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Lest we forget

As the UK public are invited to celebrate the razzle-dazzle of very British pipes, drums and loud bangs on their recently-constituted Armed Forces Day, Up in Arms asks how war impacts on national culture and what this tells us about the ‘special relationship’ between the US and the UK. 

On Saturday June 29 the UK will be marking Armed Forces Day (AFD) for the fifth consecutive time. Nottingham has been honoured as this year’s host city where the festivities will commence with a roar of gunfire, apparently known as a ‘feu du joie (loosely translated as a ‘fire of joy’), delivered by a local Territorial Army unit. The day will also feature spectacular uniformed parades through the city and demonstrations by the RAF. Residents can also expect a headturning show from the Red Arrows and a flypast from some of the vintage planes that featured in the Battle of Britain. 

Numerous events of all shapes and sizes will be held throughout the country from a "Brew for the Few" at the Railway Inn in Burnham on Sea to an “Armed Forces afternoon tea dance” in Blackpool’s famous Tower Ballroom. It’s a participatory model where those who work or have contact with military organisations – cadets, veterans or charities, for example - are urged to take the initiative, using the PR tools provided by the official AFD website to publicise them.

This is a recently invented tradition. If its imagineers are successful it will soon be an unexamined feature of public life that, every year on the last Saturday in June, citizens are required to ‘thank’ the armed forces and celebrate the particular type of work that they do. But since AFD was only inaugurated in 2009 there’s still an opportunity to ask where the idea came from and to calculate its effects on a country that now appears permanently to be at war.

It would be easy to dismiss AFD as a brazen PR exercise intended to marshall public support for armed forces which have been embroiled in unpopular and futile expeditions abroad – which is how it started out. But I think there’s more to discuss, not least the way in which our understanding of militarisation, or how war changes social practices and cultural values, could be sharpened by taking a comparative view.

It’s worth casting an eye over the Atlantic, for a start, where Americans observe a similar occasion on the third Saturday in May. In fact their Armed Forces Day started out in 1949 as the result of an administrative change and was first launched in 1950 as an occasion to unify all the different services under one banner. It marks the end of Armed Forces Week but is not to be confused with Memorial Day - an outcome of the American civil war - which takes place on the final Monday in May. (Memorial Day is a far more important date in the calendar, not just because it commemorates the war dead. It is also a public holiday that marks the beginning of summer, much like Whit Monday in the UK.) 

In fact the institution of AFD in the UK is just one illustration of practices and vocabularies borrowed from the US in the last few years. British ‘ex-servicemen and women’ are now designated ‘veterans’. Overnight, part-time soldiers in the UK, known for years as ‘Territorials’, have become ‘reservists’ and their numbers will be substantially increased under new plans to reduce the size of the regular armed forces. 

National identity envy

British military leaders as well as politicians often look with envy at the status of the military in US society.  Interviewed by radio during the first AFD in Chatham, Kent, Jock Stirrup, then Chief of the Defence Staff, was asked whether the armed forces looked to the US to replicate a culture of respect. He replied: ‘I don’t believe that the respect is any higher. There is a whole different cultural approach in the United States. The whole militia basis of their military in the formation of the United States is an important part of that. 

‘So yes, I do look at some of the things over there and I do think there are some extremely good ideas, wouldn’t it be nice if they happened here, and guess what? We’re seeing those things happening here, which is marvellous.’

However, it was well known that Gordon Brown’s passionate advocacy of the need to redefine British national identity was heavily influenced by what he had observed in the US where he had lived for a number of years. In his major intervention on the topic of Britishness, he famously asked, ‘what is our equivalent of the national symbolism of a flag in every garden?’, lamenting that Britain did not have a national day, such as Bastille Day in France or July 4 in the US, where citizens celebrated who they were and what they stood for. 


Bastille Day in Nice. Demotix/MM Pictures. All rights reserved.

But the launch of AFD did not happen in a vacuum just because it seemed a good idea to emulate a more organic brand of militarised patriotism in the US. It was a direct result of the Iraq war, an attempt to assuage public anger and diffuse conflict between government and military chiefs over resources. Even before AFD was announced as a key recommendation in the National Recognition of our Armed Forces report (2008), the New Labour government had experimented with an earlier version of something rather similar. 

Back from the mouth of hell

In February 2006 Brown, who was then Chancellor of the Exchequer, announced that there would be a new national Veterans Day, ‘designed to thank today's generation of ex-servicemen and women for their service to our country.’ This would not be a public holiday, but was intended as a permanent extension of Veterans Awareness Week which had been inaugurated the previous year.

