Veterans for Peace in the United States, 2009. Wikicommons/ Carolmooredc. Some rights reserved.2015 has been a year of extraordinary activism for the UK anti-war movement. A wide array of groups has been busy forging creative campaigns to educate new generations against war in general, to disrupt the trade in lethal weapons and to oppose military intervention in particular places. Very little of this political work gets reported, unless it can be used to attack Jeremy Corbyn.
But one set of protests was so spectacular, so radical and so eloquent that the corporate media was obliged to sit up and take notice. In July and again in December, members of Veterans for Peace UK staged demonstrations that challenged the deep-seated belief that military service was an honourable profession that had turned them all into heroes.
On Friday 10 July, three former soldiers, all members of VfPUK, walked from Trafalgar Square to Downing Street where they lined up, faced the police barricades and declared:
‘We are members of Veterans For Peace UK, an ex-services organisation of men and women who have served this country in every conflict since the Second World War. We exist in the hope of convincing you that war is not the solution to the problems of the 21st century. We have come here today to hand back things, given to us as soldiers, that we no longer require or want.’
The men took turns to make brief statements before dropping their ‘things’ on the ground. They did this three times: first with their Oaths of Allegiance, then their army hats and finally their medals. It was this last gesture that was so powerful.
John Boulton said:
‘These are the medals given to me for the sick dichotomy of keeping the peace and waging war. They are trinkets, pseudo payments. But really all they represent is the self interest of those in there, who hold power.’
Kieran Devlin said:
‘These are my medals, these were given to me were given to me as a reward for invading other peoples’ countries and murdering their civilians. I’m now handing them back’.
Ben Griffin, founder of VfPUK and a former paratrooper and member of the SAS, said:
'I was given these medals for service on operations with the British Army. This particular medal here, was given to me for my part in the occupation of Iraq. Whilst I was over there, I attacked civilians in their homes and took away their men, off to be tortured in prison. I no longer want these despicable things.’
After the vote in the House of Commons to sanction RAF air strikes in Syria, three more members, Daniel Lenham, Kirk Sollitt and Phil Mace with Ben Griffin, this time representing Dave Smith, returned to Downing Street on December 9. As a group they explained:
‘We are here today in protest at the decision to bomb in Syria and to return medals given to us for our participation in previous attacks on the Middle East.’
We are Veterans For Peace, our members have served in every war that Britain has fought since WW2. We bring you the simple message that war is not the answer to the problems of the 21st Century.”
Each one made a similarly powerful declaration of their commitment to turn their experience of military service into a vehicle for campaigning against war. These can be read on the organisation’s website and the group’s Facebook page has a video of the demonstration as well. Phil Mace explained in a particularly heartfelt way what it meant for him to reject the use of violence as a means to solve political problems:
‘I don’t understand what these medals are for or what they are supposed to mean. I joined the army as a teenager hoping to better myself and I believe I did that whilst on operations in Afghanistan. One day whilst out on patrol I was asked to blow a hole in a building, not knowing what was on the other side. I thought to myself What if? What if it is a baby? What if it’s with its mother? What if it’s there with the whole family? I would much rather live my life not having to deal with the consequences of What If. That is why I throw these medals back. What if every soldier past and present did this?’
It must be said that these actions represent a fraction of VfPUK’s work against militarism and war – something that will be clear from scrolling through their Facebook page. Two more examples of their contribution to peace education stand out in particular. One is Ben Griffin’s incredible lecture on ‘The Making of a British Soldier’ delivered to the Kingston Peace Council in October 2015. This can be watched in full here.
The other example is the series of talks from women members of the organization, given in November as the group gathered from all over the country to make their statement at the Cenotaph. The inclusion of female veterans’ voices, American as well as British, provides an essential dimension to the collective project to explain and dismantle militarism.
And finally – there’s the anti-war Christmas single which features a video of VfPUK members walking to the cenotaph behind their banner which declares, ‘NEVER AGAIN’. Produced by Tom Morello’s (erstwhile leader of Rage Against the Machine) Firebrand Records, and written by co-founder, folk singer, and longtime anti-war activist Ryan Harvey, ‘ Christmas Truce’ is performed by the Belgian-born, London-based singer Fenya who is an active member of London’s Food Not Bombs.
Ben Griffin explains the premise of the song:
‘The Christmas Truce lives in the hearts of millions of people. However we need to move on from the idea of a truce being something that is only carried out at Christmas. Throughout history soldiers have formed truces with their supposed enemies; in fact soldiers often find that they have a lot more in common with the enemy than with their own governments.’
‘I wrote this song to tell a simple story that reflects a much larger reality,’ Harvey says. ‘Soldiers have spoken out, protested, and revolted in almost every war in history. We encourage and need this resistance, because historically, it is one of the single strongest factors in bringing wars to an end. At a time when a civil and proxy-war is ripping Syria apart and the world seems to be lingering on the brink of yet another global catastrophic conflict, this ever-relevant song references history to describe the present.’