Walking up Parliament St in the centre of York last Saturday morning I watched as young lads and lasses in uniform enthusiastically gathered equipment to set up their stalls for Armed Forces Day. An air of excitement was palpable among the watching crowds and palpable, too, was the admiration for these servicemen and women, their bright faces resolute to their task, the very exemplars of the best of British values.
But I wasn’t there to admire the young recruits or to honour their service. I wasn’t there to thank them for doing their patriotic duty or to offer them up to children as heroes to be emulated. Instead, I felt a pang of sympathy for them, for what lies ahead of them or for what they have already experienced. But I also felt revulsion and anger as I wandered through the crowd like a stranger in a foreign land, not speaking the native language, and hostile to its inhabitants’ mores and ideals. I couldn’t partake of this community’s shared celebration. I was waiting for Veterans For Peace.
VFP UK is a group of ex-forces men and women who now vehemently oppose militarism and believe, as the phrase printed on the back of their blue hooded tops reads: ‘war is not the answer to the problems we face in the twenty-first century’. Their presence on this day is a vital antidote to the promotion of war that the event actually is. Founded in 2011 as an affiliate of VFP US by ex-SAS member, Ben Griffin, their membership includes Joe Glenton, who was jailed for refusing a second tour of Afghanistan, Jim Radford, who at fifteen years of age was the youngest combatant present on D-Day, and Daniel Lenham, who wrote in The Independent about discarding his medals outside Downing St.
Armed Forces Day takes on a whole new colour when viewed through the eyes of men and women who have signed up, been put through basic training, were sent to war zones, and then returned with a resolve to oppose the very military machine which worked its necromancy on them. To return from war a peace campaigner is a feat that can only hint at the profound inner journey these individuals have taken. Veterans For Peace: the wonderfully oxymoronic flavour of their name strikes as incongruous on first hearing. But therein lies its power.
Because no-one can say to its members, ‘you weren’t there’, or ‘you don’t know what you’re talking about’; no-one can berate them for ignorance of the armed forces and its culture, and no-one can attack them for spreading lies or disinformation – though they are often attacked for spreading Truth, which is infinitely more dangerous to the purveyors of lies.
These ex-servicemen and women have been through the mind-altering conditioning programme of armed forces training but ultimately proved immune to its effects. And now, the plan specifically devised to create obedience lends a crucial credibility to their voices and to their cause, those voices never being more needed than in the midst of the huge propaganda-fest that is Armed Forces Day. If you don’t agree that Armed Forces Day is propaganda, then allow me to attempt to persuade you otherwise:
It seems like it’s been around forever doesn’t it? But the first Armed Forces Day in the UK was held only in 2009, three years after the inauguration of Veterans Day in 2006. But why the shift of focus from veterans to serving forces? Why wasn’t a day, in addition to Remembrance Sunday, devoted to vets enough to satisfy those who had devised Veterans Day only three years before? It’s no surprise that after the war crime of Iraq (it wasn’t a ‘miscalculation’, a ‘calamity’, a ‘disaster’ or a mere ‘tragedy’; let’s call that illegal, immoral atrocity what it actually was) a new and shiny strategy was needed to ensure public support for wars likely to arouse suspicion of more grand-scale deceit.
So then, what if every British serviceman or woman, just by joining up, automatically became a ‘hero’? Then, of course, all their work in the army, navy or air force would unquestionably be undertaken for the good of the nation and its people, ‘for us’? – this last a vague, yet much repeated, term used often by the media when discussing the ‘heroes’ of the armed forces: ‘thank you for all you’re doing for us’; ‘let’s show our appreciation for all they’re doing for us’.
This fetishization of the ‘British Soldier’, emblem of the armed forces as a whole, has become pathological in its intensity in parallel with our foreign military interventions being prosecuted in an era of unprecedented political mendacity. The more profound the corruption, the greater the need for propaganda and, importantly, the cruder it needs to be as the most skilled propagandist of them all, Joseph Goebels, well understood when he declaimed that propaganda ‘must always be essentially simple and repetitious’ and must ‘appeal to the emotions and instinct, never the intellect.’ ‘hero’, ‘Help For Heroes’, ‘our heroes overseas’, ‘our courageous men and women protecting our freedoms’, ‘protecting us’, ‘doing it for us’… ‘for us’, ‘for us’, ‘for us’.
No-one can doubt the wisdom of a simplistic and repetitive message because we can plainly see how effective this strategy is. Anyone in a uniform is now a hero in the eyes of the majority of the British public, and by corollary all the military interventions they participate in are good, and fair and just. Because ‘heroes’ do not fight in immoral wars. Simple. Job done.
