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The rainstorm of almost tropical ferocity which swept across West Suffolk yesterday afternoon (28 June) was dying down as we assembled for a silent Peace Vigil to mark Armed Forces Day. But the distant thundery grumbles seemed – at the risk of being mocked for the use of Pathetic Fallacy – to be a reminder of the persistence and ubiquity of strife.
Ever since the inception of Armed Forces Day in 2009, Quakers in Bury St Edmunds have sought to offer an alternative view to the orthodoxy which demands unquestioning admiration for the military displays and festivities which are staged throughout the country and which Glasgow's Herald Scotland today described as being “where the might and destructive force of the British Army is repackaged as wholesome family fun.”
The alternative view sometimes gives rise to resentful and angry responses. Bury St Edmunds is home to the Royal Anglian Regiment and a Reserve regiment of the Army Air Corps. But it has been our experience that where we explain our stance, initial indignation gives way to a readiness to engage and to listen. Over the past six years, we have had reason to be grateful to the local broadcast and print media for their even-handed reporting and consideration of our views.
The Society of Friends believes that the men and women of the Armed Forces deserve our support and care. We may deplore some recruitment practices but we would never doubt the courage of military personnel, belittle their service or take lightly the suffering which they and their families may undergo.
We are, however, concerned that this support is becoming conflated with support for war. It is certainly in danger of suppressing free and honest debate about the destructive and chaotic consequences of the military interventions which Western powers have made in the first 14 years of this century. We cannot allow governments of any persuasion to turn honest sentiment into a non-critical and ill-focused sentimentality calculated to marginalise or silence questioning voices.
The UK Armed Forces do pageantry very well. Stirring music, elaborate uniforms, parades and fly-pasts are spectacular. So spectacular in fact, that they may easily deflect our attention away from the appalling realities and consequences of war. This dissociation is exactly what politicians want. In 2010, David Cameron explicitly conflated demonstrations of support for the armed forces with "social responsibility" and patriotism, saying he wanted an "explosion of red, white and blue" on Armed Forces Day.
Despite diminishing public support for military intervention abroad, the success of this strategy is apparent in the widespread failure to think critically about the origins of conflict. The government has invested almost £12 million in the promotion of cadet corps and the 'Troops to Teachers' programme with the intention of inculcating a 'military ethos' in state schools. There would appear to be no matching investment in peace education. If we are seduced away from considering the importance of education and training in areas such as conflict prevention and resolution, techniques of reconciliation, sensitivity to grievance and cultural difference, nation building and a just sharing of the world's resources, armed force will increasingly be seen as the standard response to protecting or promoting national interests.
It may suit power to lull us into believing that by turning out for military pageants and displays of destructive hardware, we are supporting 'our boys'. In striving to be true to the Peace Testimony, Bury St Edmunds Quakers have given much thought to finding a means of expressing care for members of the Armed Forces without giving assent to events designed to deflect our attention away from military policy. Put simply, it is by doing everything possible to keep military personnel out of the way of harm.
Our vigil was well attended although such an event is never going to compete with marching regiments or helicopter gunships parked in the town centre. But it does perhaps, provide a space where the rumbles of strife may be addressed both in our own lives and the life of the nation. We hope that next year, some members of the Armed Forces may feel able to accept the invitation to join us in that endeavour.
© Jill Segger is an Associate Director of Ekklesia with particular involvement in editorial issues. She is a freelance writer who contributes to the Church Times, Catholic Herald, Tribune, Reform and The Friend, among other publications. Jill is an active Quaker. See: http://www.journalistdirectory.com/journalist/TQig/Jill-Segger You can follow Jill on Twitter at: http://www.twitter.com/quakerpenTweet