Remembrance Day remains as relevant as ever. Just don’t tell me to wear a poppy

Published in The Guardian (November 10th, 2013)

Just as I was about to go in front of the cameras on a BBC news show, the producer came up to me with a nervous smile. “Are you absolutely sure you won’t wear a poppy? We have some spare in the studio?” It was the third time I had been asked in five minutes; my reply was once again in the negative.

Not that I have the slightest concern over the cause. When men and women in our armed forces are still dying in foreign fields, the annual Royal British Legion appeal and festivals of remembrance remain as relevant as ever. Like millions of others I make an annual donation, while Remembrance Sunday offers an important opportunity to reflect again on the brutality and carnage of war.

But there is something wrong with enforced displays of patriotism and public grief. It has become almost a political protest not to wear a poppy these days. Look at your television screen – that potent red emblem is pinned to almost every person on display, from football commentators to political pundits. How many give much thought to the profound meaning before sticking it dutifully on their chest?

This goes to the heart of a bigger issue over the nation’s relationship with its armed forces. They remain among the most respected institutions in the country, with polls showing the public retains a highly positive view at a time when support for several other pillars of British society is crumbling. No wonder our tarnished politicians and troubled red-top press eulogise the military with such fervour, constantly hailing the troops as heroes to gain some reflected glory.

It must take huge courage to go out night after night in Helmand after seeing friends killed or maimed in horrific circumstances. But, as any soldier will tell you, they are not all heroes – just ordinary people doing a difficult job in sometimes very dangerous conditions. Some display genuine heroism – but a few others do terrible things in the stress of war, as we have seen this week. And not all in the military serve on the frontline, of course. Yet this word is chucked around cheaply, often by the same politicians sending young people to their deaths in dubious wars with the applause of armchair warriors in their ears.

Both main parties claimed credit for the military covenant being passed into law, although it remains baffling why decent treatment of soldiers and sailors needed to be subject to legislation rather than standard practice. And the welfare state is supposed to provide support for anyone who needs it. Now the proceeds of fines on banks are being passed to military charities, while firms and councils are being pressured to provide special help for service personnel.

Already Britain’s 4.5 million veterans have been given priority access to healthcare for service-related conditions. But is this fair to the teacher beaten up by a troubled pupil in a tough area, let alone the police officer wounded on duty or the lifeboat volunteer injured in a storm? Or does it merely cover up the closure of military hospitals by successive governments and subsequent failure to ensure decent care for mentally and physically damaged personnel, along with the inadequate state of the health service?

No one is served by saccharine sentimentality. A major study last year found even troops worried about sympathy playing too big a part in public attitudes to them, along with significant over-estimation of the physical and mental health consequences of joining the armed forces. Some feared the success of charities such as Help for Heroes caused people to feel sorry for them, while false impressions of military service impact on veterans’ job prospects.

We can see clearly now the damage caused by mythologising doctors and nurses. As one senior officer told me, the military should not be put on a pedestal like the NHS because serious issues can fester below the surface of a deified institution. This is particularly true when the forces are being slashed in size, soldiers are dying needlessly, troops are losing morale, procurement is wasteful and our nation is unsure of its place in a fast-changing world.

But then it is so much easier to stick poppies in lapels and emote about heroes than to confront these issues.

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