Wars and soldiers may be necessary evils in this world but rejoicing in them is hardly the best response, writes Hugh Reilly
When Alex Salmond announced in March 2013 the date of Scotland’s referendum on independence, it was a tad inevitable that Stirling would be Hobson’s choice, or rather Defence Secretary Philip Hammond’s choice, of venue for UK Armed Forces Day. However, compelling the Bannockburn Live extravaganza to joust with Westminster-funded Armed Forces Day for the Scottish public’s attention on the same weekend was a Cameron PR stunt that somewhat backfired – Bannockburn Live was a sell-out.
Astonishingly, Labour MP Ian Davidson proclaimed in the Commons that the reason why many Scots celebrate Bannockburn is not the overthrow of Longshanks’ yoke but rather “the murder of hundreds of thousands of English people”. I wonder if Mr Davidson believe Scots celebrate D-Day for the murder of hundreds of thousands of German people? My father enlisted in 1937, not out of keen martial interest, more as a consequence of sectarian employment practices in Glasgow workplaces. Apart from the six years depressingly having to listen to Wehrmacht bullets whizzing in his general direction, he enjoyed his time in the army. However, even as a former corporal, I think he would have disowned Britain’s growing embrace with militarism.
We shouldn’t be ashamed of those on whom we bestow the right to kill and maim other humans on our behalf – sadly, soldiers and wars are often necessary evils. But for the life of me, I can’t see why we should hold street parties and parades for weapon-wielding public sector staff.
Anyone who declines to participate in military-related fiestas is given a white feather. Poppy-wearing, once perceived to be an optional activity, is now obligatory. Woe betides anyone in the public eye not seen brandishing a poppy – even being tardy to wear a poppy is deemed to be well-nigh treasonous.
Sentimentality for sojers is boundless – we offer them rail travel discounts and other freebies. Thanks to a tabloid press campaign, leading private companies are falling over themselves to give cheap deals to sailors, soldiers and airmen. Military folk can bask for less at Butlins, eat more inexpensively at Frankie and Benny’s and search for bargain love encounters on uniformdating.com.
It seems there is no aspect of military life that cannot be exploited for pseudo-patriotic purposes. For example, in 2011, much to the chagrin of Simon Cowell, the Military Wives Choir had a number one Christmas hit with Wherever You Are. The nation’s singing sweethearts even secured gigs at the opening of the London Olympics and the Queen’s Christmas Day speech.
Help for Heroes is a highly successful charity that tends to veterans who have suffered appalling physical and mental harm. Its events attract A-list celebrities and I sincerely wish the organisation well in its endeavours. However, wouldn’t the real help for heroes be in trying to stop senseless wars instead of going gung-ho every time a dusky Johnny-foreigner dares challenge Western hegemony? I was nearly murdered in a Highland pub for airing this opinion during the latest of Britain’s recurring invasions of Afghanistan. “You should be supporting the boys!” menaced a snarling man holding an empty pint tumbler at an oblique angle. So the position is this – I’m supposed to lob coins into a tin to increase the quality of life for quadruple amputees but do nothing to prevent these horrific injuries in the first place. How bizarre.
We have learned nothing since the Great War – the war, we were told, to end all wars. The jerky black and white footage of jingoistic mobs tossing their bunnets in the air on hearing Great Britain declare war on the Kaiser eerily echoes the Blair-inspired hysteria that swept us to the second Iraq War. The 100,000 or so of us who marched to Glasgow’s SECC – venue for the Scottish Labour Party assembly – to vent our anger at the upcoming conflagration knew that thousands of our boys would be victims of Labour riding shotgun to George Bush’s neo-con-led massacre of innocents. We weren’t, and we aren’t, anti-armed forces folk. We wept for the cannon-fodder and deplored the donkeys braying for war on the basis of a dodgy dossier.
Given what is happening today in the bloodbath that is Iraq and the de facto medieval theocracy that is Afghanistan, is there anyone who seriously thinks that the sacrifices of largely working class young men and women have been worth it? Unfortunately, the chest-out militarism epitomised by UK Armed Forces Day serves to bring another tragedy closer. By choosing to rejoice in military prowess, the UK population fails to question why Britain never opts to alight from the carousel of world-wide conflict.
To be fair, UK Armed Forces Day is a stunning spectacle, a wonderful recruiting sergeant. Impressionable young males and females will have watched, with some shock and awe, the flypasts and flag-waving, overwhelmed by the sheer pageantry and power. More events such as these will decrease the need for the army to descend upon schools in deprived areas – in one year, Govan High school received five such recruiting raids.
The truth is that the political elite in Britain has promoted militarism for centuries; after all, empires are rarely won by a meaningful exchange of ideas. As a lad, I fondly remember watching camouflage-wearing Marines launch an amphibious assault on the small island in the centre of Hogganfield Loch. Moments later, a parachutist landed on the pitch-and-putt course. At the recruiting caravan, I would have signed up on the spot had I not been eight years old.
In the film, A Few good Men Jack Nicholson roars that Tom Cruise “can’t handle the truth”. The grim reality is that we do live in a world that has walls, and those walls have to be guarded by men with guns. However, truth be told, this is hardly a cause for celebration.