27 June: Celebrate UNARMED FORCES DAY

IssueJune 2009
Feature by Milan Rai , Emily Johns

Britain doesn’t need an Armed Forces Day, recently invented by Gordon Brown. We already have Remembrance Day. What Britain needs is an Unarmed Forces Day - when we can remember those people, like Tom Hurndall, Rachel Corrie, Abdul Ghaffar Khan, Martin Luther King and Mohandas Gandhi, who dedicated their lives to nonviolent social change.

Unarmed Forces Day is a Peace News initiative. It is a celebration of the power of nonviolence, a call for real support for our damaged veterans, and a protest against an attempt by the British government to shore up support for its unpopular wars in Afghanistan and Iraq by rallying the British public around the armed forces.

Opposing the wars
Gordon Brown is perfectly aware that there is already almost-universal respect for the British armed forces. A January 2008 poll for the army found that 95% of Britons said they “respect” soldiers and 90% said they “admire” the army and see soldiers as “the epitome of heroism”. It is Gordon Brown’s war in Afghanistan that is unpopular.

Two-thirds of British people believe that Britain and the US should be “willing to talk to the Taliban in Afghanistan in order to achieve a peace deal”, according to a Sunday Times poll (15 March). In a November 2008 BBC poll, 68% of Britons said British troops should withdraw from Afghanistan within 12 months.

Public opinion
Actually, it’s more than just one war. Britain’s entire arrogant and aggressive foreign policy is unpopular among British people. In March 2007, a Telegraph poll asked whether people agreed with this statement: “Some people say that, although Britain is now only a middle-ranking power, Britain should as a nation continue to try to ‘punch above its weight’ – that is, have more influence in the world than our military and economic strength would seem to indicate.” 55% said no, Britain should not “punch above its weight”. Only 30% said we should. 65% agreed that: “Britain is already over-extended, Britain should reduce its commitments, spend less and not seek to have as much military influence in the world as Britain has at present.” 60% said that because of military overstretch, we should: “Reduce Britain’s commitments overseas so that British forces do not become involved in crises overseas.”

Our power
If there is a “strategic defence review”, as some are calling for, it must take account of the wishes of the British people. If there are constitutional changes in the wake of the expenses scandal, they should include the reform Gordon Brown promised: that the decision to make war should become a matter for parliament (see p12).

Public opposition to the Afghan war may already be having an impact. Gordon Brown is said to have shocked the MoD at the end of April by rejecting its call for 2,000 more troops to be sent to Helmand province in Afghanistan.

Disgraceful treatment
What about those who are still suffering because of their service in Helmand – and in Iraq? At the end of February, lance corporal Johnson Beharry, badly injured in Iraq in incidents that won him the Victoria Cross, and still suffering mental anguish, said: “Those who are still serving get some form of help for combat stress but even those who are serving don’t get enough support.” He called the lack of care from the government “disgraceful”.

The government also shamefully failed Tom Hurndall, the British peace activist who was shot and fatally wounded by an Israeli military sniper in Rafah, Gaza, on 11 April 2003, while escorting Palestinian children.

The power to inspire
Tom Hurndall and Rachel Corrie, the US peace activist crushed to death by an Israeli bulldozer in Rafah on 16 March 2003, are shining examples of nonviolence in action. They have a place of honour, alongside Abdul Ghaffar Khan, “the Muslim Gandhi”, who led a mass nonviolent movement for justice in Pakistan, and who was rewarded with prison and exile.

We demand peace
If the lives of such people mean anything, it is a burning demand to base our national security on justice for all; it is a demand to reject the ways of domination and violence. Instead, we hear general sir Richard Dannatt, head of the British army, saying on 15 May: “the weight of likelihood is that intervention and stabilisation operations will be the pattern for the future, and with increasing frequency.” In other words, Dannatt said: “Iraq and Afghanistan are not aberrations – they are signposts for the future.”

We say: “No!”