What the Gurkhas tell us about the World

So the British government, after extensive public outcry and even more extensive Joanna Lumley, has granted the Gurkhas, a group of specialist Nepalese soldiers who served the British army, the right to stay in Britain.

Perhaps this gives us a glimpse of the alchemy involved here. If you’re a foreigner and want to enter Britain without leaving yourself open to assault, you must first kill another foreigner somewhere, some enemy of the Mighty Empress Windsor. Then, rather like a sacrificed animal, that other dead person’s blood will protect you.

Seriously, what a screwed-up world is this where the best way to earn respect and dignity has to be through war? How many soldiers have made a greater contribution to human happiness than the average child-raiser? But does having a child earn anyone the right to be left in peace to live and work where they want? Of course not – any suggestion of rewarding or supporting people involved in the vital work of child-raising is seized on by the right-wing to lament the decadence of society and the tides of ‘baby-factories’ sweeping across the world.

The most destructive typically-male activity is a badge of honour, while the most productive typically-female activity is a mark of suspicion. What a coincidence.

21 Responses to “What the Gurkhas tell us about the World”

  1. Francois Tremblay Says:

    I am against both of them, myself… they are both the kind of production that involves control over other human beings.

  2. Alderson Warm-Fork Says:

    I take it that in being ‘against child-raising’ you mean against a certain model of how adults relate to children, not against any sort of adult work to care for children?

  3. Francois Tremblay Says:

    Against the parenting model, yes. But since there’s no alternative or solution in view, I’m against breeding until we make one.

  4. Anasuya Says:

    I get your argument here, but I don’t think the Gurkhas are a very good example of it. In fact, you’ve missed the point of the Gurkha-controversy entirely. Nice ocelot-alikes above, by the way.

  5. Alderson Warm-Fork Says:

    Glad you like the cats. Could you give me a hint about the real point of the Gurkantroversy? The main reason for granting them rights to stay seems to be that they ‘have laid their lives on the line for this country’ and so forth.

  6. Anasuya Says:

    Strictly speaking, the Gurkhas are a kind of mercenary. But they’ve never been seen or treated that way. Instead, they’ve always been told that they were part of the British Army in the same way that any other regiment was – the Gurkhas believe this, the Army believes it, and the government believes it. So it is inexcusable that they were treated systematically worse than other soldiers. The right to live here is just the beginning – they were paid less, given less leave, and there used to be a horrific policy to the effect that they could only have their wives living with them for three years, and that only after six years of service.

    The only reason the government was able to get away with this shameless discrimination for so long was that the Gurkhas knew damn well they weren’t going to get a better deal at home, and that, compared to those of their fellows which failed to get a place in the British Army, they were incredibly lucky. In your sense, I guess, it was a species of ‘oppression’: all the power was with the UK government; the Gurkhas were so disempowered that they felt they didn’t even have any *right* to complain.

    Gurkhas join the Army for complex reasons having to do with honour, tradition, family, and of course, simple economics. But they’re told, like all soldiers are told, that they’re protecting Britain. The Gurkhas come to believe this, and are prepared then to die, in part, for Britain. So if they don’t die, doesn’t it make some kind of sense to let them at least live in the country they were prepared to risk so much to defend?

    I guess the simple point is this: Britain supposedly benefits a lot from the work of these people, and it can easily afford to reward them more fairly. How can it be right to exploit them simply because they have very few other options?

  7. Alderson Warm-Fork Says:

    Ok, but insofar as the rhetorical question “How can it be right to exploit them simply because they have very few other options?” is supposed to somehow not apply to everyone else seeking to live in Britain, it still seems like the argument for granting them this right is specifically that they fought wars for Britain.

    People who have been employed by a British garment company in Bangladesh or grow the crops that feed British consumers don’t seem to raise the same issues, so it really does seem to me that military service is being set up as an especially high form of service. It’s that relative valuation that my post was about, so I don’t see how I ‘miss the point entirely’.

  8. Anasuya Says:

    Ha. Yes. Of course, from your perspective my final question would apply equally to garment workers, Gurkhas, and even geese, I suppose. Okay, let me think of a way of explaining it so it would make sense for you, if such a thing there be.

  9. Anasuya Says:

    Okay.

