The UK's first Armed Forces Day got underway this morning despite controversy over the event since it was announced last year.
The Defence Secretary, Bob Ainsworth says it will be “a celebration of the armed forces in all of their glory”, but others suggest that the government is taking advantage of the public's respect for the armed forces in an attempt to avoid criticism of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
A national ceremony will take place at Chatham in Kent, with celebrations in Manchester, Leeds, Glasgow and Plymouth. It is not yet known how many local councils have responded to the government's call for special flag-raising events.
Ainsworth, who triggered controversy when he spoke up in favour of holding the Iraq war inquiry in private, said that it was “not acceptable” for the work of the armed forces to be unrecognised. His views have been backed by Conservative Party chairman Eric Pickles, who argued that Armed Forces Day is “a great opportunity to show our respect”.
However, their critics point out that the Day seems to involve no consideration of politicians' own treatment of members of the armed forces.
Earlier this week, the thinktank Ekklesia called on ministers not to use Armed Forces Day to exonerate the government's recent military failings.
They are also urging recognition of the role of nonviolent conflict resolution. The Fellowship of Reconciliation, the Quakers and the magazine Peace News have all called for an 'Unarmed Forces Day'.
The Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, gave his backing to Armed Forces Day, but referred to “the tragic costs of war”. It is as yet unclear how many churches will observe the Day or in what manner they will choose to do so.
Plans for Armed Forces Day were announced by the government last year, following recommendations in a report by Quentin Davies MP. It was originally intended as a new bank holiday, but was set for a Saturday after reports that the CBI had lobbied the government against an increase in the number of public holidays.
Ekklesia has produced a set of resources to help churches, other groups and individuals engage with the issues raised by Armed Forces Day. They can be found at http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/resources/armed_forces_day.