Kipling’s Military Utopia

A character in Kipling’s Boer War story The Captive calls that conflict “a dress-parade for Armageddon, ” and Kipling, like many others, considered it in some ways an unimpressive one. British military failures caused a great deal of national soul-searching and opinion-mongering in the war’s aftermath; notable literary products were books (like Mason’s The Four Feathers) that dealt with problems of courage and manliness, and future-war narratives imagining Britain’s response to an invasion.

One of Kipling’s responses to the question was an odder one; a short story (in two parts) called The Army of a Dream (collected in Traffics and Discoveries). Its narrator takes a seat in his Club smoking-room, and finds it “entirely natural” that he should be talking to “Boy Bayley”, whom he had last met twenty years before during the South African War (so setting this story in the 1920s, whereas Traffics and Discoveries was published in 1904).

Bayley tells him about the modern Army, and takes him to the barracks, where he meets several old friends. Together (This is one of Kipling’s polyvocal stories, with a whole community of narrators – is there any writer more dialogical than Kipling?) they describe not just an Army, but an entirely militarised nation:

All boys begin physical drill to music in the Board Schools when they’re six; squad-drill, one hour a week, when they’re eight; company drill when they’re ten, for an hour and a half each week. Between ten and twelve they get battalion drill of a sort. They take the rifle at twelve and record their first target-score at thirteen. That’s what the Code says. But it’s worked very loosely so long as a boy comes up to the standard of his age.

Once they become men, all citizens join territorial units which give them regular training. Fierce inter-unit rivalry keeps standards and morale immensely high, and military culture pervades all aspects of life. What happens to those who don’t want to be involved with the army?

“We’re a free people. We get up and slay the man who says we aren’t. But as a little detail we never mention, if we don’t volunteer in some corps or another – as combatants if we’re fit, as non-combatants if we ain’t – till we’re thirty-five – we don’t vote, and we don’t get poor-relief, and the women don’t love us.”

(N.B. The stigma of disenfrachisement, or as one of Kipling’s soldiers puts it, “you rank with lunatics, women and minors” was, of course, applied to conscientious objectors after 1918; those who had refused to fight for their country lost the right to elect its rulers.)

This vast territorial force means that the regular army can be a small elite force:

One hundred thousand men, without a single case of venereal, and an average sick list of two per cent, permanently on a war footing.

Every so often, units perform spectacular exercises, which persuade continental forces that it would be very unwise to invade Britain.

This militarised utopia is worked out in detail. The spirit behind it is one of benign paternalism. Young men are treated generously and respected, and the system provides them with adventure and purpose. On exercises they are kept working hard, and competition between units gives them self-respect and a sense of achievement.

That’s what is described in the first of the two stories. Kipling’s love of the Army, and of soldiers, shines through it. He saw it as an institution that fulfilled needs ignored by the chaos of civil society. It gave men an ordered, controlled and honest existence. Where civil society was full of illusions, hypocrisies and deceits, military life was closer to the fundamental realities; of hardships, of survival, of the ways in which one man deserves the respect of another.

But in Kipling there’s always a dialectic. In his early stories of military life in India, the Army is a controlling, stabilising institution, but the sympathies of Kipling (and his readers) are at least fifty per cent with the chaotic energies that it is trying to stabilise. In the second part of this story, the energies from below get their chance.

The first part of the story gave us the view from above, the paternalistic officer’s view. In the second part, we get a sense of how the system described actually empowers those lower in the hierarchy. For example, the story tells of a parade, where the troop of soldiers and their band are held up by the passing of a funeral. As one of the soldiers explains:

In this city it’s the Volunteer’s perquisite to be played through by any corps he happens to meet on his way to the cemetery. And they make the most of it.

The narrator sees what is happening:

…in the first mourning-coach I saw the tearful face of a fat woman (his mother, doubtless), a handkerchief pressed to one eye, but the other rolling vigilantly, alight with proper pride.

So even fat old women have their rights in this society – and make use of them.

Militant miners make use of their territorial pay to support their families during a strike, to the annoyance of the mine-owners. I think Kipling is saying that his utopia would readjust the class-relations of capitalism; giving workers another source of income and self-esteem makes them less dependent on selfish bosses.

The main story of the second part though, is of how a crack unit is doing its afternoon exercise, which involves a surprise mock attack on a schoolboy battalion (the idea being that this will keep the lads up to military scratch). The boys find out they are coming, though, and beat them by combining together in a microcosm of national unity (the Board School working with the Private School troops, and even the “Jew-boys” from the Jewish Voluntary Schools).

So the fat woman holds up the army, strikers beat the boss, and children defeat adults. True military values disturb conservative hierarchies. This message is made explicit in an episode where the narrator is shown round by a private, and is surprised to find him chatting with an officer on terms of equality; distinctions of rank are formally observed on the parade ground, but elsewhere it’s human worth that matters.

Then, at the end of the tale, having set up the situation and developed the fantasy, Kipling adds a twist. It’s hardly surprising, given the title The Army of a Dream, and some strong hints at the start, that the narrator finally wakes up in his comfortable club chair, and realises that the whole thing was illusion. The way Kipling handles this is less predictable, though; all the officers the narrator had been chatting to had actually died in the South African war, and as he wakes, he vividly recalls those deaths:

I saw Pigeon fling up a helpless arm to guard himself against a spatter of shrapnel, and Luttrell with a foolish tight-lipped smile lurched over all in one jointless piece. Only old Vee’s honest face held steady for a while against the darkness that had swallowed up the battalion behind us. Then his jaw dropped and the face stiffened, so that a fly made bold to explore the puffed and scornful nostril.

This ending is disturbing and ambiguous. How should we take it? Some possiblities:

  • The vision of a militarised society is what the dead would tell us if they could.
  • A strong army is a deterrent, which would help Britain avoid military disasters like those in which these men died.
  • This is the reality of war, which must cast doubt on the story’s picture of war as a superior team-game.
  • If these men had not been wastefully killed, Britain would have a chance in the coming Armageddon. As it is, things are doubtful.
  • Dreams are all very well, but we need to read the evening papers to realise the present threat.

Or maybe the story means all of these.

3 Comments

  1. Thomas Goodey
    Posted September 5, 2009 at 10:51 pm | Permalink

    This story was undoubtedly the source for the central idea of ‘Starship Troopers’ by that great American Robert A. Heinlein – that the right to vote should only be held by veterans who have volunteered to serve their country. This is an important literary discovery!

  2. Posted September 6, 2009 at 5:54 am | Permalink

    The Heinlein suggestion is an interesting one, but he may have had other sources for the idea of disenfranchising non-volunteers.
    After the Great War, absolutist conscientious objectors (those who had refused not only conscription, but any war work at all, were released from prison, but had their vote taken away for the next five years.

    • Rick DeLotto
      Posted July 3, 2013 at 1:46 pm | Permalink

      Federation service was not exclusively military– in fact, the armed forces may have been only a small part of it. I seem to recall reading that people could be assigned to be “lab rats” for medical experimentation, and that SOMETHING would be found to enable the disabled to participate, even “counting caterpillars by touch.”


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