    1) ‘Higher’ or no, I do think being a soldier is a riskier business than being a garment worker. There are obvious physical risks to sweatshop work, of course, but a soldier is trained both to kill and to die without hesitation. I’m not sure which element is scarier or more traumatic. Personally, I find armies abhorrent, and I find it hard to sympathise with anyone enlisting if they have any other viable options, but it’s undeniable that the cost of soldering is physically and psychologically high, or that it lasts well beyond retirement.

    2) Garment workers can lead incredibly restricted lives, given insanely long hours of back-breaking work for little pay. However, garment workers are not in general prohibited by the company they work for from spending their pay on whatever they want and can afford, from marrying whomever they like, or from quitting if their fortunes improve. Soldiers, on the other hand, even in modern armies like that of this country, have effectively no ‘private ives’ that fal outside the scope of regulation by their employer. You can get kicked out of the army for sleeping with a fellow soldier’s wife, even if this was during leave. You can’t eat what you want, you can’t sleep when you like, and you can be sent halfway across the world at a moment’s notice. You generally have to stay in for a certain number of years, or face leaving with a dishonourable discharge. Quitting in battle, of course, is ‘desertion’, and punishable by all sorts of horrors. This was even worse for Gurkhas, who had to wait six years before they were even allowed to go home to Nepal again, and were only allowed to cohabit with their wives very briefly, and that openly so that they could make little Gurkhas to be recruited in sixteen years.

    3) There is an obvious difference in the rhetoric surrounding soldiery and sewing. I know that this is part of your problem with this issue, but I think the relevant difference lies not in whether we (arbitrarily) define soldiering as a ‘higher’ pursuit than sewing, but in the extent to which this rhetoric is internalized by the persons in question, and the extent to which this then motivates them. I’m skeptical about this idea that someone is a hero for simply joining an army, especially when that person’s country faces no overwhelming external threat. People join armies, and banks, and yes, even sweatshops, because they get something out of it, and this something is usually money. However, soldiers, unlike bankers and sweatshop-workers, are told that their purpose is to (potentially) lay down their lives so that other people in their country might live. That they come to believe this through a species of brainwashing is pretty well undeniable, but believe it they do, including (possibly especially) Gurkhas. This then informs their decsion-making – for example, someone eligible to leave the army honourably may elect to remain partly because they believe that it is his (or indeed, her) duty to remain. My point is this: the exploitation of garment workers is shameful (yes, I am an opponent of unregulated sweatshops, go figure), is it not even *more* shameful to exploit those whom we have brainwashed into conflating their work with their duty? Garment-workers aren’t conned into believing that their work is their selfless duty, or that they sew for the greater glory of Britain. Britain doesn’t care much about either exploited group, but at least the garment workers aren’t expected to care about Britain either!

    Does this make sense? I hope so!

  10. Alderson Warm-Fork Says:

    Ok, so there’s lots of different reasons here why soldiering might be seen as more worthy of this kind of esteem than other occupations; conversely, many of them suggest reasons for the converse valuation (e.g. soldiers get opportunities garment workers don’t, often higher pay, and take part in an activity that is, overall, net destructive, i.e. worse than pointless).

    So the question is posed, do the British public/Joanna Lumley/the-British-public-as-agreeing-with-Joanna-Lumley make a careful estimation of all these various factors and come up with a measured judgement? Or do they identify a particular one of these arguments as being especially weighty and lean on it? I’m inclined to suppose the latter, in particular, regarding the brainwashing that you describe in section 3.

    But it doesn’t sound much like concern or sympathy for the victims of brainwashing, it sounds more like agreement with that brainwashing. I.e. the special status accorded to soldiers is that they symbolise and embody the idea of national community, in their supposed willingness to sacrifice the personal and private for the greater public good. So either you agree with this mythology of the transcendent national community and how noble it is to kill others and yourself in order to enrich and empower your national elite The Nation, or you’re putting forward the opposite position to the mainstream account, namely that we have deceived and deluded these people and owe them recompense, and should definitely stop doing it now and re-think our military policy (which I would happily agree with).

