Kipling's Military Utopia

Rudyard Kipling was not utopian by temperament. Some of his best comic stories show the social planning of utopian thinkers disrupted by human contrariness. On the other hand, he imagined some terrifying dystopias – including the most horrible in English Literature, in ‘The Strange Ride of Morrobie Jukes’, which describes a pit where the living dead are reduced to eating crows, and scramble for survival, each desperate human pitted against all the others.

In June 1904, however, The Morning Post newspaper published a story by Kipling in four serial instalments, which describes a sort of Utopia. It is ‘The Army of a Dream’, later collected in Traffics and Discoveries (1904). the story’s 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 an imagined version of the 1920s).

Bayley starts telling him about the Army of this imagined future, and takes him to the barracks, where he meets several old friends. Together they describe not just an Army, but an entirely militarised nation. It starts with the children:

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. Popular sports are contests between units of the Armity – that’s the Army and Navy combined into one efficient force. Army canteens are places where young men are proud to take their girl-friends. What happens to those who don’t want to be involved with the army? A soldier explains:

“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.”

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.

Not that they need to be on a war footing. This militarised society has brought about peace. Every so often, units perform spectacular exercises, which persuade continental forces that it would be very unwise to invade Britain.

The spirit behind it all 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.

In 1904 the story would have seemed topical. It clearly relates to anxieties about the fitness of British young men after the Boer War, when nearly half of the recruits had to be refused on medical grounds. It was also given topical resonance by the current Russo-Japanese war – If you look at the Morning Post for the four days the story was serialised, the Kipling story begins on the right-hand column of page seven each day, but the first column of that page is always given to news of the war.

So yes, it was topical, but this utopia is worked out in intricate detail, and it’s not surprising to learn that Kipling had been working at it off and on for over four years. It was in his mind in 1900, and in 1903 he wrote in a letter:

… I am hard at work on ‘The Dream of Belligerontius’ and hope to get it ready in a few weeks. Of course it won’t be a serious scheme of Army Reform, but it will, I hope, contain several suggestions at which men can peck.

Kipling’s love of the Army, and of soldiers, shines through the story. 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.

For Kipling, the biggest illusion of civil society was that the Army was not very necessary, and that soldiers could be treated like a despicable underclass – until an actual war came along. As he had written in 1890: 

For it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ “Chuck him out, the brute!”
But it’s “Saviour of ‘is country,” when the guns begin to shoot;

So this story says that society must change – but so must the Army, . 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.

In Kipling, though, 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 the professionals by combining together in a microcosm of national unity (the Board School working with the Private School troops, and the boys from the Jewish Voluntary Schools not only playing a part, but coming out winners.)

So the fat woman in the funeral procession holds up the army, strikers beat the boss, and children defeat adults. True military values disturb conservative hierarchies.

Kipling can be charged with presenting a somewhat rose-tinted view of military training. A corrective can be found in one of the very best books of Great War memoirs, Stephen Graham’s A Private in the Guards ( published in 1919). Graham not only shows the toughness of training for an elite regiment (‘You drilled to the breaking point, and then you went on drilling.’); he also presents the Army as an organisation in which bullying was endemic, yet his attitude is not one of total disapproval. He served in the Scots Guards, an elite regiment whose ethos is summed up in Graham’s first sentence: ‘The sterner the discipline the better the soldier, the better the army.’ Graham describes how conscripts were turned into soldiers by means of brutality: ‘humiliation… by words or blows’ and ‘the use of glaringly indecent language’.Graham deplores these but ‘in wartime the problem of breaking in those who were never intended by Nature to be soldiers was so difficult that some of these ugly things became useful.’ This recognition of awkward paradox is Graham’s characteristic tone. He understands what is needed to win a war, and also the human cost of it. Kipling also knows what is needed to win wars, but he lets it be covered by the language of manly euphemism.

On the other hand, while the main thrust of the story is that society should change, Kipling makes it clear that the Army has to change, too. When the story was collected in Traffics and Discoveries, he prefaced it with a ‛Song of the Old Guard’ that is all about the worst of the snobbish and hidebound traditional Army, preoccupied by rank and ritual.

And they that with accursed zeal
Our Service would amend,
Shall own the odds and come to heel
Ere worse befall their end:
For though no naked word be wrote
Yet plainly shall they see
What pinneth Orders on their coat,
And, Hey then up go we!

During the Great War, however, it might be said that both Britain and the Army changed, and the country came some way towards resembling the military utopia of Kipling’s Dream. The Army opened the rank of officer to a much wider social mix – they had to. Khaki was the fashionable colour, and some women were even handing out white feathers to young men who didn’t wear it. It was a time when most of the posters showing smiling soldiers that looked down on every city street were not government propaganda, but the advertisements for everything from Oxo cubes to bicycles; they featured soldiers because advertising men knew that the way to sell their products was to appeal to the public enthusiasm for the War.

Even the disenfranchisement mentioned in the story was put into practice – conscientious objectors who did no war work lost the vote for five years after the War.

Yet Kipling was unsatisfied, because this war-dominated society was failing in an important respect – it was neglecting something that he too had neglected to mention in his story ‘The Army of a Dream’. It was not finding a place for the men damaged by War, to whom the nation owed a debt.

