As George Santayana (a Spanish philosopher, essayist, poet and novelist) wrote: ‘Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.’ Remembrance Day is an annual reminder of this unfortunate truth, and the war memorials in almost every village and town in the land make this testimony every day. Sadly, we choose not to learn.
Until Bush and Blair’s disastrous invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan, war and its consequences were fairly remote to most of the public most of the time. The Ulster ‘Troubles’ were mostly confined to Northern Ireland. The Falklands was a brief conflict involving few regiments, with casualties concentrated in them (most notably the Welsh Guards with the sinking of the Sir Galahad). The death toll in Bosnia was mercifully low.
Then came Iraq and Afghanistan, two protracted and brutal campaigns that between them killed 626 servicemen and servicewomen over a decade. Hundreds more suffered ‘life-changing’ injuries (the euphemism for amputations) and potentially thousands have post-traumatic stress disorders.
Worse, it became apparent that the provisions for treating and rehabilitating servicemen in the UK were woefully inadequate, hence the establishment of Help for Heroes. Prince Harry served in Afghanistan and has subsequently and admirably championed both the rehabilitation of disabled servicemen and, increasingly, those with mental health problems. Throw in Gareth Malone and the Military Wives Choir and it is little surprise that the fate of British servicemen is much more in the public consciousness. And rightly so.
‘Wear your poppy with pride’, we are exhorted. But pride in whom or what? Yes, it’s great to be associated with the superb men and women of our armed forces, but where is the pride in that? For retired soldiers like me, there is huge pride in remembering that I was a soldier once (and young) – tempered with memories of those I knew who were wounded or killed. But I don’t think that is the point.
Am I proud that this country embarked upon ill-considered campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan? Am I proud that the government misled the public and Parliament with false allegations about weapons of mass destruction? Am I proud that in both conflicts the armed forces were sent in insufficient numbers and with inadequate equipment? Of course not. Am I proud that since those conflicts the Armed Forces (particularly the Army) have been reduced in numbers to levels in which they are simply incapable of defending the realm? What do you think? Am I proud that currently about 1,000 servicemen are deployed in Estonia as a (very) thin red line to face down a resurgent Russia? Am I heck – I’m bloody furious.
It turns out that we had a Secretary of State for Defence who was guilty of conduct that would have had him sacked from the Armed Forces, as well he knew. Yet he had the effrontery to take the job – resigning only when his foibles became public knowledge. Gordon Brown used to read out in Parliament the names of those killed, but he did less than nothing to deliver the necessary equipment, numbers or cash (let alone strategic vision). The whole Westminster cesspit went along with it, and acquiesced to the further defence cuts of Cameron and May.
And who put these philandering, deceitful, self-serving clowns in charge of this country in whose name so much blood has been shed, so many lives shattered? Dear reader, it was you and it was me. I feel anything but proud of that.