First off – I am explicitly not attacking the people who make up Britain’s Armed Forces here. They are doing a tough job and many of them are suffering appalling injuries, mental stress or losing their lives.
If I am attacking anyone here it is the media and the politicians who have created this bizarre situation where any kind of dissent for our “heroes” in Afghanistan and elsewhere is seen as almost treasonable.
We didn’t used to be like this. Traditionally, Britain has never been a militarised or militaristic society. We used to look at Germanic militarism or French military gloire with a certain scepticism and disdain. That seems to have changed in the last few years, and I think that it really stems from the Second Gulf War.
Apparently, last Saturday was something called Armed Forces Day. When did this one get onto the calendar? I presume it was something dreamed up under the last Labour government. I am assuming this because I believe that it is Tony Blair’s military role-playing that is behind the fetishisation of the military.
The media has added its weight behind this idea of, predominantly, the Army as “Our Boys and Girls” and gives a huge amount of coverage to the numbers of troops being killed in Afghanistan, also to the Wootton Bassett vigils.
The thing that I don’t understand is what has caused this sea change in the public mindset. This kind of glorification of the military is alien to our traditions. We have long accepted the traditional set piece events like the Trooping of the Colour (as pictured above) but these have always been part of the visual ritual and ceremony of state, something colourful for the tourists in the main.
This idea of silent vigils and Armed Forces days seems to me to be an American import. The USA is a society where the standing of the military has been rehabilitated since the end of the Vietnam War and, as well as swallowing a huge proportion of the USA’s GDP, is seen as a visible symbol of national pride.
Am I alone in finding all this visible patriotism, jingoism even, as a retrograde step? Are we witnessing a growing face of public militarism in the UK?
It is surely no coincidence that Defence is one of the areas where the Treasury axes will not be falling. The spending plans of the generals, air marshalls and admirals is immune to pruning in the war against the deficit.
One wonders how much the politicians and media actually want us to think about those service personnel who aren’t flying home to Wootton Bassett in coffins. The loss of lives is a terrible thing, personal tragedies for the families and friends of the dead, but so is the destruction of lives through terrible wounds and stress-related illnesses. It is the case, though not well reported in the populist press, that ex-military personnel are the largest group of people in prison, measured by former occupation. Surely that is something we should be remembering instead of celebrating the everlasting warfare in Afghanistan?
Perhaps, though I really doubt it, that when people were at their Armed Forces Day street parties at least a few of them were discussing the real issues around the media’s fetish with the military?
As for the politicians. Well Dr Johnson had the measure of politicians. I won’t insult anyone’s intelligence by actually posting the quotation.
However, these words of Johnson’s are even more appropriate;
A man sometimes starts up a patriot, only by disseminating discontent, and propagating reports of secret influence, of dangerous counsels, of violated rights, and encroaching usurpation.
This practice is no certain note of patriotism. To instigate the populace with rage beyond the provocation, is to suspend publick happiness, if not to destroy it. He is no lover of his country, that unnecessarily disturbs its peace. Few errors and few faults of government, can justify an appeal to the rabble; who ought not to judge of what they cannot understand, and whose opinions are not propagated by reason, but caught by contagion.
They are from The Patriot, a pamphlet Johnson published in 1774.