In the eyes of Jeremy Paxman, if World War Three caught on tomorrow, British generals would struggle to fill a trench with young, biddable recruits, let alone send them over the top. A certain spine, he feels, is absent. The young, he believes, are bubble-wrapped by a feckless culture, in which the only Call of Duty they recognise is the videogame – and the only sinews they stiffen the ones that make love, not war. “There’d be so many tweets and so many Snapchatted photos of the trench digging”, he told a literary conference in Dubai, that public opinion would abandon a war effort and leave England’s pastures green to the advancing hordes – this time, let’s say, Russian. “What would [the younger] generation fight for?” Paxman went on, “The right to use your iPhone?”
To be fair to Mr Paxman, whose words interrupted me Flapping my Bird all over WhatsApp, if Putin were to take that right away, there would be ramifications on a geopolitical scale. At the same time – and this is where Paxman and so many, many commentators go wrong – I can’t be the only ‘Millenial’ who feels it possible to own a smartphone and believe in a value-system that stretches beyond the “materialistic, self-obsessed and hedonistic” (Paxman, again).
Maybe it’s to be expected that the presenter of University Challenge sees so little stomach for a fight in contemporary youth. Still, I would say there are a good number of reasons why the cardigan-wearing quiz-heads on that show might want to avoid digging trenches, before you get to Snapchat and Twitter. Give a nerd a shovel, for one, and he will quote Seamus Heaney before any soil is touched.
For two, it’s the changing nature of war (and this generation’s awareness of it) that seems to me to make the young trench-shy, not the changing nature of young people. You don’t need to have faced Paxman over a buzzer to realise that recent military adventures in Afghanistan and Iraq have contributed little to global security, though their cost has been dear to Western soldiers, and dearer still to local peoples. Of the thousands of stories to illustrate the point, take the US marine who fought to secure Fallujah in 2004, aged 21, only to watch it this year fall back into the hands of Al-Qa’ida. “It made me sick to my stomach to have that thrown in our face” said Adam Banotai, “everything we fought for so blatantly taken away.”
Paxman asks what “noble causes” young people would consider risking their lives for, as if it’s a problem that no obvious answer presents itself. He may be right that British people born before 1914 were more ready to die for an ideal, or for their country. But it's strange to suggest that Tinder, Snapchat and the like - not the painful lessons of recent history - have eroded the young's willingness to go to war.