We have reached a point with this culture of soldier worship whereby any questioning of our foreign military exploits is correspondent with questioning their hero status and carries with it the whiff of a distasteful lack of patriotism. In fact, it’s practically treasonous, revealing a shameful absence of support for ‘our boys’. Yet ‘patriotism’ said Erich Fromm, ‘which has a quality of intoxication, is a danger not only to its native land but to the world.’ And the jingoism we have now sunk to in our slavish obedience to the hero soldier cult is dangerous indeed, not just to ‘our boys’ who are, despite this rhetoric, considered as much cannon fodder as they ever were, but also to the multitude of innocent civilians that we know make up the majority of the victims of modern warfare.
In the centre of York last Saturday I watched as a member of Veterans For Peace UK softly spoke to a young man who had just taken the first step towards becoming a marine. He was waiting to hear if he’d been ‘successful’. The VFP member told him that he, himself, had spent eight years in the marines and asked the lad what he thought he was actually being trained to do? ‘I want to get an engineering trade’ replied the boy, who looked no more than eighteen. ‘When I joined’ said our VFP man, ‘a big poster said the marines had been at war for three hundred and twenty years. You get sent to fight wars but you never get the chance to think about why you’re doing it? In a way you’re brainwashed into being ‘one of the core’…it encourages you to be part of a team, to be accepted, but fundamentally you’re out there to kill people.’
The boy continued to listen: ‘men will come back mentally and physically a mess; you’ll destroy people’s lives. We are a small nation but we’re a militaristic war nation, and the trouble with that is it’s never actually achieved anything.’ He turns round to show the young man the message on the back of his VFP sweat-shirt and repeats it: ‘War is not the answer to the problems we face in the twenty-first century.’ The lad nods. ‘Throughout that three hundred and twenty years it’s never been the answer’ says our man, ‘and it never will be.’ He explains: ‘we are just pawns’ in the pursuit of ‘more land, more oil, more wealth’. ‘I’ve got a military family as well’ says the boy. ‘Me too.’ the VFP member replies, ‘but they would probably be more impressed with you if you stand up as an individual’. ‘We’ve never had a marine’ the lad offers with a halfhearted smile. Our man answers: ‘let’s hope they never do.’
The gentle, yet powerful way this Veterans For Peace member spoke with the young man was moving to witness. This meeting may well have changed the course of his life. That is how important VFP UK’s presence was that day. The well-oiled military PR machine could not broadcast its sanitised message uninterrupted because they were there.
I turned into the crowd after listening to the conversation just described, as Henry Thoreau’s impassioned appeal in his essay Civil Disobedience came to my mind:
‘…you may see a file of soldiers, colonel, captain, corporal, privates, powder-monkeys, and all, marching in admirable order over hill and dale to the wars….now, what are they? Men at all? or small movable forts and magazines, at the service of some unscrupulous man in power? Visit the Navy Yard, and behold a marine, such a man as an American government can make, or such as it can make a man with its black arts – a mere shadow and reminiscence of humanity, a man laid out alive and standing, and already, as one may say, buried under arms with funeral accompaniments.’
Earlier, as I’d watched the military displays being assembled, I had stopped in front of a poster next to the recruitment tent which showed a young man scuba-diving next to an image of another welding, sparks flying impressively. I asked the recruiter what ages they were hoping to talk to during the day? ‘All ages’ came the swift and proud reply. Because it’s never too soon to start indoctrinating the young. Where will future cannon-fodder be found otherwise?
I moved on to see two children, no more than six or seven years of age, being placed in the front seats of an army vehicle with a huge gun on its roof by the excited parents. ‘Smile’. The mother took photographs as the kids beamed and army personnel looked on benignly. I thought to myself, I hope that mother never has to watch the flag-draped coffin of one of these children being carried from a military plane that has brought their body back from some ruined desert country that paid the devastating price for the obedience of bright young men recruited long ago as boys on a day such as this.
The final question is then, do we stand with the mindless propaganda that starts with ‘patriotic duty’ and ends with a million innocent dead? Do we collude with the myth that we are the good guys? Do we allow ourselves to be manipulated by the psychopaths who would have us offer up our sons and daughters to be sacrificed on the altar of their endless greed? Do we side with the Lie? Or do we side with Truth, however hard it is to bear? My answer is unequivocal: I stand with Veterans For Peace.
Alison Banville is co-editor of BSNews