These men would be a dominant theme in his writing until his death, starting with ‘In the Interests of the Brethren’ in The Storyteller for December 1918. He now imagines a very different Utopia – not a whole society, but a small enclave, hidden behind an anonymous street. The door opens, and suddenly you are among riches. Kipling had remembered, and was enlisting to his purposes, a community that proudly proclaimed its openness to all classes and sorts of men, a Masonic lodge. Kipling had been inducted into Freemasonry while in India, and he made much of its inclusive nature. Remembering his own first Lodge in Lahore, he wrote in a 1931 letter: ‘I was entered by a Hindu, raised by a Mohammedan, and passed by an English Master’.

This Lodge, run by Brother Burges, a tobacconist, His shop is Burges and Son, but Son had been killed in Egypt. makes a point of welcoming visiting brothers, soldiers on leave and men who have been damaged by the War. They include a one-armed New-Zealander, a man “all head-bandages” with only six teeth and half a lower lip, a silent “shell-shocker” and a man who seems to have forgotten everything.

What is important to the story is that this is not a mere charitable institution. It is a place of self-help and mutual help, not of top-down charity. The community is supportive, but gives men a chance to be useful through working – “You’ll often find half-a-dozen brethren with eight legs between ‘em, polishing and ronuking and sweeping everything they can get at.” They are allowed to used the skills they have; visitors are set to work, one as an organist, though he has to be carried to the organ-loft, others to the recitation of ritual; the familiar words of the ceremony stir the memory of the Visiting Brother who had forgotten everything. It is important to both Brother Burges and to Kipling that they should be conducting the ritual for themselves, not having it done for them.

Ritual is important. “All ritual is fortifying,” as Brother Burges says. In his early Indian stories Kipling had valued the army for the order that its routines gave to otherwise disorderly lives. In his imagined Lodge, Freemasonry offers something of the same.

Kipling had always been aware of the fragility of men, and their need for groups, both formal and informal, to which they belong. Mulvaney, Learoyd and Ortheris, his Soldiers Three, are formidable together, but each has his vulnerability, as is shown especially in the story “The Madness of Private Ortheris” where heat and melancholy drive Ortheris to the brink of suicide, but he is helped through the night by Mulvaney. In Captains Courageous, the crew of the We’re Here individually have weaknesses and limitations.. Together, though, they are strong. It is an insight that underlies many of Kipling’s stories from first to last- every human needs a group with which he can identify; isolation and exclusion lead to despair, or what he called in another story about post-war psychological damage:

…the horror, the blackness, the loss of the meaning of things… a certain secret dread which he had held off him since demobilisation.

Kipling’s remedy is a long way from the Weir-Mitchell treatment for shell-shock popular at the time. That meant giving men a strict regimen of rest and a milky diet, and a life that is the opposite of war. The lodge’s familiar ritual, hard work and all-male community is actually very like the Army in whose service these men have have been damaged. ‘Shell-shock’ was a subject of intense controversy during the War years, and Kipling is clearly on the side of those who saw shell-shock as a problem of morale, as a loss of control that needs to be combated by the reinforcement of a sense of the man’s identity as member of a supportive group.

When you first read the story, you get a good sense of what this small utopia of a Masonic Lodge, cut off from the larger world, can the visiting soldiers, in the way of self-respect and community. In fact, the story is propaganda, suggesting to Masonic and other institutions how they might best help those damaged in war. The first readers were explicitly directed this way by an editorial comment:

But there is slightly more to it than this. In the course of the story Kipling builds up a picture of Brother Burges, proprietor of Burges and Son (“but Son had been killed in Egypt”). We gradually get to see how much his son had meant to him, and we understand that it is because he is no longer part of that significant pair that Burges has devoted immense effort to transforming the lodge as much for his own sake as for the soldiers. Organising meetings several evenings a week and two afternoons as well is his way of filling his life with useful activity, just as the polishing and ronuking was for the soldiers, and maybe as the War Graves Commission and The History of the Irish Guards were for Kipling.

When Burges says that ‘All ritual is fortifying’ he is not just speaking of the soldiers but for himself as well, and indeed for Kipling. We can see Burges as a partial self-portrait of the author not only in his desire to help the war-damaged, but also in the intensity of his need. The same things are needed to help the bereaved as to help the war-damaged, Kipling is saying; they are in the same boat. What threatens them both most frighteningly is loss of meaning, existential emptiness, and this lodge, this little Utopia in a suburban side street, is a place where all who are included can give each other mutual respect and support.

When one reads Kipling’s Masonic stories one can begin to understand why he thought that the militarised society of ‘The Army of a Dream’ was worth imagining. I’ll bet that when I first described it, many of you were thinking that this was not a utopia in which they would like to live (and personally, I quite agree). But Kipling intends it as a society whose foundation is recognition of a truth – the shared need for defence – and it is a society that also recognises other human needs, especially the need to belong, and the need for structure.

Is it a fascist utopia? I think that would be an unhistorical judgement, because fascism was a response to the aftermath of the First World War, but Kipling’s militaristic dream society does have qualities in common with fascism – and it is a very masculine society, in which women are sidelined. On the other hand it is not totalitarian in the sense of being uniform. Social conflict is acknowledged, but Kipling has tried to imagine a society in which conflict will be constructive, not destructive. It is a society where everyone has a role and a shared sense of purpose, but the Masonic stories remind us that for Kipling the militarised society was less about the vaunting of communal strength than about the acknowledgement of individual vulnerability. ‘The Army of a Dream’ is a strange kind of utopia, but it’s Kipling’s.

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