  11. Anasuya Says:

    I was setting out why *I* think the Gurkhas are owed a better deal, regardless of what Joanna Lumley or anyone else thinks about it. Fetishisizing the army/soldiers/killing is stupid, bordering on sick. That doesn’t obscure the fact that yes, we have used these people and we owe them. Whether or not we stop doing that doesn’t depend on me – given that there’s going to be an army anyway, personally I would rather see it full of Gurkhas (decently treated) than full of sub-criminal drop-outs and borderline psychos. But that’s just me.

  12. Alderson Warm-Fork Says:

    “I was setting out why *I* think the Gurkhas are owed a better deal…Fetishisizing the army/soldiers/killing is stupid, bordering on sick.”

    Ok, cool, but I wasn’t trying to argue about what’s true or what you think, I was commenting on the way the issue appeared in the mainstream, which to me looked like fetishizing the army/soldiers/killing. I’m not against being nice to Gurkhas. It seems like we’re largely in agreement, so I was unsure why you seemed to be expressing disagreement with my post.

  13. Anasuya Says:

    Okay, one more try 🙂

    If you’re looking at the way this issue appears in the mainstream press, nobody thinks that Gurkhas ought to be given various privileges because they are protected by the blood of those whom they have killed (!!), nor is it ever presented as an issue of choosing between killers and baby-rearers. So that’s interpretation on your part.

    What it does say in the mainstream press is that the Gurkhas are owed a better deal, and that privileges extended to other members of the Army should be extended to them also, and that this has something to do with the willingness of the Gurkhas to die for Britain, or at least to protect the people of Britain. Right?

    The question then is why lots of people think this. You reckon it’s because they somehow fetishize soldiering as noble and a higher pursuit than lots of other occupations which (in your view) are at least as useful, and this whole idea that people see the Gurkhas as ‘protected by blood’.

    I disagree with you. I think the majority of people are a bit confused and fuzzy exactly as to why the Gurkhas deserve better, but I think a strong consideration of fairness comes into it. They realize that the Gurkhas work as hard as anyone else in the army, yet get fewer benefits. They see this as unfair, which is correct. I think many people also think that soldiering is tough and dangerous, and tougher and more dangerous than most jobs, and also believe that they themselves benefit from the job the Gurkhas do, and that, moreover, the Gurkhas do this partly out of unselfish reasons. For this reason, people think it doubly unfair that the Gurkhas should be short-changed. This is also correct.

    Here is where my opinion differs from that so commonly, and fuzzily, expressed. I don’t think there is anything especially noble about being a soldier as such, especially in peacetime (i.e. in the absence of conscription), and I don’t think soldiers should be given special treatment simply because they are soldiers. In fact, I am inclined to be suspicious of those who freely choose such an unnatural occupation. But I do recognize that there is an element of altruism in the attitude of many soldiers to their job, and that this altruistic streak is part of what makes soldiers so easy to exploit – I just think that this altruism is mainly the result of a species of brainwashing.

    Besides nobilityt/altruism, the other argument you hear for giving soldiers special treatment simply because their soldiers has to do with the public good nature of what they do – given the existence globally of other, potentially hostile, armies, the presence of the Britsh Army helps us all (mainly through a deterrent effect). But of course, so do a lot of jobs, notably including, as you say, those who raise children well. So it’s not at all clear that soldiers deserve a particular special level in our estimation on these grounds either.

    To sum up:

    Most people think that Gurkhas deserve a better deal. They are correct.

    Most people think that this is because of fairness, notably because they do the same job as non-Nepali members of Army and get fewer privileges. This is correct.

    Most people think that it is shameful that the government used the fact that potential Gurkhas have few other options in life as an opportunity to exploit them. This is correct.

    Some people think all soldiers deserve special treatment because being a soldier is dangerous and tough. This may be true, but it is far from clear how to evaluate these stresses against the stresses of some other occupations (teachers, firefighters, doctors, parents…). I’m sure whether it is warranted to extend special privileges on these grounds, therefore.

    Some people think all soldiers deserve special treatment because being a soldier is noble. This is false, except insofar as this ‘nobility’ refers to the partly altruistic nature of a soldier’s motivation, which possibly does deserve some extra consideration. This is not, however, as commonly thought, because this translates into moral superiority for soldiers, but because it makes soldiers more vulnerable to exploitation, being, as it is, a result of brainwashing.

