Notes From the Margins…

Miliband in Khaki

  • March 10, 2014
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Last week Ed Miliband visited Afghanistan and promised that a future Labour government would make it illegal to ‘abuse’ and ‘discriminate’ against members of the British armed forces.   The origins of this proposal go back to the 2008 National Recognition of the Armed Forces report commissioned by Gordon Brown and drawn up by Tory defector Quentin Davies, which included a raft of proposals on how to change the public image of the armed forces.   These included a greater public presence of uniformed soldiers, and an expansion of cadet forces in schools – and legislation banning discrimination against anyone wearing the ‘Queen’s uniform.’ .

Since then the prospect of an anti-discrimination bill has flitted in and out of public view, mostly as a Labour initiative.       In the summer of 2013, pressure for a new law re-emerged, boosted by a poll which found that 1 in five servicemen and women had experienced some form of discrimination, including the exclusion of uniformed soldiers from pubs and restaurants to physical and verbal insults.

There are, of course, laws that prevent physical or verbal assaults on soldiers already – because soldiers have the same rights as other members of the public.   But now Miliband proposes to make it an ‘aggravated’ offense if servicemen and women are subjected to such assaults, leading to a potentially more serious sentence, in order to provide them with ‘ extra protection, similar to religious groups, ethnic minorities, and disabled people’.

This is a flawed idea for various reasons.     Firstly, the idea that ‘discrimination’ against soldiers should be placed on the same level as discrimination on the basis of religion, disability or race is entirely inappropriate.

Unlike members of the armed forces, people do not choose to be disabled or members of a race, and and verbal and physical assaults on members of a particular religion do – or should – fall under the category of hate crime.     Soldiers may be insulted or ‘discriminated’ against for various reasons.

Clearly it is immoral and inhumane to refuse to allow an injured soldier to stay at a hotel, as the Metro hotel in Woking did in 2008.   But the main reason why soldiers are prohibited from pubs and restaurants,   is because soldiers in uniform are often regarded by their owners as a potential source of violence and drink-induced disorder, and there is abundant evidence to show that they are right.

Should solders be given the benefit of the doubt, or at least the opportunity to prove themselves?   No doubt, but such situations seem to be quite rare, and could easily be resolved, one would have thought, by negotiation on a case-by-case basis, rather than by a new law.

Then there is the question of protest.   Soldiers who fight in wars that significant sectors of the population do not support or approve cannot be surprised if they get insulted when they come home from them.   People may not like Anjem Choudhary and his group of provocateurs for calling British soldiers ‘baby killers’ and ‘terrorists’ in Luton, and may not agree, but that is an opinion they are entitled to   – providing, of course,   that they are not calling for soldiers to be killed.

And protest against Britain’s wars is not limited to Muslims.   My brother once criticized two British soldiers on a London bus in no uncertain terms for serving in Northern Ireland, and got his head kicked in as a result.     Under Miliband’s proposal, he presumably would have been found guilty of an ‘aggravated’ offense if it had ever gone to court.

That doesn’t mean that anyone should be able to say whatever they want, let alone physically assault, anyone who is or has been in the armed forces because they don’t like the wars they fight.   But really, these are soldiers we are talking about, who should be tough enough to deal with verbal abuse, and have probably received a fair amount of it already from their NCOs.

The issue of ‘discrimination’ also has complications.     Not all schools and teachers want an expansion of cadet forces in their schools, let alone the ‘Troops to Teachers’ scheme favored by Labour and the Tories.     The National Union of Teachers, among others, has expressed serious reservations about the recent attempts by politicians to re-militarise the education system – reservations that could also presumably be interpreted as being discriminatory – from Miliband’s perspective.

In the end however, this proposal isn’t really about protecting the rights of anyone.   It is about taking advantage of World War I war fervor and the Lee Rigby factor to enhance Labour’s credibility as a ‘pro-military’ party, after the surprising blip of the anti-Syrian intervention vote last year.   It’s about the bad faith of a British political elite that wants to emotionally blackmail the public into supporting our ‘heroes’ in order to support the wars they fight and make these wars seem heroic, even when they aren’t.

So what we are really talking about here is another attempt at the remilitarisation of British society, dressed up as another expression of the military covenant.   Miliband said last week in defense of his bill that ‘Men and women in the Army, Navy and RAF serve us with dignity and bravery.   It is our duty to ensure they are treated with dignity in return.’

There is a lot to question in that sentence; the assumption that soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan serve ‘us’; the notion that they always serve with dignity and bravery and that these virtues are somehow unique to the military, and make the armed forces some kind of privileged caste.     And last but not least, the idea that the politicians who send soldiers to kill and die really have any interest in treating them with ‘dignity’ – either when they serve or when they return.

Tell that to the two soldiers who hanged themselves last year after returning from Afghanistan, aged 23 and 24 – or the 800 military personnel who have attempted suicide since returning from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq in the last two and half years.

According to the mothers of these two soldiers, their sons were abandoned when they got back and left to cope with PTSD without any help from the army or anyone else.   One had seen a baby blown up, and another had lost a friend.

There is no evidence that their decision to take their own lives has anything to do with the ‘abuse’ or ‘discrimination’ that they experienced on returning, and the traumas they suffered are clearly rooted in horrors that neither Miliband nor any other senior British politician appears to have any interest in acknowledging or taking responsibility for.

 

 

 

 

 

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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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