Books, news, & views from Karen Traviss

Great Britain: a nation unfit for heroes

If you're going to die for a country, make sure it's not Great Britain. Because we're as ungrateful as we were in Kipling's day.
A news item tipped me over the angry edge yesterday, and I draw some comfort from the fact that I wasn't the only one spitting nails about a cafe-bar in Coventry that refused to serve coffee to some soldiers in uniform who were attending the funeral of a comrade. I was going to keep my outrage to myself for a change, but then another news item today -- the long overdue memorial for the air crew of Bomber Command in WWII -- reminded me there's a shameful sickness in Great Britain that dates back at least to Kipling's day and probably long before. We Brits talk a good game about Our Boys and how much we love our armed forces, but we've got very short memories when it comes to doing something about it. Buying a few poppies and shoving a few coins in the Help For Heroes tin doesn't exonerate us. For every wonderful community like the people of Royal Wootton Bassett, there are still too many who not only don't give a toss, but actively disrespect our armed forces.

In case you missed the Coventry story, here it is: there's a campaign now to boycott the bar, albeit only for one day. No business that behaves that way to our troops (especially when they're fighting a war) deserves anyone's custom. Most people recognize that this was appalling, but what worries me is the nature of the apology from the owner, assuming he's been quoted accurately: "I have since been made aware of why these soldiers were in Coventry and had I known of the circumstances, I would have willingly served them."

So why does he think his company's general policy to ban soldiers in uniform under less harrowing circumstances is okay? It's time we objected to every bar, shop, and hotel in this country (because this isn't an isolated incident) that tells our servicemen and women they're not welcome. What do they think soldiers in uniform are going to do to a bar that a civvie wouldn't? It's not 1940. We don't have brawling squaddies or sailors in every pub. Our service personnel are an endangered breed anyway, and nobody wears a uniform to go out and start a fight, for Chrissakes. Pissed-up, mouthy, violent civilian behaviour can be seen every Friday and Saturday night in most English towns and cities, though. Maybe bars should start banning anyone not in uniform.

But what kind of sorry excuse for a country accepts that attitude to soldiers and allows it to be legal? During the decades of Irish terror attacks on the UK mainland, service personnel couldn't wear their uniforms off base for security reasons, so we simply got used to not noticing our armed forces around us. They became invisible, just figures on the TV screen when some poor sod got killed in Northern Ireland, not real human beings like us but 2D images in the stream of infotainment. Now all too often we seem to want them to stay invisible, especially when it comes to paying for them.

One thing that strikes me about the US whenever I visit is that I see soldiers walking around at airports and in malls, rightly proud of their uniform and clearly respected by the civilian population. Over here, a soldier in uniform walking through the supermarket or filling his car at the petrol station is a rare sight even where I live, which is in the heart of Army country. No wonder successive governments have got away with slashing the defence budget, squandering what's left, and generally betraying the military covenant without too much objection from the public. It's all invisible.

I grew up in a naval port. Sailors didn't wear their uniforms outside the naval base, but the local yobs would start fights with them in pubs anyway because you could always spot a sailor in civvies. I'd see sailors from visiting foreign ships walking around the city in their uniforms and wonder how we'd reached a situation where we had to hide ours.

We've been treating our service personnel badly for years, of course. Here's a small selection of recent and ongoing causes for national shame: soldiers still stuck with unfit accommodation; 55,573 men of Bomber Command killed in action but cold-shouldered for doing their duty, recognised only seventy-odd years later when most of the survivors have died: and the veterans of the Arctic Convoys, a handful of survivors of that terrible campaign still struggling for a medal after David Cameron -- when he wasn't Prime Minister, of course -- promised to make sure they got it. If he stalls on that any longer, the last of the old boys will be dead. Maybe that's the cynical strategy. One thing is for sure: he's made sure I'll never vote for the Conservatives again.

So when I see Great Britain currently gripped in an orgy of flag-waving over the Jubilee, the Olympics, and a third-rate football team, I feel the urge to throw up. A real test of nationhood is not how much jingoistic noise we make about some indefinable thing we call a country and regard as some variant of sports fandom, but how we treat those who commit themselves to lay down their lives to protect our interests when told to do so, something no other job -- not firefighters, not police, no other profession at all -- requires. So far, we're failing that test year after year. We don't even pay them a living wage.

Anyway, back to Kipling: I doubt he'd be surprised that these lines are as true today as they were when he wrote them, but I bet he'd be bloody angry as well.

I went into a public- 'ouse to get a pint o' beer,
The publican 'e up an sez, "We serve no red-coats here."
The girls behind the bar they laughed an' giggled fit to die,
I outs into the street again an' to myself sez I:
O it's Tommy this, an' Tommy that, an' "Tommy go away";
But it's "Thank you, Mister Atkins," when the band begins to play....

You talk o' better food for us, an' schools, an' fires, an' all:
We'll wait for extry rations if you treat us rational.
Don't mess about the cook-room slops, but prove it to our face
The Widow's Uniform is not the soldier-man's disgrace.
For it's Tommy this, an' Tommy that, an' "Chuck 'im out, the brute!"
But it's "Saviour of 'is country" when the guns begin to shoot;
An' it's Tommy this, an' Tommy that, an' anything you please;
An' Tommy ain't a bloomin' fool - you bet that Tommy sees!

(Tommy, by Rudyard Kipling, 1892.)

If this has struck a chord in you, you have the power to change the situation. If you see a bar or a shop that bans service personnel in uniforms, complain to the owner and call your local news media to out them. Name and shame, and take your custom elsewhere. Ask your MP what he or she has done (not just paid lip service to) to support our servicemen and women, and how they voted on key issues: if they've done sweet FA, then don't vote for them, and tell them why you're not going to vote for them. This isn't only sentiment, although God knows it's impossible not to feel terrible about 20-year-old kids coming home minus limbs, or mentally damaged, or in coffins. It's also about democracy. It's about recognising that we have a volunteer armed forces, and because they volunteer, you or your sons (or daughters) don't get drafted. No politician ever gave up the pursuit of his territorial or political ambitions because he couldn't find enough volunteers to go to war for him. In fact, it's become a mathematical formula: the less experience a politician has of the reality of using military action, the more likely he is to treat it as a first rather than last resort, and the less resources and cash he thinks he can spend on it.

Our troops deserve better from all of us. If it costs me more tax or means I have to get by with less to fund that improvement, then bring it on. They're about the only thing we have left in Britain that's worth saving: they're the best of us. And before you use the word "hero" ever again about some pop star, talentless skank, or overpaid petulant sportsman, take a look at Ben Parkinson, and understand what the word hero really means:

By the way, Ben's parents had to fight to get him proper compensation. A nation fit for heroes? We're not even close. Do your bit personally and politically, and maybe one day we can look back on the sentiments in Tommy as just unhappy history.