I Love a Man in Uniform

by Maria on December 28, 2011

I almost hesitate to make this recommendation, as my taste has cloven to the mainest of main streams since I became an army wife. A recent intervention has more or less cured me of a short but embarrassing episode of James Blunt fandom. I did, however, spend the whole of Christmas in two comfortable but flattering Boden dresses which I suspect are just a bit smart for the many coffee mornings I now attend. (I was shocked to discover I’m the only one who bakes for them. Everyone else brings biscuits from upper echelon supermarkets.)

‘Wherever You Are’, the lovely song sung by the Military Wives Choir led by Gareth Malone, is at least worth a hunt through Youtube, along with footage of how it came about. The song’s release follows a TV series about choirmaster Gareth Malone turning a group of women into a proper choir while their military husbands were away in Afghanistan. The women’s letters to their husbands were gleaned for touching – though admittedly a bit saccharine – lyrics to a song written for them. Eventually the men came home, and the choir sang beautifully in the Royal Albert Hall on Remembrance Sunday. There were many tears along the way, not least those of viewers. The song was number 1 in the UK at Christmas and has now been released in the US. The proceeds are going to charities that support ex-service men and women. It is certainly worth a listen and even ordering from Amazon US (whenever they get around to re-stocking it).

The real reason I hesitate just a little bit in recommending this sweet song is a niggling worry about sentiment. We all live in a post-Diana world where the stiff upper lip has given way to increasingly orchestrated and maudlin displays of public emotion. A leader who can’t emote, especially on television, is no good. As soldiers don’t have a choice about which wars they fight, it’s a good thing that citizens of democracies don’t, as a rule, pillory service men and women. But I can’t help thinking all these TV programmes about soldiers and their feelings, army wives singing and crying, and kindly townspeople meeting hearses; they give the rest of us a deliciously tender moment to feel in sympathy, rather than think hard about the reality of an all-volunteer force fighting largely wars of choice.

Seventy years ago, George Orwell wrote that the British ‘common people’ have always distrusted a standing army (a view long-shared by the state, according to Alan Mallinson). Publicans had, in Orwell’s recent memory, often refused to serve men in uniform, and the goose step never took off here because Britain was the rare country where people were unfearful enough to laugh at it. Officers had, for at least a hundred years, changed immediately into normal clothes when they finished work. Today, at least in part because of the need to blend in in Northern Ireland, British soldiers spurn the dramatic and unnecessary buzz cuts of the US military, and quite happily look like civilians when they’re off duty.

In spite of Britain’s historic and rather healthy distrust of soldiers and soldiering, we see a creeping sentimentality in public perceptions of the military. The very good publicity and fundraising on soldiers’ disability and rehabilitation done by Help for Heroes has the unintended consequence of associating the military, in the public mind, with continued pleas for sympathy and support. As the World War II generation dies out, Poppy Day nonetheless goes from strength to strength. Its dissociation from the Great War is almost complete, and the day is now a month-long exercise of the thought police. Ironically enough, the Labour creation of Armed Forces Day – another obligatory show of respect– is seen by many serving as simply more drilling for yet another march down High Street on a weekend you’d rather have to yourself or your family.

All this pomp and sentiment is simply a form of distancing. Mass media omnipresence and fly on the wall coverage of the military has the opposite effects to either honest empathy or critical understanding. It puts the soldiers on a pedestal of sentiment that implicitly says ‘I could never do that’, under-cutting the typical military refrain that they are just ordinary people doing an extraordinary job. It also keeps the idea of soldiering at arm’s length. Our boys are puking with fear before venturing out of the patrol base, but they do it anyway. They’re seldom depicted asking themselves – as they often do and as we should ask ourselves – what are we really doing there, and is there anything more at stake than a face-saving retreat on our own timetable?

Wherever You Go; with its slightly ropy solo, sentimental lyrics and Disney-esque melody, always makes me cry. When my husband deploys next year, I will probably indulge in a few bus journeys into town looking out the misty top window to hide my tears as I loop it on repeat to ease out my emotions in manageable doses. But at least I know this is an indulgence, and not something to be cultivated.



Barry 12.28.11 at 2:33 pm

I don’t mean to be cruel, but ‘follow the US in everything’ seems to be an ingrained British trend now. The only thing that you’re lacking is a whackjob right-wing perversion of Christianity, whose roots are still embedded deep into slavery.

Which might be the one thing keeping the UK from actually swirling down with the USA.


Tim Wilkinson 12.28.11 at 2:35 pm

Another (substantively actually very similar) view:



Substance McGravitas 12.28.11 at 3:13 pm

Does anybody here remember Vera Lynn? What a devastating song that is, and so vague about what was actually going on.


