creative Scotland funded this British Army propaganda exercise? That to me is the crux of this matter. It’s blatantly clear from this Guardian article that it’s PR and propaganda and there’s no way that Creative Scotland should be backing this –
    https://www.google.co.uk/amp/s/amp.theguardian.com/culture/2017/may/04/british-army-host-edinburgh-festival-fringe
    I agree completely with Catrin that this is an outrage and questions must be answered.

    1. From the Guardian:

      “The full programme at the venue will be released by Summerhall this month, but one of its main events will be an army-sponsored piece of performance theatre following the lives of new recruits called 5 Soldiers: The Body that is the Frontline.”

    2. Tam Dean Burn says:

      I was wrong on blaming Creative Scotland, Made in Scotland or Scot Gov. it’s not for them to find relationships but the responsibility of the companies involved. As Catrin says, the Scottish theatre community must answer for this.

  2. Jim Bennett says:

    Great article.

  3. Tam Dean Burn says:

    The Made in Scotland Showcase funded directly the Scottish Government are backing this Brit Army propaganda and recruitment exercise right up to the hilt (sic)
    http://armyatthefringe.org

  4. bringiton says:

    So long as it is backed by a Government health warning about the dangers of signing up,there shouldn’t be a problem.

  5. Edward Andrews says:

    As someone who is not a pacifist and who accepts the need for Armed Forces, and that these Armed Forces need to interact with the people whom they are supposed to be working for, I find this article just a little bit twee.
    As long as we are in the United Kingdom we are connected in some way to the British armed forces. When we have our own country and our own Armed Forces then we have much more chance of deciding what they do, but until them we are locked in.
    Of course the Armed Forces have done thing which they shouldn’t, and that is a question which should be being addressed. There are areas of the UK’s defence policy which should be questioned, but we do this not from taking a high and mighty blanket condemnation, but to actually analyse what is being done and therefore being critical of it.
    This squad of outrage does not one any real good because it is not addressing the real problem, that we live in a dangerous world and the British Government is making it more dangerous, which ironically means that we need better defences. At the minute the money which goes into Trident should be used elsewhere in the Defence Budget, for assuredly it is much more dangerous to the people holding it than it is to the opposition.
    Sorry, but I can’t agree with you. Give us something positive which is an alternative of a militarised world given the UK and its arms manufacturing clients, and I will listen with respect. Until then we need to have the best people whom we can becoming part of the Military and they, and more especially their families need the support of the community. There are so many areas where we sell especially the Ex-service people short.

    1. Chris N says:

      I have to agree with Edward. Unless you take a completely pacifist view then there seems nothing to complain about. For most of us this is really, and quite literally, a side show.

      I do not see a problem, no one is forced to go to anything. There is a vast amount of stuff in the Fringe, some of it aimed at very specialist interests. The chance to see something of military life looks like a valuable contribution to the events if anything.

      Now how about directing the anger at a more serious and meaningful target?

    2. I’m not a pacifist. But the Belonging campaign is an absolute disgrace and the author raises important issues about the militarisation of civic society.

  6. Hamish MacDonald says:

    Superb article.

  7. Tom says:

    Maybe there’s another ‘Black Watch’ in this programme somewhere?

    That was a form of propaganda too, and from our very own National Theatre of Scotland (and, just like this year’s Fringe/Summerhall ‘army’ programme, also subsidised by the Scottish government/Creative Scotland).

    Why don’t we wait and see what this year’s army programme delivers (maybe Tam Dean Burn will be surprised), and then express our anger/displeasure, if that proves appropriate, once we know?

    But please, no boycotts! Freedom of expression is what a Festival is all about (or should be).

    1. Pete says:

      The author didn’t call for a boycott. They called for discusssion and critical debate and expressed very articulately their discomfort at the presence of this venue and what it means.
      They are not commenting on the quality of the theatre.
      Freedom of expression as expressed by the armed forces is not freedom of expression as they are an authoritarian hierarchy.

