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The Vacuum - Issue 17 - Fashion spacer The Vacuum - Issue 17 - Fashion
Comrades in Arms?
by Christian Nold
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On my daily route to university after fighting my way though the traffic to reach the safety of London's Hyde Park, I am often confronted by a strange spectacle: A group of horses canter towards me topped by the huge men of the Household Cavalry dressed in gleaming 17th century ceremonial battle armour. Their impossibly burnished, faux-antique breastplates and helmets carry stunning reflections of the green foliage lining their path. Fascinated, I almost miss the most surreal part of this whole procession. At the rear, bobbing up and down behind all the peaked headdresses is a very tall radio aerial. As the riders pass, I can see that at the back of the groups is a single mounted soldier dressed in a simple green uniform with a large box, containing a mobile field telephone.
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Checking out the Household Cavalry website, with its Flash animation intro I am struck by the marquee scrolling the locations 'Gulf, Bosnia, Kosovo' like a rock band t-shirt over the top of a world map pockmarked by red dots. The website itself seems to be aware of the strange mismatch between historical ceremony and topical killing, and states, 'there is more to soldiers of the Household Cavalry than meets the eye' and informs us that these soldiers are 'the best of both worlds'. But what are these two worlds and what keeps them apart?
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Having passively absorbed the images from last two gulf wars, few of us can be in any doubt about the role of spectacle and display in military actions. While images of the First and Second World War still showed soldiers in action, today these images have become machine spectacles. It is the endless, fetishist images of cruise missiles and 'precision' bombs slamming into their targets that stay with us from these wars.
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Many people have noted the link between these displays of technological prowess and massive increases in civilian sales of items such as Global Positioning Systems and military style trucks. These enormous Sport Utility Vehicles (SUV) or 'Chelsea Tractors' not only kill pedestrians but they are also the same vehicles the US Military uses in Iraq. The Chevrolet Tahoe for example isavailable to consumers with custom leather seats and heated, auto dimming mirrors, but it can also be outfitted with M16 and M14 assault rifle brackets mounted between the driver and passenger seats.
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Today, the easy distinction between the military and civilian world has collapsed. Contractors such as the CAE corporation, not only construct civilian flight simulations of 'almost every modern airliner for both major and regional carriers', but also 'the defence forces of more than 30 different nations'. These types of crossovers become particularly troubling when they involve politically sensitive subjects like the number of people at a demonstration. In 2003 for example the American company, Air Flight Service, who normally work for arms manufactures like Lockheed-Martin and General Dynamics were hired to 'scientifically' count the number of San Francisco peace demonstrators.
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And yet in most people's minds it remains important to maintain the distinction between these worlds. Richard Barbrook in a recent lecture at the Royal College of Art talked about the love of the English for dressing up their 'hi-tech commercial republic as a romantic medieval monarchy'. As an example Barbrook gives the 1851 technological, marvel of the Great Exhibition, which first showed the new machine looms that would revolutionise Britain, and yet as its centrepiece displayed faux-medieval furniture. It is this fear of showing change and the desire for illusion that explains how the modern military can combine armoured personal carriers with silver stirrups and furriers. These public displays give the impression of historical continuity and shield the public from the social and technological ruptures that are taking place.
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The US and British militaries are rapidly transforming into a global police force for dealing with 'dirty battlefields' where combatants and civilians are mixed. This new management rather than killing approach to war entails fundamental changes in thinking, training and equipment. With this unglamorous vision of the future military, it looks like there will be a lot more need for historical pomp and technological awe.
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