    Some people think soldiers deserve special consideration because they help all of us. This is correct (given certain assumptions), but does not warrant consideration over all other helpful jobs out there (bankers, farmers, teachers, parents…)

    Really, your initial post missed the point because it was full of red herrings, particularly this idea that people wanted to treat the Gurkhas better because they respected soldiers more than parents or because the Gurkhas were protected by the blood of Britain’s enemies (?!). I don’t think that those are anyone’s reasons in this particular case. Maybe some people do see soldiering as nobler or better than parenting, and if so, I would agree with you that this is wrong, and probably screwed-up. But, as I say, this case is a poor example of such thinking in general – it is more about fairness and fair treatment than about relative moral valuation of different occupations.

  14. Alderson Warm-Fork Says:

    “nobody thinks that Gurkhas ought to be given various privileges because they are protected by the blood of those whom they have killed”

    I thought it was fairly obvious that this was sarcastic and parodical.

    “Most people think that this is because of fairness, notably because they do the same job as non-Nepali members of Army and get fewer privileges. This is correct.”

    I don’t deny this line of thought is operant. But I think this line of thought would not work if it were not buttressed by “Some people think all soldiers deserve special treatment because being a soldier is noble”. People are typically quite happy to accept that non-British people doing the same job as British people get lower wages and fewer rights.

    The ‘unfairness’ line is a general critique of immigration controls. What my post remarked upon was that it was broadly popular in the case of the army, not in other cases. I inferred, I hope with justification, that there was a special nobility accorded to the army, and I pointed out that from one point of view this looked like an odd and rather worrying valuation.

    You seem to agree with that latter bit, but think I’m missing the point because the real issue is ‘fairness’, which yet miraculously does not mobilise this kind of massive public support when applied to other professions.

  15. Anasuya Says:

    It is a particular kind of fairness. The point was a an English and a Nepali member of the British Army are doing *exactly the same job* in *exactly the same circumstances* in the *same organization* for differential pay. The comparison is a close one, and could appeal even to someone who didn’t see that there was a broader argument for immigration per se on fairness grounds. The narrow sort of fairness invoked here *could not* motivate public support for most other professions, because the structure of the British Army in this respect is extraordinary.

    I will accept that the ‘honour’ notion sometimes accompanies this one, but I see no reason why someone couldn’t come to a pro-Gurkha conclusion simply on the basis of the above. No soldier-fetish is necessary to recognize that the Gurkhas were getting screwed over.

    “I thought it was fairly obvious that this was sarcastic and parodical” – it was, but you can never be sure. It doesn’t seem much sillier to me than to argue that the majority of people support the Gurkha cause (Gurkhause?) out of a suspicion for “typically female” activities.

    My point is that, without any real evidence, you impute all sorts of ‘patriarchal’ motives here to… well, whom? The government, the press, right-wingers, Joanna Lumley? I think these motivations significantly inform neither the *correct* response to the issue nor the *common* response to it.

  16. Alderson Warm-Fork Says:

    “I see no reason why someone couldn’t come to a pro-Gurkha conclusion simply on the basis of [fairness considerations.]”

    Ok, and I disagree, which is what this comes down to.

    “an English and a Nepali member of the British Army are doing *exactly the same job* in *exactly the same circumstances* in the *same organization* for differential pay. The comparison is a close one, and could appeal even to someone who didn’t see that there was a broader argument”

    I honestly don’t find this convincing. You do so perhaps we are stuck for now.

  17. Bod Says:

    One thing that makes the case of the Gurkhas slightly different from garment workers or anything along those lines is the existence of something called the ‘military covenant’.

    It’s an agreement between the army and the government that soldiers will accept certain restrictions on their freedom that civilians do not have to accept – some of which are eluded to in one of Anasuya’s posts – and will act in a way that deliberately puts them in the line of danger of pain, psychological and physical injury and, ultimately, early death.

    In return for this the miliary promises its personnel that it will look after them and their families if they are injured or killed, as well as in their old age, or when they fall on hard times for reasons beyond their control.