    2. Nobody argued for a boycott

  8. Pogliaghi says:

    Further to the prefatory remarks of the above commenter I’m not a pacifist either, I actually find war culturally and intellectually very stimulating* but the teeth-gratingly cringey astroturf of the British army (of which this is just the latest manifestation) is undeniably creeping militarism and it is a bad sign. We have a norm in Western liberal democracies that the armed forces don’t get involved in politics. The branches of the state which exercise its monopoly on violence are not qualitatively the same as other public sector workers like teachers,doctors, nurses, the BBC even, or Oxfam. They do not need to “communicate” with the public or do “outreach”. They need to communicate with Whitehall and follow orders. But in this day and age when large bureaucracies of every shape sprout PR departments like fungal infections, it’s hardly surprising the UK army can position itself almost as some kind of charity or public service. The people who manufacture the UK army’s astroturf probably aren’t even aware of their own bad smell. They probably sincerely think they’re doing something as innocuous as marketing Coca Cola or Help The Aged.

    The normal place this infection spreads, by the way, is to uni freshers’ weeks. I think what “army@thefringe” portends more than anything actually, is the naffness of the festival. But the quangos are too busy counting their notes to give a damn about (or intelligently steward) its long term cachet. Probably it’s high time to pop the “Festival” bubble.

    * Guy Debord was a big wargamer!

  9. David McGill says:

    Would it not be wiser to review this show after it has been performed.

    1. Pete says:

      It’s not about “a show”. This article is not a review (although it does link to an excellent review of one of the pieces that will appear).

      This is examining what is means for society when the armed forces are positioned as some kind of cultural export. The creeping normalisation of army presence in civilian areas is in need of urgent critical debate.

  10. Darby O'Gill says:

    Would it not be wiser to review this show after it has been performed?

    1. It’s not a review – it’s not about the content of the show – it’s about the principle of Army sponsored theatre.

  11. Tone says:

    I clicked on the link regarding ‘military to teachers’ and was relieved that it was not relating to Scottish schools. I want my daughters teachers to become teachers because they have a flare for the role, because they want to nurture a young open mind. Not because we have a challenge with what to do with ex soldiers.

    1. In this instance this programme isn’t focused on Scottish schools, but as we have earlier looked at the issues of militarisation of schools is even more acute in Scotland.

  12. montfleury says:

    At least the Tattoo is transparent in its celebration of all things military.

    The Tattoo is by far the gayest thing I’ve ever seen. It was outrageously camp.

    1. Marcia Blaine says:

      I recall American or Canadian soliers with mics, uniforms and white gloves singing a melody from Hairspray the musical. Needless to say it didn’t work. More Grand Guignol than camp, I fear.

  13. Grafter says:

    Continuous war and vast profit is the neo-con agenda behind this propaganda. The disasters and illegality of middle east invasions with our forces has created this ongoing mindset of killing “terrorists” and serves to give a sense of purpose and legitimacy to our continual interference in the Middle East. This normalisation of the military is deliberate and insidious. Far better we should expose the insanity and corruption which lies behind this facade.

  14. Janis says:

    This military run Fringe programme at Summerhall has had a disproportionate amount of publicity, including on prime time BBC programmes. I’ve little idea about Creative Scotland and it’s methodology but I guess this means they would also willingly back a venue run by Faslane Peace Camp residents for example and looks at the experience of peace campaigners, pacifists, why ‘hero’ is such a misused word – applied with aplomb to soldiers and yet Greenpeace campaigners are ‘disruptive’ … disrupting who’s agenda?

  15. Iain.C says:

    Thought provoking, measured and significant. Very glad this article was written, it is unsurprising that some responses to it have clearly not bothered to read it.

    For the rest of us, especially working in theatre and the arts, it raises important questions about the current state of theatre in Scotland, how it is being used, funded and consumed by.

  16. SleepingDog says:

    I have just read Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland by Christopher R Browning, and it seems that the sense of belonging to a group contributed significantly to individuals carrying out the mass murders ordered by their military superiors. The author was also concerned with the universal question:
    “If the men of Reserve Police Battalion 101 could become killers under such circumstances, what group of men cannot?” p189

    I was recently involved in a discussion of military ethics where many people held the view that orders needed to be followed at all times; and in another case, that the lives of your comrades were significantly more important than others (including the “no man left behind” justification for turning at town centre into a battlefield in the “Black Hawk Down” scenario).

