Armed Forces Day

Has Gordon Brown gone off the deep end, or what?

Britain is to hold an Armed Forces Day to allow the public to show their support and respect for the military, Gordon Brown has suggested.

In a letter seen by the Sunday Telegraph, the prime minister signals that plans are being drawn up for “a special day of celebration”.

Yes, because what we all need is to worship the military a bit more. It’s difficult to discuss this without giving the wrong impression, but what the hell, I’m having a crappy day so let’s try anyway.

This isn’t about showing ‘support and respect for the military’, it’s about encouraging mindless patriotism.

For all that people in the military are brave, their job is not to think about what they’re doing. Their job is to follow orders. And that’s fine – the world is such that this is necessary. But this is only applicable within military institutions. The absurd hand gestures, individuality-quashing routines, vilification of ‘cowardice’ and the unquestioning deference to authority are not virtuous – in any non-military arena they’d be revolting. It’s a crappy way to behave, and a crappy way to think. But if you want people to follow orders unquestioningly, that’s what you have to do. It’s a necessary evil, I’m bloody glad there are people willing to do it, and I don’t judge anyone who chooses to, but don’t make me pretend the military outlook is a great thing.

Again, before people start yelling: I am not criticising any individuals. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with doing this, as long as it’s a free choice to enlist. But I do have a problem with the idea that being brave enough to put yourself in harm’s way means I have to pretend all the above isn’t true, or couch any negative statements into abstraction by surrounding them in tropes emphasising how great it all is. Don’t tell me I have to treat ‘the military’ like gods among men, who’ve earned the right to do whatever they want. They’re not. I won’t. I will be exactly as polite to someone in the military as I am to anyone else. This is not ‘unpatriotic’, nor do I intend any insult – it’s about trying to get the correct perspective.

‘Respect’ does not extend to the entire person. I can ‘respect’ someone’s abilities while thinking they’re cretinous in other ways. Newton was a genius, but a total dick. Being brave enough to put yourself into battle is without doubt brave and impressive, but not the be-all and end-all. Social workers, abuse counsellors and parole officers all do a job I couldn’t perform in a million years, and put their mental health on the line every day. This isn’t to suggest that there’s a hierarchy, or that putting yourself in harm’s way is somehow less important than people suggest, just that it’s one of many things worthy of ‘respect’.

But my particular viewpoint obviously isn’t the cultural reality. In practice it’s black and white – not thinking the military is the epitome of greatness apparently means you want them all to die. Every politician competes over whose chest can swell the most while smacking down on anybody who dares say the slightest negative thing. Remembrance Sunday is a bizarre dichotomy: remember those who have died, and say it should never have happened, but remember that dying for one’s country is the most noble, admirable thing one can do, and would that we were all so brave. But there’s no duty to be willing to die for ‘your’ country. If people want to, sure, but the heavily promoted idea of patriotic sacrifice is made up so that people will.

And that’s why ‘armed forces day’ is so insidious. We’re meant to worship ‘the military’, and we’re meant to see that the people society demands we unflinchingly respect do whatever their country tells them, and think this is in some way virtuous. But it’s not – following orders is their job, ours is to make damn sure the orders being given are correct. Being impressed that people are brave enough to go into battle does not mean the reasons they’re told to do so make any sense, and ‘armed forces days’ are an exercise in blurring this boundary.

I’m not a pacifist, nor anti-government. This post is isn’t anti-Iraq or anti-soldier, nor am I suggesting the government is actively setting out to be manipulative. On the contrary, I suspect they genuinely think it’s a good idea – maybe they think it’ll encourage a sense of ‘Britishness’, or whatever. But this feels too much like taking understandable emotions and using them to quell critical thinking. We can admire people in the military, in specific ways, without having to worship them.

I’m a bit worried people might be terribly insulted by this, but I’ve hopefully been clear that I don’t intend to criticise anyone in the military, just that the emotion surrounding it shouldn’t prohibit discussion…If anyone’s offended, please do tell me why.