    Now you can think this covenant is a good or a bad thing. You may well think it’s a bad thing if you think the British Army is a pernicious institution or that people should be discouraged from serving in it. Personally, I’d disagree with you (full disclosure: I’m in the military, though I only joined recently, and wouldn’t want to do without the covenant), both because I think the covenant is neccessary in any army that wants to function well (hidden premise being, of course, that I think the British army is a worthwhile institution) and because I think this kind of safety net is something that should be given by the community to those willing to face danger to protect it and its values.

    Regardless of one’s attitude, though, the covenant exists. I assume we can agree that – other things being equal – a promise creates an obligation. Despite the fact that the government never explicitely promised the Gurkhas in question that they’d be allowed to live in the UK, I feel that granting retired Gurkhas the right to live in this country falls within the scope of the spirit of this covenant: risk death for us and we will be equally loyal to you in return.

    Though most people won’t have heard of the military covenant, it is founded on intuitions that a lot of people share. Which explains part of the strong feelings attached to perceived poor treatment of military personnel in general (e.g. sending troops into combat without effective equipment; inadequate access to mental and physical rehabilitation programmes for veterans), and to the case of these Gurkhas in particular. So, yes, the reason for their entitlement is quite closely linked to them having served in military operations.

    As for Luke’s exclamation ‘what a screwed-up world is this where the best way to earn respect and dignity has to be through war? How many soldiers have made a greater contribution to human happiness than the average child-raiser?’ I won’t argue about which profession contributes more to human happiness. However, I would like to mention that the Royal Gurkha Rifles have – over the last 20 or so years – served not just in Afghanistan (an operation I support, but I suspect you will not) but have also contributed to creating and keeping peace in Sierra Leone, Bosnia and Kosovo…which – possibly – you’ll consider more praiseworthy achievements.

    And, Suya, ‘strictly speaking’ the Gurkhas are not mercenaries of any kind. They fall well outside the scope of mercenaries as defined by the Geneva convention: they are a permanent and regular part of the British army, they all swear a permanent oath of allegiance to the British state, they fall within the command structure of the British army entirely and they are fully under democratic control – they are not for sale to the highest bidder. They are not mercenaries, and nor are the Fijians, Irish, South Africans, Zimbabweans and assorted other nationalities that make up a considerable proportion of the British army’s personnel.

  18. Anasuya Says:

    Well, I will defer to your superior knowledge of who is and who is not a mercenary. I was operating under the definition of a mercenary as someone who retains their own nationality but serves in another country’s army. I forgot that mercenaries might be subject to different contract structures as well.

    As for the covenant, I agree that you couldn’t have an effective professional army without one, or, more accurately, without the *perception* of there being one – it seems to be something more honoured in the breach by the British government these days. For me, this ‘covenant’ and the whole idea that a soldier ought to ‘trust’ a faceless institution like the Army is highly suspect, and constitutes brainwashing of just the sort I worried about above. To which the answer of army personnel will always be: “you’re an outsider, and so you don’t understand”.

    Which is just what the Moonies told their friends before they all tried to off themselves, I’m sure. But I digress, and by now I think I’m beginning to be an unwelcome guest on Mr. Warm-Fork’s blog.

  19. Alderson Warm-Fork Says:

    Not at all unwelcome Anasuya, indeed I quite like having you to argue that the army is a highly suspect brainwashing weirdo-outfit so I don’t have to, and having Bod to argue that the Gurkha’s perceived entitlement is linked specifically with their military service, so I don’t have to.

  20. Q Says:

    I thought that it was mostly about unequal pensions, not citizenship.
    But anyway, why are parents so much better than soldiers when we live in an overcrowded world? A soldier serving the interests of his country serves that country far more than someone with a child somewhere.
    The idea that violence is never justified on an organised scale is required before one assumes that a soldier is worse than a parent. A parent, by having a child in hard conditions and by being a bad parent, can contribute greatly to the sum of human unhappiness.

  21. Alderson Warm-Fork Says:

    “A soldier serving the interests of his country serves that country far more than someone with a child somewhere.”
    This is, by Fregean lights, meaningless, and by Russellian lights false, since ‘the interests of his country’ lacks determinate reference.

    “The idea that violence is never justified on an organised scale is required”
    No it’s not.

    “A parent, by having a child in hard conditions and by being a bad parent, can contribute greatly to the sum of human unhappiness.”
    A bad parent is bad, sure, but a bad soldier is liable to kill a number of people out of boredom or hatred.


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