Magazine article The Spectator

Remember the Living

Magazine article The Spectator

Remember the Living

Article excerpt

Various political attempts to institute a national British day have failed, perhaps because Britain already has one. It is Armistice Day, and it is marked not by the waving of flags, or by the recitation of a national creed, but by keeping a silence in memory of those who sacrificed their lives for our country. Armistice Day, however, has always been about the living as well as the fallen. The poppies we wear are not just a commemoration of Flanders, but a sign that we support our soldiers in the battlefield today.

Since the Taleban were toppled from Kabul nine years ago, 180,000 servicemen and women have fought campaigns in either Iraq or Afghanistan. The fighting in Helmand has been more vicious than the military ever anticipated - the heaviest and most sustained that the British have endured since the Korean war. This has a human price, not simply the 521 soldiers who have died, or the 4,400 who have been hospitalised, or the 172 amputees. Many of those who remain able-bodied and return find the adjustment to civilian life a very different battle.

The trauma of modern warfare is well understood by Americans, who saw its effects in the aftermath of Vietnam, but Britain is only now coming to terms with the implications of sending so many troops into such heavy fighting. We have a tendency to focus on the casualty rate:

each session of Prime Minister's Questions starts with a tribute to the fallen.

This irritates the army for two reasons:

it is a reminder of the failures of the war, sounding a slow drumbeat of defeat, and it undermines the resolve needed for the counterinsurgency. Worse, it focuses political attention on the dead. This is at a time when so much could, and should, be done for the living.

The number of troops who fell liberating the Falklands, 255, is now exceeded by the number of veterans from that conflict who took their own lives years after returning home. Many of these deaths could have been prevented if the veterans had been given the right support - but then, the British authorities were still only dimly aware of the psychological effects of warfare. Post-traumatic stress disorder was seen as mainly an American problem. The extent to which British soldiers were affected became apparent too late. …

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