Armed Forces Day adds insult to injury

Symon Hill
By Symon Hill
27 Jun 2009

Whatever animosity Gordon Brown and Tony Blair may feel towards each other, one characteristic they share is an unswerving ability to underestimate the intelligence of the British public. Six years after the weapons of mass destruction were discovered to exist only in Blair's imagination, Brown apparently thought he could get away with a secret inquiry into the Iraq war. Today he wants the public to join in with another thinly veiled attempt at dodging the issue, as the government celebrates the UK's first Armed Forces Day.

With breathtaking hypocrisy, ministers are promoting "respect" for the people whose lives they risked in a futile war based on deceit. Like most attempts by politicians to patronise the public, Armed Forces Day looks likely to backfire.

It is clear that the majority of British people already respect members of the armed forces, while firmly opposing the disastrous invasion of Iraq. Of course, it is an old trick to accuse opponents of war of being disrespectful of soldiers. The government took this strategy to new heights last year with a report by the MP Quentin Davies. Davies said he wanted to "reconnect" the public with the armed forces. He overlooked the need to reconnect the government with public opinion.

Davies's more dangerous recommendations included the promotion of army cadet forces in schools. Some argued that this would improve discipline, as if the way to deal with youth violence is to train young people to use guns. At its most surreal point, the report recommended that it be made illegal to discriminate against people in military uniform. Davies would clearly like us to have an image of terrified soldiers at risk from mobs of militant pacifists, who nightly roam the streets in traditional Quaker dress, screaming for the blood of anyone in khaki.

The recommendation that has gone furthest is Davies's proposal for a new bank holiday in honour of the armed forces. Gordon Brown welcomed this suggestion but his real priorities were quickly revealed when the CBI objected to workers having an extra day off, even once a year. Brown agreed to hold Armed Forces Day on a Saturday, suggesting that ministers' respect for the armed forces is rather less than their loyalty to big business.

Today, the government will add insult to injury by holding a day of sentimental flag-waving after the carnage of Iraq. Armed violence will be presented as a normal or inevitable response to conflict while the work of nonviolent peacemakers will be ignored.

Some will understandably argue that nonviolent approaches are not always successful. What is amazing is that so many of them are, given that for every dollar spent on conflict prevention, nearly 2,000 are spent on military force: a statistic highlighted by the all-party parliamentary group on conflict issues.

Let us not forget that it is only 20 years since several repressive regimes in eastern Europe were overthrown with minimal violence. We have seen the effects of third-party facilitation in Northern Ireland, not to mention in countries as diverse as Estonia, Guatemala and Mozambique. Creative and effective approaches to conflict have been pioneered by schemes such as Responding to Conflict, Peace Brigades International and the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI).

It is no surprise that the Quakers, the Fellowship of Reconciliation and the magazine Peace News have responded to the government's plans by calling for an Unarmed Forces Day. The Christian thinktank Ekklesia has produced a wide-ranging collection of resources to help churches and other groups and individuals engage in a meaningful manner with issues related to the use of armed force. They aim to go beyond conventional assumptions and to think about both ethics and effectiveness.

In contrast, cheerleaders for war often seem to live in a fantasy world in which security is about Victorian nation states facing each other with traditional armed forces. When I debated with the commentator Dickie Arbiter last year, he responded to my assertion that Britain did not face a military threat by saying that we are under the threat of terrorism. This is true. But he failed to explain how we would defeat suicide bombers on the underground with tanks, Eurofighters and thousands of identically dressed men and women marching in time.

The biggest threat to our security is the danger of climate chaos. Future generations will look back in disbelief, asking why we responded to such a threat by spending billions on the Trident nuclear weapons system and subsidising the arms trade with hundreds of millions of pounds of taxpayers' money every year. They will ask why we continued to train people to fight in a 20th-century world when we were faced with 21st-century dangers.

If ministers are really concerned to make the world safer and to keep Britain secure, they need to invest urgently in alternative responses to conflict and in policies that address people's real needs. If they are serious about honouring members of the armed forces, they should start with a commitment to openness and honesty about the realities of war.

Sadly, both the government and the Tory party are using Armed Forces Day to encourage us to close our eyes to these realities. This simply is not good enough. It is vital that those who make decisions are held to account – for their contempt of public opinion, for people torn apart in mind or body, for British soldiers sacrificed by Blair, for the uncounted thousands of Iraqi and Afghan civilians killed in wars supposedly fought for their sake, for the billions wasted on destruction as ministers insisted there was no money for meaningful increases in pensions or education funding.

Instead of accountability, we are offered only a day of sugary sentiment on which anyone who asks questions is accused of disrespect to the people whose lives have been treated so casually by decision-makers. The greatest insult to people who have died is to speak of honouring them while doing nothing to prevent the deaths of others.

------------

(c) Symon Hill is associate director of Ekklesia. This article is adapated from his online comment piece for the Guardian on 27 June 2009. See http://www.guardian.co.uk/profile/symonhill.

More on Armed Forces Day from Ekklesia: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/tags/7063

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 England & Wales License. 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.