Sunday, 14 November 2010

Is the Force with us ?

As always, it's impossible in Remembrance Week (when did that start ?) to get away from members of the Armed Forces, young and old. As we approach the centenary of the end of the first War, those who participated in the second are dying off steadily and yet the country seems even more wedded than ever to the symbolism of Remembrance - we now have TWO 2-minute silences, one on the 11th itself and another on the following Sunday.

At times, we almost wallow in it as if those who have not had to fight in a war feel they have missed something. The unquestioning eulogising of our Armed Forces is not yet on a par with the United States where the odious Glenn Beck struts around portraying himself and by extension the Tea Party as the forces' friend.

Take That are berated for daring to put out their album at the same time as a group of Chelsea pensioners singing out a collection of wartime standards and woe betide anyone in the public eye who forgets to wear their poppy (with leaf these days).

Let's be clear - no one is forced to join the Army, Navy or RAF and anyone who does should be well aware that not only is he or she going to go to some dangerous places but also that they run a risk of being killed doing their job. To be honest, policemen and firemen also run a risk but there is none of that uncritical adulation. Indeed, firemen in London were widely castigated for going on strike recently and the wretched Daily Mail devoted column inches to the fact that many firemen have to do two jobs to make ends meet.

Of course, much of what has happened stems from the lack of clarity or success over the role of the Armed Forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, actions which are far from widely supported and which in my opinion largely exist to give the Armed Forces something to do. Without such an obvious justification of their own rationale, questions might be asked as to whether we need such a large army, navy or air force.

The challenge from militant Islam doesn't just exist there - as the attack on Stephen Timms shows, the radicalisation of Muslims is effected via YouTube as easily as via training camps in the Hindu Kush and elsewhere. Indeed, Yemen seems a more obvious target for those wanting to eradicate Al-Qaeda these days than Iraq. Long-term, as one soldier opined, this kind of radicalisation is overcome by education and economic prosperity rather than guns.

We must of course ensure that the Armed Forces have the equipment and support they need and I share the criticism of the Ministry of Defence which seems more interested in defence procurement and its friends in the arms industry than in the plight of serving service personnel and the issue of war widows is another difficult one.

We are fortunately not yet like America where uncritical adulation of any servicemen and servicewomen is the norm - this is a hangover from the post-Vietnam experience. I admire what the soldiers, sailors and airmen do and it's no coincidence that serving in the Armed Forces provides a better quality of education and skill training than almost anywhere else. Indeed, if the argument about tuition fees is that students should pay because graduates earn more and have more job opportunities in the future because of their time at University, it's probably valid to argue that the skills a serviceman or woman picks up during their time should stand them in better stead in civilian life.

We can wallow for a week or so in this post-militarist nostalgia but soldiers and their families face serious problems all year round. The debate about the relationship between the Armed Forces and the rest of society is a proper and serious one - it deserves to be conducted in such a way. However, in a climate where the Armed Forces are seen as being unable to do wrong and are perpetually viewed as being disadvantaged by Government, such a debate is impossible.

I've long thought that talking about tax is one of the great taboos in political debate. Discussing the Armed Forces from a critical stanbdpoint seems to be similarly off-limits.

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