Rich Puchalsky 12.28.11 at 3:25 pm

From the Lenin’s Tomb link: “anyone collecting money for military causes in a bear outfit should be mercilessly ridiculed”

Or, if in the right bar, chatted up. But only if the bear’s “military causes” are Tom of Finland posters.


Kenny Easwaran 12.28.11 at 4:33 pm

Why doesn’t Crooked Timber have a “like” button for Rich Puchalsky’s comment?


NomadUK 12.28.11 at 5:35 pm

I don’t mean to be cruel, but ‘follow the US in everything’ seems to be an ingrained British trend now.

I just about vomited when ‘Armed Forces Day’ was announced. And, yes, there seems to be some kind of desperate goal within UK government circles to become the 51st state. I wish someone would tell them that we’d be far down the list, well below Washington, DC, and Puerto Rico.


NickS 12.28.11 at 6:06 pm

Seventy years ago, George Orwell wrote that the British ‘common people’ have always distrusted a standing army . . . Officers had, for at least a hundred years, changed immediately into normal clothes when they finished work.

Reading this I am immediately reminded of the great anti-recruitment song Arthur McBride.


leederick 12.28.11 at 7:00 pm

“As soldiers don’t have a choice about which wars they fight, it’s a good thing that citizens of democracies don’t, as a rule, pillory service men and women.”

I’m not sure that’s true in this context – you could have said it 10 years ago, but the recent wars have dragged on. Everyone currently in Afghanistan, or in Iraq before withdrawal, will have either known perfectly well which wars on when they signed up or would have passed on a chance to get out since the wars started.

The whole maudlinization of the WOT in the UK is very mixed. The general public sympathises because they are mostly anti-war, or tired of it, or couldn’t really explain what we’re doing there; but the soldiers they sympathise with knew exactly what was going on when they joined and it many cases would have joined precisely because they wanted to go.


Tom T. 12.29.11 at 12:15 am

“But it’s ‘Please to walk in front, sir’, when there’s trouble in the wind…”


Tim Wilkinson 12.29.11 at 12:56 am


G. McThornbody 12.29.11 at 4:04 am

Wherever You Go; with its slightly ropy solo, sentimental lyrics and Disney-esque melody, always makes me cry.

To be fair, I enjoy crying when I watch Moulin Rouge, but there are plenty of better things to cry over. Such as… (among other things)


Perhaps if the opposition wore nicer uniforms, we would feel sad for them too. Furthermore, soldiers do have a choice. The consequences aren’t nice, but there is always an opt-out.



Meredith 12.29.11 at 6:53 am

Maria, I think you’re right on the many distancing effects you discern. Is there any music that binds, though? I’m thinking as an American of the Vietnam generation, where anti-war activists and sullen soldiers and gung-ho’s, alike, all shared a lot through music. (This has bothered me before — the fragmented state of our current popular music culture. This fragmentation has its strengths, but….)


Maria 12.29.11 at 10:18 am

Hi Meredith, funnily enough I think your generation did better than most on music that binds as it challenges. The first thing that popped into my head on reading your comment was a wonderful moment going in on the Metro to President Obama’s inauguration. Someone or perhaps a couple of people started singing Woodie Guthrie’s ‘This Land is My Land’, and many in the carriage joined in. It is hard to imagine that happening with a current hit.

Though I was at a carol service last week in Co. Waterford when Fairytale of New York was sung by a whole restaurant. We belted out the scumbags and maggots and spontaneously sang the sad bits softer. When everyone put down the sheets at the end of it, there was a feeling of nervous achievement and the notion that the song has passed from the radio to the people.

G. McThornbody – Golly Gosh! You really have put me back in my box! I will duly pack away all emotion until past wrongs by foreign armies have been righted.

Substance – I heard Vera Lynn singing on the radio only yesterday morning and was struck by how young she sounded during the war. You forget, don’t you?

Barry & Nomad – a trivial but annoying aping of the US army is the recent order direct from CGS that British soldiers wear their camo shirts hanging out. I always used to feel sorry for the American soldiers who look so sloppy. Now my husband goes out the door every day looking like a slovenly Latvian prison guard.


Erica Blair 12.29.11 at 3:14 pm

The military wives should have sung ‘Johnny, I hardly knew ye’, with its more realistic lyrics. Such as,

Where are your legs that used to run, hurroo, hurroo
Where are your legs that used to run, hurroo, hurroo
Where are your legs that used to run
When you went to carry a gun
Indeed your dancing days are done
Oh Johnny, I hardly knew ye.


Ye haven’t an arm, ye haven’t a leg, hurroo, hurroo
Ye haven’t an arm, ye haven’t a leg, hurroo, hurroo
Ye haven’t an arm, ye haven’t a leg
Ye’re an armless, boneless, chickenless egg
Ye’ll have to be put with a bowl out to beg
Oh Johnny I hardly knew ye.