The echoes with the US Armed Forces week were clear but there were some intriguing British resonances as well. The date for the first Veterans Day, June 27, was apparently chosen for its symbolic commemoration of the first awarding of the Victoria Cross in 1857 following the bloodbath of the Crimean War in which 3,400 British soldiers were killed. This most prestigious medal for ‘valour in the face of the enemy’ was doubly significant. It was the first award that that was available to men below the rank of officer and also the first formal recognition of instances of bravery and self-sacrifice among ordinary foot soldiers.

But the commemoration of that particular war was relevant for other reasons too. The Crimean War saw the birth of the war reporter who was able to testify not only to the general chaos of war for which the army was totally under-equipped, but also to the cowardice, stupidity and cruelty of their officers who sent so many to their deaths. For the first time in British military history, journalists wrote eye-witness accounts from the battlefield describing the vulnerability of the troops to death and disease.

Under the coalition’s new history syllabus, schoolchildren will no longer be required to learn about Florence Nightingale let alone Mary Seacole. And it is unlikely they will they be expected to recite Tennison’s ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ from memory.  But, not so long ago, the lines: ‘Into the valley of death rode the six hundred’ were really quite hard to forget.

More significant here is the fact that when Queen Victoria presented the new medal to more than 60 recipients on June 26 1857 as part of a general day of festivities and military parades, the occasion was viewed by many as an attempt to allay the criticisms and concerns of an increasingly literate public that was waking up to the costs of distant wars waged for no perceptible gain.


The Battle of Balaclava. Wikimedia Commons/Public domain.

Theirs not to reason why

Launching the first AFD on June 28, 2009, Veterans Minister Kevan Jones reiterated the government’s latest directive: 'The armed forces are a force for good in terms of protecting us and this day is an opportunity for the public to say thank you to those men and women and their families for the sacrifices they have made.'

Six years later, this sort of platitude is likely to ring even more hollow. The UK AFD falls in the same month in which the third round of redundancy packages are handed out to 4,480 more soldiers. This is part of the Future Army 2020, the plan to reduce the regular army from 102,000 to 82,000 by 2020.

This coincidence of a special day to say thank you with the announcement of redundancies is one more illustration of the costs and consequences of Iraq and Afghanistan in the domestic realm. But both events underline social transformations that are the combined effects of neoliberalism as well as prolonged war.

While new forms of civil-military engagement emphasise the symbolic and largely superficial appreciation from on high, in the workplace it’s business as usual. The programme of drastic cuts, the endless process of contracting out services and operations deemed non-essential, the perpetual restructuring of institutional frameworks and modes of organising – these are all part of a pattern of privatisation that is familiar to anyone working in the public sector. 

One big difference with the military, however, is that there are no trade unions to articulate protest. Groups like Pension Justice for troops draw attention to the fact that a significant number of those made redundant are within 12 months of qualifying for pensions, and discontent rages on forums such as ARRSE, but there is no question of an organised response coming from within the ranks of the armed forces.  

All the world wondered

Meanwhile senior officers are not permitted to make critical statements that could be construed as political. Chief of Defence Staff General Peter Wall voiced the most trenchant criticism he could get away with when he appeared on a Sky News documentary ‘Britain's Last War’ earlier this month. Asked about further cuts to the defence budget, he said: ‘We have got to the point in a number of parts in our set-up where we can't go any further without seriously damaging our professional competence and our chances of success in the battlefields of the future.’ 

Here’s where that ‘special relationship’ really counts. In 2010 when the Treasury first announced that the armed forces would suffer significant cuts, none other than Hillary Clinton, then US Secretary of State, said she was worried ‘because I think we do have to have an alliance where there is a commitment to the common defence.

 ‘Nato has been the most successful alliance for defensive purposes in the history of the world... but it has to be maintained. Each country has to be able to make its appropriate contributions.’ 

More recently Stanley McChrystal, the retired former general in charge of the counter-insurgency operations in Afghanistan, told the Daily Telegraph that British defence cuts could not be made without affecting US-UK military relations. In January this year he said, 

‘It will take a little while to reach that reality but what worries me is that additional cuts could be made and everybody thinks “it's okay”, because people are still polite, but at a certain point you just find you're not consulted when important decisions are made.’

In the same interview McChrystal was asked about the British military’s performance in both Iraq and Afghanistan. He expressed his view, elaborated in his recently published memoir, My Share of the Task, that ‘British failures in Helmand were caused by the “hubris” or “ignorance” of British military and political leaders who took on more than they could handle’.

This is the background that helps to explain how the UK ended up with their own Armed Forces Day. It was invented as an exercise in massaging civil-military relations at a particularly volatile time in British politics. It must never be forgotten that public anger over Iraq – the obscenity of that invasion, horror at the numbers of civilians who died and utter dismay at the waste of young soldiers’ lives – all those factors have led to this latest celebration of military power as a solution to keeping ‘us’ safe.   

About the author

Vron Ware is professor of sociology and gender studies at Kingston University and author of Military Migrants: Fighting for YOUR country.

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