Why Boris Johnson – and other men like him – love the idea of conscription

<span>Photograph: Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group/Getty Images

Every morning, unless someone’s vomited in my path, I walk between two war memorials. One is extremely fancy and timeless: a clocktower of Portland stone, the perfectly typeset names of local residents killed between 1914 and 1919. I sometimes look reflexively for a Williams, then remember that there are always a bunch of us, none related to me: the only notable person in my lineage to die in the first world war was my grandmother’s true love, in grief for whom she married my grandfather, who was a notorious prick.

On the other side is a garish, funny-looking building, squat and round, with a mural in memory of Violette Szabo, the British-French spy who died at the hands of the Nazis in Ravensbruck in 1945, aged 23. There’s a painting of Roger Moore, looking nothing like himself, round the other side. The theme isn’t so much “war heroes” as “people who lived round here and were good”, and the stark contrast in dignity with its neighbouring memorial is in direct inverse proportion to the dignity of the memorialised. Szabo fought fascism of her own volition and, until the final three weeks of her life, was the resistance movement’s constant source of buoyancy and hope. By contrast, most of the Williams upon Wilsons upon Smiths upon Crumplers were called up to fight a war that, meh, let’s just say if the political-military-industrial complex that started it had been contractually required to go over the top first, they might have found another way to resolve their differences.

“At the going down of the sun …” etc reads Szabo’s. “Their name liveth forever more”, reads the clocktower, and practically speaking, yes, for here they still are. They would have lived in the anguish of the people who loved them for what felt like forever, and that also counts. “In glory will they sleep,” it says on the other side, “and endless sanctity.” Even before we started having what must surely be the most idiotic debate in a peerlessly stupid age – will we have to bring back conscription, and are the young people up to it? – I’d turned over a few times how a thought so many kinds of meaningless had got itself set in stone. Would glory in sleep really compensate for the last bit of being awake, howling in agony with a mouth full of mud? Sanctity, sure, if God is English; or maybe all dead soldiers of all nations are beatified, in which case, they made damn fools of themselves all killing each other.

The conscription debate started last week, when the outgoing head of the army, Gen Sir Patrick Sanders, said that all citizens should be trained and equipped to fight Russia. Former Nato commander Gen Sir Richard Sherriff weighed in the next day to say it was time to “think the unthinkable” and “look carefully at conscription”. Former colonel Tim Collins agreed at the weekend that it “shouldn’t be ruled out”, and by that time, the armchair generals had weighed in. LBC’s Nick Ferrari wondered what use today’s young were, when they needed a TikTok video to brush their teeth. Disgraced former politician Boris Johnson wrote in the Mail, “Would I sign up to fight for King and country? Yes, Sah!”, a sentiment that was immediately questionable, from a man who once hid in a fridge when a journalist asked him a question, and wouldn’t sacrifice one moment of his own comfort, one glass of warm prosecco, for anything at all.

It’s funny how many things can change, over the course of 110 years, in the realms of weapons and general purpose technology, conceptions of nationhood, duty and subservience, rhetoric, propaganda and misinformation. Yet one thing remains constant: there will always be a cohort of men in late middle-age, whose enduring thrill it is to imagine other people’s kids dying, and dress that up as their own patriotism. All that cod-nostalgic, belt-tightening austerity talk, sadism dressed up as masochism, has its wellspring here: people who will shamelessly peddle the sacrifice of others as their own, and honestly imagine themselves burnished by it. I’m happy to talk about the rights and wrongs of a modern land war, any time, with one proviso: nobody join up before Boris Johnson, OK, Sah?

• Zoe Williams is a Guardian columnist