    These raise some disturbing possibilities in any militarised society.

    The BBC has recently produced a documentary on the British cadet abuse cover-up:
    http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b08xgvqn/panorama-cadet-abuse-coverup

    which specifically considers the question of whether military training leaves already vulnerable people more vulnerable to abuse.

    True courage, as Browning and others have suggested, may lie within those people who have the moral strength to resist and disobey unlawful or unethical orders, and it is perhaps those heroes and whistleblowers and survivors that should be invited to the Fringe to inspire others, which may start a useful conversation with the Armed Force propagandists.

  17. Donnie MacLennan says:

    I was a passionate and proud wearer of the poppy leading up to rememberance day.

    “was”

    In recent years the associating of the poppy with british nationalism, not just WW1 but all conflicts, overt commercialisation, a platform for the English royal family and jingoism have seen me not wearing a poppy. I defend that decision to others and in return ask others why they wear one when they question why I do not wear one.

    Poppies should not be worn out of habit, they should be worn out of conciousness and to remind all people of the horrors of WW1 so that it never happens again. Emphasis by the bbc and others is on being on the winning side. Would any uk survivor have said about them being on the winning side? No, there was no winning side, humanity lost, survivors overriding wish was it would never be repeated!

    I hope the day returns when I can wear a poppy again and it has ceased to be a political symbol of british nationalism!

    The poppy is not the only symbol hijacked by british nationalism, but it is the one that saddens me the most!

  18. Tim says:

    If a show at the Edinburgh fringe takes place in a Catholic Church does that mean that everybody who goes to see it will be converted?

    Probably not.

    It’s nice to see an article slating shows that will be performing in a venue just because of who owns and runs that venue. Makes absolute sense.

    More to the point if you go to a fringe show in the basement of a Nando’s does that mean you are being subjected to targeted advertising and subliminal messaging or does that mean that somebody decided to put on a show in the basement of a Nando’s.

    So you don’t like the army. Go and watch their show and if you don’t like it write about that. Don’t however put out a negative article which could potentially put people off going to see some incredible work based on your own agenda.

    The countless theatre professionals who are working on the shows being performed at this venue during the fringe obviously believe they are helping to create something that is worth seeing. Without the support of their supposed peers it would seem.

    I have faith that if anybody involved felt that they were truly just creating propaganda that the shows being performed would not be happening.

    I would personally appreciate it if you didn’t bring your predispositions to the festival this year as they are unwelcome.

    As a final note I have absolutely no links to the military. I have the belief that a building is a building and what takes place within it is what you make it.

    1. Its not about the building its about the sponsor. Its army sponsored theatre.

    2. Pete says:

      Not everyone who went to a church would necessarily be converted, but if the church were to hire their own venue and pack it with shows about the religion and its priests and believers and sponsor they whole shebang then there would absolutely be people who questioned their motives. Most people would naturally assume it was evangelistic because they don’t normally do theatre – they do god. Only reason to do theatre would be to spread the message. That’s what’s happening here.

      The author did not slate any of the pieces. They raised the point that the army sponsoring a venue and hosting shows about the army is could be seen as an attempt to evangelise or in this case militarise society. The shows could be great or awful or alright and it wouldn’t change the message.

      You accuse the author of an agenda as if it’s a sinister hidden, unspoken truth – the author clearly stated that they are uncomfortable with this, explain why and then call for discussion on the topic.
      And as for the professionals and support of their peers – it’s the Fringe and this venue and the shows are happening. The whole endeavour has been supported to the hilt – on the back of army PR money.

      And as for this:
      “I would personally appreciate it if you didn’t bring your predispositions to the festival this year as they are unwelcome.”?
      Do you generally find that people change their minds as a personal favour to you, or was it just a long shot?
      Also – very good of you to speak on behalf of everyone, but … how does that saying go again…?
      Oh yeah – not in my name.

  19. will says:

    We Scots have long been over-represented in the armed forces. Take this as you will: Canon fodder, or just more up for it. Regardless, we thrive in it, and I believe this fact can be used to the advantage of Scottish nationalism.

    https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/e/e0/Union_Jack_1606_Scotland.svg/220px-Union_Jack_1606_Scotland.svg.png

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