I’ve spent the past few weeks thinking about Armed Forces Day and the form it would take this year, having been cancelled entirely last year, so I was delighted to be asked to pen this piece for Gwydir, to mark the occasion, writes Hannah Jarvis.
Armed Forces Day is a relatively new celebration. Introduced in 2009, it evolved from the former Veterans’ Day, to a small amount of scepticism; largely that it was a gimmick and too American, but was welcomed in the main.
The hope was that it would combat the all-time low relationship between the forces and the public and repair the damaged reputation of the forces, by giving the public, the chance to mingle with soldiers, remove the mystique and allow the public to understand exactly what the forces do and therefore come to treasure them and appreciate their sacrifice.
I think in part, Armed Forces Day has achieved its aim, but why was it necessary in the first place? Why was Britain’s relationship with her forces so dire, just after the dawn of the new millennium?
I think a few reasons can be attributed to the supposed falling from grace of our forces. The last war that Britain fought in, directly for our territory, was of course in the Falklands in 1982, where we suffered heavy casualties and fatalities. Whilst I hope another conflict like it is never necessary, in the time that followed, the forces enjoyed the unbridled affection of the British public, helped by the fact, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, made no secret of her adoration for the forces. The public however, has a short memory and with the passage of time and the forces not being at the forefront of our minds with daily press coverage, the next time they were seriously thrust into the limelight, was the disastrous 2003 invasion of Iraq.
It’s no secret what happened, at the behest of the detestable Blair, on the most flimsy of evidence, our ill-equipped troops were sent to invade, with no exit strategy. Blair sacrificed British lives, in an attempt to schmooze up to Bush and establish himself as an elder statesman, who could cure the ails of the Middle East. In total, we lost 179 British servicemen and women in the Iraq conflict, in my opinion, unnecessarily and I believe our soldiers, who fought in good faith, were inextricably and unfairly linked to an illegal invasion.
This reputational damage was further compounded by Phil Shiner and his cronies, hounding a number of our war heroes, for largely unfounded allegations, on extremely questionable evidence, with witnesses having being paid to testify. Thankfully, this was eventually exposed and justice was served to Shiner, but again, the damage was done; mud sticks and once images of bruise-covered bodies have been bandied about and British soldiers blamed, it’s hard to make it ‘unstick’.
I said earlier, that Armed Forces Day has in part, achieved its aim and in terms of engagement with the public, this is true, but to make any meaningful difference, the government massively needs to up its game and it knows so, which is why it introduced the Overseas Operations Bill.
Sadly though, the bill is full of gaping holes, not least of all, over the promises it made to Operation Banner veterans and as devoted a Conservative as am I, this, I cannot reconcile.
I do appreciate no party member is likely to ever agree with every single party policy and the raison d’etre of a democracy is to find the middle ground amongst the many differences of opinions, but we all have our bottom line on which we will not compromise and protecting soldiers and veterans is mine.
I hugely admire Johnny Mercer MP, for his recent stance on the Overseas Operations Bill. It’s fair to say he’s done himself no favours career wise in the short-term, but he went into politics with the sole purpose of improving life for our soldiers and veterans and when he felt the government wasn’t delivering on the promises it made, he felt he could no longer be part of that government.
He may not be too popular with Ministers at the moment, but he has the gratitude and loyalty of veterans for fighting their corner and agree with him or not, his unwillingness to be silenced on what he believes to be just, is an example to us all .
I believe our forces are the finest in the world and our servicemen and women are a special breed, worthy of celebration. It’s right and proper we devote a week to honouring those who leave their families for months on end, uproot their children in order to be posted overseas and serve on the frontline, risking life and limb, for naff all money.
Do I believe Armed Forces Day has changed lives? No, but if it means our soldiers and veterans feel recognised and appreciated, then great. However, Armed Forces Day is a far from adequate measure in terms supporting and protecting our soldiers and veterans and it shouldn’t let the government off the hook from doing so, otherwise it really is tokenism at its worse.
The government needs to deliver on the promises it made, to stop the witch hunts, such as the protracted case of 79 year old, terminally ill Dennis Hutchings, the Northern Ireland veteran, on trial for an incident that happened in 1974. The government must pass robust legislation to protect those who devote their lives to the service of the nation.
I love Armed Forces Day and look forward to a more normal version in 2022, but it is pointless, without meaningful government action and if this doesn’t happen soon, we risk permanently losing the loyalty of our servicemen and women and seriously jeopardising recruitment.
Hannah Jarvis is Deputy Chair of Monmouth Conservative Association, former parliamentary and PCC candidate and a veteran.