Friday 7 March 2008

Banning military uniforms in public

Banning military uniforms in public - urban myth or government propaganda?

A week before the fifth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq and a story emerges from Cambridgeshire that, because people in Peterborough who oppose UK involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq had reportedly taunted military staff from nearby RAF Wittering, the station commander had taken the decision that they should not wear their uniforms outside of the air base. Prime Minister Gordon Brown has condemned the alleged abuse of RAF personnel and Defence Secretary Des Browne has said: "It is a great shame that some individuals in this community don't respect our forces, who are daily doing a great deal for this nation.”

Sometimes it’s too easy to overstate comparisons between the war in Vietnam and the current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. But there seems to be historical precedent for deeply unpopular wars leading to allegations of blame falling on military personnel, especially when the governments that sent them into battle seem impervious to public opinion. The Homecoming, a book by Chicago Tribune columnist Bob Greene published in 1990, was devoted to the subject of anti-war protesters allegedly abusing Vietnam veterans, after he asked readers to tell their stories. Despite the extensive evidence of solidarity between the anti-war movement and Vietnam veterans, dozens claimed that protesters and others did, indeed, spit on and abuse returning soldiers.

But in 1998, Vietnam veteran Jerry Lembcke published The Spitting Image: Myth, Memory and the Legacy of Vietnam, arguing that claims of insults and abuse towards returning soldiers were an urban myth intended to discredit the anti-war movement. Lembcke alleged that Greene's accounts to "have elements of such exaggeration that one has to question the veracity of the entire account" and that the accusations of abuse became ingrained in the American consciousness only years after the war, through films such as ‘Rambo’. In 2003, Lembcke again reported that claims that soldiers had been spat upon had resurfaced in North Carolina.

So, are the Peterborough claims the start of a British version of an urban myth? Cambridgeshire Police have no reports of such incidents taking place and the only example the Ministry of Defence could confirm is one in which a nurse from the base had her car window broken. So where did this story come from, and why now?

Back in January, the government announced a review by Labour MP Quentin Davies of the public's perception of the military and one possible recommendation hinted at was more parades to welcome home units returning from active duty in Afghanistan and Iraq. The assumption within government was clearly that anti-war sentiment and the unpopularity of its military adventures had led large sections of the public to no longer believe that British service personnel are contributing what Des Browne calls “a great deal for this nation” – quite the opposite. The case made by the anti-war movement that British military operations are deeply damaging to Britain’s standing in the world and that the troops should be brought home is a negative perception that the government now feels must be managed at all costs.

So it seems as though the Ministry of Defence’s crude PR exercise over the return of Prince Harry to Britain is just the first step in a classic case of information warfare. Now we have the non-story about RAF Wittering. Tomorrow, I fully expect a flood of outrage about students at University College London who, in what would otherwise have been a obscure decision completely ignored by the press, have voted to ban the military from setting up recruitment stalls at freshers' fairs and to sever all links between the Officer Training Corps and the students' union. Just like the Peterborough story, Gordon Brown has already condemned it. Let's hope Sham Rajyaguru, who proposed the motion, is ready for the tirade of indignation that will follow - when my old friend and comrade Hossein Zahir proposed one of the Tottenham Three, Winston Silcott, as Honorary President of the LSE Students Union in 1989, he was front page of the furious tabloids and had to be given a bodyguard because of the death threats the union received.

Evidently the government is beginning to recognise that it has lost its militarily disastrous wars. With so little to show for five years in Iraq, it is now fighting a rearguard action for its credibility at home, trying to salvage what little it can through the manipulation of public sentiment.

And once again, it’s using the poor bloody soldiers to do so...

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