It is the time of year when people put politics aside to commemorate the immeasurable human cost of continuous wars since 1914. However this year, a group of veterans have chosen to recognise the victims of war in an alternative way.
Veterans for Peace (VFP) are a UK based group of former military men and women who campaign for the abolition of, ‘war as an instrument of national policy’.
The organisation demand ‘justice for all those affected by war’. Which would extend to include the high number of military who take their own lives, the countless civilians now dead, injured or displaced as well as the victims of extraordinary rendition who have been subject to torture in prisons from Afghanistan to Guantanamo Bay.
With the national remembrance commemorations leaving an increasing taste of hypocrisy in some of these veterans’ mouths, many choose to wear a white poppy if they choose to wear one at all.
This year VFP held their own Remembrance Sunday commemoration at The Cenotaph, the place where a few hours prior, leading politicians and members of the royal family led the national two minutes silence.
This is only the second time they have held this event and it saw veterans from wars ranging from Malaya to Iraq.
With their supporters in tow they walked sombrely through Whitehall to lay a wreath of white flowers under a banner with the plea, ‘Never Again’.
Members of the veterans group also wore jumpers with the revered WWI veteran, Harry Patch’s famous quote on the back: ‘War is organised murder, and nothing else’.
Despite the anti-war message however, the influence of military procedure remains steady in the members. None more so than in its founder, the whistleblowing former SAS soldier, Ben Griffin, known for taking the stage at the Oxford Union to tell why he will no longer ‘fight for Queen and country’.
The day before the Sunday commemorations, Mr Griffin carried out a meeting with soldierly vigour to go over VFP’s plans for the upcoming remembrance event. Each aspect of their commemoration is strategic, from the procession’s formation as they march through Whitehall to an even spread of the best singing voices for when they break into Pete Seeger’s, ‘Where Have All The Flowers Gone’.
Mr Griffin is adamant that Remembrance Sunday is a day of reflection, not protest. As such, any members sporting placards or megaphones will be swiftly stamped on by their support stewards.
He added, “And one wrong photo or one wrong word to the press and someone will be getting a phone call.”
He smiles. The room laughs. But no one wants that phone call.
What sets the group apart from similar pacifist organisations such as the Peace Pledge Union or the Quakers is that they all criticise the government’s war policies from a position of having seen the horrors first-hand.
Joe Glenton, 32, was imprisoned for nine months after exercising his right to conscientiously object to returning to fight in Afghanistan. He is now an author, activist and key member of VFP.
He said, “This is the powerful thing about veterans for peace; we are veterans. We’ve chewed the dirt and dodged the rockets, are you going to bloody tell me to wear a poppy? I’m a veteran, I’ll decide.”
Speaking about his time in Afghanistan he said, “Due to my developing political views and to some extent my PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) I refused to go back. I went through the chain of command but that wasn’t recognised, so I added to the other 23,000 guys who’ve gone AWOL (absent without leave) since Iraq.
“This led to being court martialled and eventually all the main charges were dropped but they still stung me with a nine-month prison sentence of which I served five months.”
Mr Glenton is a critic of the ‘glorification’ of the national remembrance commemorations. However he admits it is a heated topic even amongst his fellow members.
He said, “We have guys who are WWII veterans and veterans of the wars of colonisation who wear the red poppy and are very proud but these are people whose dads were in the First World War when the poppy had a kind of angry, insurgent feel, a symbol of anger that so many people had died.”
He added, “But for the war on terror generation it’s quite different. They feel that the red poppy has been hijacked and been taken very far away from its origins.
“My own personal view? I don’t think big business should be involved in the poppy appeal at all, particularly not arms companies who make money out of wars.”
Mr Glenton is referring to some of the poppy appeal’s sponsors such as aerospace company Lockheed Martin UK, who between developing war heads and ballistic missiles also sponsored this year’s ‘Poppyrocks Ball’ hosted by the Royal British Legion.
Criticisms of the poppy appeal range from over sentimentality at best to propaganda at worst but these claims are dampened somewhat when discovering just how much money the Royal British Legion needs to raise for the after care of former military and their families.
The RBL claim they need to make £40m from this year’s poppy appeal to carry out their much needed welfare work. While their forecast report for 2005- 2020 shows the troublingly ‘deep pocket of need among veterans and their families’.
The charity’s research concluded that within the adult ex-service community 3.88 million report a net household income of less than £10,000 per annum. More than half of the surviving ex-service community have a long-term illness or disability and in the 16-44 age group, the number of mental health disorders is three times that of non-military people of the same age.
The Royal British Legion has called for further investment in these matters and has also asked for a strategy on the culture of misuse of alcohol in the armed forces. Many soldiers cite alcohol abuse as a part of their difficult transition into home life. It is also thought to relate to the number of ex-servicemen and women currently lining UK prisons which could be at a much higher rate than government statistics previously showed.
A Ministry of Defence spokesperson responded to these matters by saying, “There is no quick fix to reduce alcohol misuse in the Armed Forces. We are taking action by educating personnel on the dangers of alcohol misuse to help them make informed decisions.”
They also told of a £7.2m investment to improve mental health services available to veterans.
Sadly, this still leaves a substantial hole in the funds needed, the burden of which falls at the door of charities such as the Royal British Legion, whose poppy appeal brought in almost a third of their annual revenue in 2013.
Mr Glenton, while appreciating that military personnel’s needs must be met does not believe that it should be a case of charitable burden and is critical of attempts to, ‘neo-liberalise care’.
He explained, “This isn’t new. When guys came back from the war after 1918 it was often the case that it was charities paying for care rather than government. Charities also run as big business and they can present care in a way that buys into the idea of the military as a force for good.”
While the veterans at VFP range in their political views they are united in wanting to increase public awareness of the costs of war.
Scots Guards veteran, turned spoken word artist, Michael John Pike (Spike), turned to substance abuse and narrowly avoided prison after his term in Northern Ireland at the height of the troubles in 1981.
Spike said, “I’m pretty much laying my ghosts now but for many, many years I was consumed with a pathological hatred of anything Irish or anything Republican, I couldn’t even look at a flag.”
He now wants to warn young, would-be soldiers of what lies ahead for them and one way Veterans for Peace do this is by visiting schools.
This is a bid to counteract the many military recruitment drives which also take place in schools around the UK, particularly in the most disadvantaged areas.
Curbing any overly graphic detail, children watch open mouthed as members of VFP tell them what it’s like to, ‘go and kick a family’s door in, in Iraq’ or, ‘what its actually like to be occupying someone else’s country’.
Spike has since turned things around and his booming voice was the one chosen to pierce the silence at the cenotaph on Sunday. He performed his poem, War Machine, where he criticises, ‘those men that wear suits and talk about God demanding the people wave flags and applaud’.
This group echo a wider feeling of war-weariness in the U.K and judging by the spectator support Veterans for Peace received this Sunday, will only be growing in size.
Because as one of their supporters, Vincent Burke,points out in his centenary remembrance day song: