Armed Forces Day and the risky people

By Jill Segger
July 5, 2018

“The Armed Forces have decided your vigil will not prove a risk to their display”. Among the many emails received from the local council as Bury St Edmunds Quaker Meeting went through the formalities of setting up its peaceful witness on Armed Forces Day, this one gave us a little light relief.

I am inclined to the view that cock-up is far more common than conspiracy, but I was not alone in coming to the conclusion that the Council did not really want us there as witnesses to another way of thinking. The delays and passing around from one member of staff to another might genuinely have been procedural confusion. However as these mounted, together with unnecessary alternatives and suggestions issued sequentially (“you might like to do this after the display is finished/at a different location/ it’s going to be very noisy”) we were united in determination not to be thwarted.

This was rather stressful for all involved, Knowing that the right to peaceful protest can only be refused in exceptional circumstances was not a great comfort as the publicity and media deadlines closed in upon us. Nonetheless, all that was necessary somehow got done and around 40 witnesses to peace and peacemaking assembled in the Peace Memorial Garden, complete with banner, placards and information on Quaker peace work.

We do this every year on Armed Forces Day but this time it was different. The event surrounding us in the Abbey Gardens on Saturday (30 July 2018) was advertised as “a family fun day with activities including historic re-enactments, storytelling, military vehicles, arts and crafts and live music.” There is a both a growing tendency to present the hardware of armed combat as entertainment on these occasions, and a rising awareness that inviting small children to handle weapons or sit at the controls of a helicopter gunship is morally disturbing. Warfare and its tackle is exciting for young children who have not reached an age where they may reflect on what lies beyond these showbiz – one might say almost comic-strip – simplicities. And this is the point at which it is important to have in mind these words from a former head of the Army’s recruitment strategy: “Our new model is about raising awareness, and that takes a ten-year span. It starts with a seven-year-old boy seeing a parachutist at an air show and thinking 'that looks great'. From then on, the army is trying to build interest by drip, drip, drip”.

That long view is just as important to those of us who resist the recruitment angle. Standing silently in baking sun is not going to make sudden converts to active non-violence. But, together with our reassurance that we value military personnel and wish to keep them from harm, we believe we are sowing seeds which may be years in fruiting. If people are never shown an alternative approach, they are less likely to question the growth of what is often described as ‘every-day militarism’ or to reflect upon other means of preventing and resolving conflict. In the words of the American theologian Stanley Hauerwas: “As long as it is assumed that war is always an available option, we will not be forced to imagine any alternative to war”.

It would be false to claim that we aroused a great deal of interest. Most of the people wandering around the displays were there for the ‘fun’: the ‘Dad’s Army’ nostalgia, a choir singing songs from the two massive conflagrations of the previous century, armoured cars, camouflaged tents and 1940s uniforms. But a significant number cast curious glances at us, some stopped to take in our banner and placards, a good few nodded and gave us a thumbs up. Drip, drip, drip…

The recruitment stalls scattered among the ruins of what was once a Benedictine Abbey were interspersed with child-friendly attractions – roundabouts, trampolines and bouncy castles. The juxtaposition was unnerving but there is some cause for hope in the fact the only people who seemed to be paying much attention to the supposed recruiting pull of Hellfire missiles and other pieces of alarming ordnance were men well past military age. Neither was there any hint here of the undemocratic and authoritarian behaviour met with by protestors in Leicester and for that we must be grateful.

The Armed Forces assessment of the ‘risk’ posed by peaceable people is revealing. Certainly, Quakers were never likely to rush about shouting slogans, or trying to push people off jeep-mounted machine guns. But movements of the spirit and of conscience will always present a real challenge to the continuation of that which power would prefer to go unexamined. Just ask the Abolitionists.

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© Jill Segger is 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. You can follow Jill on Twitter at: http://www.twitter.co/quakerpen

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.