Meredith 12.30.11 at 5:58 am

Maria, songs like “This land is your land, this land is my land” we (1950’s children, at least in the northeast, but also my husband growing up in Texas and Oklahoma) learned in school if we didn’t learn them elsewhere. Children used to sing in school a lot! Through sixth grade I started every day with a psalm reading and saluting the flag (glad all that’s gone — my own parents never did either of those things, btw), and then singing. So many songs. And then, families sang songs in the car on trips. People sang together for their own entertainment all the time. When my parents had friends over, often people gravitated to the tinny upright piano to sing together. (Beer figured in heavily, as well!) Songs of all sorts and kinds. And when more people (besides evangelicals) were church-going, hymns were a part of “everyone’s” repertory. There’s some history to be written here (probably some Ph.D. theses have been written) on all this, the modern history starting with the “invention” of sheet music (mid-19th c., I think) and the upright piano. And about music (like dance) as always crossing region, class, race, even in the south in the Jim Crow era. And then radio….
My generation was bound together not just by our own music but by our parents’ and grandparents’, which we knew (in our different groups- regional, racial, class). I learned “I Dream of Jeannie with the Light Brown Hair” from hearing my grandfather sing it. I learned “I’ll be seeing you in all the old familiar places” from my mother (WWII generation). And who didn’t sing that wonderful song (besides the great Vera Lynn)? From Billy Holiday and Sarah Vaughan to Frank Sinatra to Linda Ronstadt. Sharing across the generations, races, classes.
The image that comes to my mind: the scene from the movie Local Hero, at the gathering (is it after a funeral? some communal gathering in the pub) that starts with contemporary music and ends, late, with all generations and types sharing the old Scottish music.


Ross Johnson 12.30.11 at 11:52 pm

Thank you for the lovely essay.

I retired from the Canadian Army ten years ago, and miss it very much, but must admit I’m a little uncomfortable with all the soldier-worship that goes on in public. I served with the UN in Rwanda, Egypt, and Israel, and never thought any one of us was anything more than an ordinary person in an extraordinary situation. The parade of people lining up today to call those in uniform ‘heroes’ is a little embarrassing: just because they wouldn’t do it doesn’t make someone who does heroic.

When I read the obituaries of our soldiers lost in Afghanistan I can’t help but wonder why we throw away the lives of the best and the brightest so casually. Yellow ribbon car magnets don’t seem to repay the debt we have incurred to them.

A greater demonstration of respect for our soldiers would be to in future, be very, very reluctant to send them in harm’s way.


Dan Hardie 01.04.12 at 1:49 am

My experience, after two tours of Afghanistan with the British Army, is that there are plenty of ordinary Britions who oppose the war but have genuine concern for the troops. The media coverage is grossly sentimental and largely unthinking, agreed, but I think that plenty of ordinary citizens are simply concerned about young, or youngish, people going into harm’s way. I don’t think most Britons do support the war- the opinion polls certainly don’t suggest that- but they also don’t like the idea of soldiers coming home dead.

Furthermore, I don’t think all support for the Afghan war is mindless (I know Maria isn’t suggesting this, but some commenters seem to be).For myself, I do actually think that some kind of war to prevent the Taliban taking over Kabul would be justified, but I do increasingly feel- based partly on what I saw out there, and partly on what I have read- that the Nato intervention in general, and perhaps especially the British role in Helmand, were dreadfully ill-conceived.

I was making a train journey before my first deployment to Afghanistan, in civvies but carrying a lot of clearly military baggage (DPM bergen, daysack, etc). ‘You off to Afghanistan?’ a railwayman asked me. When I said yes, he said ‘I don’t think we should be there, but you come back safe’, and offered me his hand to shake.

More or less the same thing happened about a year ago, when I was on my second tour and heading back to Helmand after my R&R was over. A bunch of people on the bus I was catching to Brize Norton- ordinary people taking public transport home from their jobs- saw my military kit and asked if I was flying out, and, again, wished me luck and told me to come home safe. I’d never seen British people talk so warmly to a complete stranger before, and I have to say it did touch me. I doubt that most of them supported the war, but it was good of them to act the way they did. A week later I was waist-deep in a canal being shot at by two different sets of gunmen, so the people on that bus weren’t too foolish in wishing me good luck.

A taxi driver gave me a free ride home when I finally did complete my tour, but I think that was another case of simple compassion- I’d had a very tough time, had been seriously ill at the end of the tour and could barely keep my eyes open, and he just felt sorry for me. (The same cabbie quite rightly took my money a couple of weeks later, when I’d recovered a bit.)

Most importantly, I do hope your husband comes back safe from his tour, and I do hope that you get through his absence as well as you can. In some ways I think that tours are harder on the families than they are on the soldiers- we know when we are in danger and when we’re not, and we have the job to occupy our minds, but families can end up worryingly endlessly. I do feel for you and I hope all goes as well as it can.

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