Savi Hensman

Honouring members of the armed forces

By Savi Hensman
June 23, 2009

Armed Forces Day will be celebrated in the UK for the first time on 27 June 2009. According to the Prime Minister Gordon Brown, "The British Armed Forces are the very best in the world. We should all be proud of the brave job that they do, and grateful to them for the sacrifices they and their families make. Armed Forces the opportunity to celebrate and recognise their huge contribution." The website explains that this "is an opportunity for the nation to show our support for the men and women who make up the Armed Forces community: from currently serving troops to Service families, and from veterans to recruits."

This poses a dilemma for some Christians. How may we respond in a way that shows respect and concern for current and former members of the army, navy and air force and their families, without glamorising war? We have sworn allegiance to one who was ready to die but did not kill and who taught us to love our enemies. Christian tradition favours either pacifism or strict restrictions on use of violence (the position I currently take). The fact that so much of the earth’s resources are used up on weapons and equipment that destroy is cause for sorrow and penitence, not jolly flag-waving.

Yet the interests of current and former members of the armed forces and their families are not necessarily the same as those of the institutions which have made use of them. While some (like workers in other fields) take pride in their work, many have paid a heavy price for what they do and have more to lose than most if war is glorified. The government also deserves to be challenged to explain why, if it thinks so highly of those serving in the armed forces and their loved ones, its policies are so damaging to so many of them.

Truly supporting those who have fought

Many jobs involve physical danger, but serving in the armed forces carries greater risks than most. It also perhaps brings unique psychological and moral hazards too. Being a firefighter, ambulance technician or child protection social worker can be hard enough, especially where there is a threat of violence or scenes of devastation or loss must be routinely faced, for instance a wrecked home or someone terribly injured. But there at least, one is usually trying, as far as possible, to make things better .

Soldiers must be trained to follow orders even when these go against their instincts or norms of behaviour ingrained from birth – to run towards danger not away from it, to endure nerve-wracking bombardment without knowing when it will end, to seek to kill, rather than to preserve life.

Not surprisingly there is a heavy toll in physical injury (though the full consequences may not be experienced until after a return to civilian life), in mental illness and alcohol misuse. Of course recruits may bring problems with them when they join the military, but the lifestyle they enter may add to their woes. Even veterans who come back seemingly whole may find themselves distanced in certain ways from their families and communities. The partners and children of members of the armed forces can also pay a heavy price.

Paying attention to the needs and experiences of current and former combatants and those who love them might get in the way of recruitment drives and state prestige. So the images presented in the publicity surrounding Armed Forces Day are likely, for the most part, to airbrush out many of those who are supposedly being honoured.

No war without proper cause

All employers owe a duty of care to those who work for them. This is all the greater in the case of soldiers, sailors and air force personnel, because of the nature of what they do, and the particular obstacles they face to walking off the job. If they are willing to put their lives and integrity on the line in what they believe is the national interest, the government’s – and society’s – side of the bargain involves not abusing their trust. This includes resolving disputes peacefully where possible and avoiding unlawful wars and unlawful actions in the course of war.

Of course, some may argue that war is never necessary and that there are always nonviolent means of resisting injustice. At any rate, international law is strict in limiting the use of force, though all too often this is disregarded. Starting a war of aggression is recognised as one of the most serious crimes known to humankind, given the terrible consequences and there are legal safeguards for non-combatants in the conduct of conflict. Soldiers however, tend to rely on their commanding officers and government ministers not to order or pressure them into doing what is unlawful.

This trust was terribly abused in the Iraq war. The politicians who made this happen may wish to treat this as part of the past, not to be dwelt on too much, an embarrassing indiscretion. But this is not possible for the people of Iraq, or for those who have served there.

It is a positive development that the government’s initial plan to hold an inquiry in secret has been largely abandoned, following widespread protest. But any attempt to shy away from assigning responsibility for the untrue claims and unwise decisions, or address the failure of Cabinet and Parliament properly to question what they were told, would fail to serve the interests of justice. And it would increase the chances that something similar could happen again.

Caring for veterans

Some of the care of those left severely injured or disabled in combat is very good but other survivors are less fortunate. Support can be especially hard to access for those who have left the services some time ago and society can be less than sympathetic. A man who is admired when smartly dressed in uniform may be shunned a few years later if he is grubby, homeless and clearly disturbed. Some public service workers and charities have worked hard to improve the situation of ex-forces personnel and their families who are in difficulties but the situation is patchy.

The hollowness of the rhetoric about national gratitude is perhaps clearest in the treatment of older people who fought, or provided auxiliary services during World War Two. Many now experience difficulty in getting basic personal care in hospital or at home, largely because health and social care are underfunded. This is a matter of priorities: public funds can be found for expensive weaponry and lavish payments to people who are already rich. A former Wren with a bad hip and dementia cannot compete – and the situation is likely to get worse as funding cuts bite.

Benefit reform

The Labour government has introduced new measures to crack down on benefit claimants, including disabled people and single parents. They will be at even more of a disadvantage in seeking work at a time of recession, even if they can sustain this without damage to themselves or their families, but this has not deterred the powers-that-be. The Conservatives plan to take this programme of welfare reform even further if they get into power.

Claimants who supposedly do not do enough to seek work may be stripped of their benefits. People with drug and alcohol problems have been particularly targeted. This attempt to find easy solutions to complex issues will appeal to sections of the electorate. But the impact on some who have already been damaged by life and cannot easily ‘snap out of it’, will be severe. This includes former service personnel and their families. It remains to be seen how much mercy will be shown by a system geared to treating humans, their life-stories and relationships in highly simplistic terms.

Beyond the rhetoric

Those in the government who are enthusiastic about Armed Forces Day may well be sincere. However, their policies are largely at odds with their rhetoric. And things may get worse for members of the armed forces and their families, whose real-life experience may be an uncomfortable reminder of the physical, mental and spiritual cost of war.

Consistent care for current and former service personnel and their families and action to minimise the risk of further avoidable conflicts, with all the suffering these involve, would be better than fine words and pageantry.


Also on Ekklesia:

Armed Forces Day resources -

'Move from armed force to conflict prevention, government urged' -


(c) Savi Hensman was born in Sri Lanka. She works in the voluntary sector in community care and equalities in the UK and is also a respected writer on Christianity and social justice. An Ekklesia associate, Savi has contributed several chapters to the recent book Fear or Freedom? Why a warring church must change, edited by Simon Barrow (Shoving Leopard / Ekklesia, 2008).

More on Armed Forces Day from Ekklesia:

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