What is Armed Forces Day?
Armed Forces Day in the UK takes place each year on the last Saturday in June (since it was introduced in 2009). In 2019, it will be on Saturday 29th June, although in some areas events will be held on other dates near this time. The National Event will this year take place in Salisbury, along with hundreds of other events - many subsidised with taxpayers' money - around the UK. Thankfully, there will also be protests, vigils and alternative events in many places.
Armed Forces Day was introduced in 2009, in the wake of widespread public criticism of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. With opposition to war on the rise, Armed Forces Day was one of several attempts to build up support for war by the back door - by promoting uncritical praise for the armed forces. Like the increase in cadet forces and "military ethos" programmes in schools, Armed Forces Day has fuelled the rise of militarism in everyday life in the UK.
What's wrong with Armed Forces Day?
1. Armed Forces Day presents children with a simplistic image of armed force as glamorous and fun.
Many Armed Forces Day events are aimed at children. Examples in 2019 include "a fun weekend for all the family" in Sunderland, a children's "design a flag" competition in Aberdeen, and a day of military dressing up for children at a primary school in Hampshire. Children are frequently invited to handle real weapons at Armed Forces Day events (as pictured above, in Leicester in 2018). It is not uncommon to see children as young as seven handling weapons so big that they can barely reach the controls. Children are not shown the effects of these weapons on the people they are used against. They are given the impression that weapons are basically toys and that using them is exciting. The Peace Pledge Union believes that war is not family entertainment.
2. Armed Forces Day gives children the impression that armed force is uncontroversial.
People hold a range of views on the complex ethical and political issues around war and peace. But uncritical celebration of armed force gives children and young people the impression that such issues are not controversial and that everyone supports the armed forces. This is no better than presenting children with a biased view on any other political or ethical issue, such as Brexit, abortion or party politics.
3. Armed Forces Day prevents debate about the reality of the armed forces.
In a democracy, every public institution should be open to scrutiny. Uncritical celebrations such as Armed Forces Day add to an atmosphere in which the establishment and pro-military media will not countenance criticism of the armed forces as institutions. It is said in vague terms that the armed forces "keep us safe" or "fight for our freedom" but people who make these comments rarely explain how they do this. Almost every military action of the last 20 years has been opposed by a majority of the British public, while the armed forces continue not to uphold freedom but to suppress it: for example, the Royal Air Force is training Saudi pilots, who are engaged in the targeted bombing of civilians in Yemen.
4. Armed Forces Day promotes "military values" that are harmful to society.
Militarists claim that the armed forces promote values of teamwork and self-discipline. We are all in favour of young people learning such values, but doubt that they will come from the armed forces. Other values associated with the armed forces include the belief that violence is the ultimate solution to conflict and that the government should be supported whenever it declares war. Armed forces also upheld unquestioning obedience as something to be admired, rather than as an assault on human dignity and conscience.
5. Armed forces are abusive institutions that should not be celebrated.
The armed forces target the poorest and most disadvantaged young people for recruitment. A series of leaks from the Ministry of Defence make clear that this is a deliberate strategy. An exception is the recruitment of officers, nearly half of whom have been privately educated (compared to 7% of the UK population as a whole). The armed forces perpetuate the power of the rich over the rest. Military recruits are brutalised through a process of military training before being sent to do violence against other poor people elsewhere in the world. They are often then dumped back into poverty when they leave the forces. The Army Foundation College - where 16- and 17-year-old recruits are trained - received 50 formal allegations of abuse between 2014 and 2017. If that happened at a school, it would face being closed down. But the army is allowed to evade scrutiny, and carry on.
6. Armed Forces Day is not about helping veterans.
Supporters of Armed Forces Day talk up the need to help ex-forces personnel who may be experiencing poverty or ill health. It is true that there are some charitable events on Armed Forces Day and we are not discouraging anyone from giving to charity. However, these are a relatively minor part of Armed Forces Day. We believe that veterans should not have to rely on charity. Veterans, like everyone else, should be able to rely on a decent welfare state when times are tough. In reality, the UK government has been slashing the welfare state while maintaining the seventh highest military budget in the world.
7. For some, Armed Forces Day is compulsory.
With a number of schools now holding Armed Forces Day events, children and young people have little option but to participate. At the Peace Pledge Union, we hear from teachers who feel that they cannot refuse to go along with such things, and parents agonising over whether to keep their children off school on the day in question. We are pleased to hear of young people who are themselves campaigning against militarism in schools, but their freedom to object is limited.
8. Armed Forces Day is a misuse of taxpayers' money.
Local authorities around the UK contribute to the cost of Armed Forces Day parades that are little more than celebrations of militarism. The UK government makes grants of up to £10,000 available to subsidise local celebrations of Armed Forces Day.
9. Armed Forces Day benefits arms companies.
Arms companies are among the biggest sponsors of Armed Forces Day events. In 2019, for example, sponsors of the Armed Forces Day National Event, in Salisbury, include at least eight arms companies. Businesses such as BAE Systems and Lockheed Martin, which contribute to death and destruction around the globe and happily arm some of the world's most aggressive regimes, are able to attract positive publicity through sponsoring Armed Forces Day. The amount of money they contribute is tiny by the standards of such powerful multinational corporations.
10. There are better things to celebrate.
When did your local council, school or community last celebrate the NHS? Or firefighters, teachers or care workers? Or the community as a whole? We are all in favour of building community, celebrating public service and running fun events for children and adults. This is what Armed Forces Day claims - but fails - to do. It is a celebration of armed force, and an attempt to put armed forces beyond criticism.
What can I do to resist Armed Forces Day?
- Share your thoughts with friends, family and colleagues.
- Write to a local paper or call a radio phone-in.
- Ask your local council, workplace or school if they will be celebrating Armed Forces Day, and ask them to consider alternatives.
- Encourage your union branch, faith group, student society or other organisation to speak out against Armed Forces Day locally.
- Organise an alternative event - to celebrate something more worthwhile and life-affirming!
- Get together a group of people to hand out flyers challenging Armed Forces Day when military parades and suchlike events are going on. We can provide you with flyers from the Peace Pledge Union.
- Let us know what's going on in your area. We need to know the facts in order to campaign, and are happy to publicise protests and other nonviolent campaigns against Armed Forces Day.