Poppy-Wash: Veterans Need More than Charity

By Joe Glenton, Afghanistan veteran

Novara Media’s Aaron Bastani has been slammed by pro-war MPs for his mild critique of the British Legion. Let us be clear at the outset. I agree with the comments he made over the course of a lengthy broadcast. The hack and slash mash-up video made, and then apparently taken down under legal pressure, was worthless and misrepresentative.

He was correct to say raise, in detail, the issue of bloated military charities like the Royal British Legion not doing enough for military veterans while trading off our name. He was right to criticise the arms firm-backed, Royal PR vehicle known as the Invictus Games. I share his concerns.

His criticisms echo those made by many people, including many veterans, about the parlous state of veterans aftercare, about the whole hero soldier industry and about the failures of the state, the military and competing neoliberal charities to support ex-services personnel.

The problem is not that Bastani is critical. Nothing is sacred, nothing is beyond critique, not at any time, least of all the military establishment of which the RBL is a part. He is right. Now we have a debate, let us consider some options.

Unionise and democratise

The British Legion started as a merger of ex-services unions. It should return to those roots. This process, or something like it, could see the major charities – which are now fundamentally massive private businesses – folded into each other as either:
• A fully democratic union in which veterans can organise and lobby for their needs to be met
• A much improved version of the US-style Veterans Affairs Department led by democratically
elected ministers
• Some other combination of the two with the charities being nationalised into an accountable government department and some of their massive wealth being used to set up the new Veterans

Cut death dealers and Royals out of veterans affairs

Arms firms should be completely barred from using military charities to selfishly poppy-wash their activities. Better that they be taxed to the fullest extent and t,hat that money plus the massive subsidies the arms trade enjoys, are diverted into support for victims of war including but not limited to British military veterans.

The same goes for the Royals, who have long used the forces (and the arms trade) as a self-serving jobs scheme to keep wayward princes out of the papers. Prince Harry, who beamed at George W. Bush on stage at a previous Invictus Games, is no veterans champion. Veterans can elect their own representatives in their Union.

Turn off the ‘Our Boys’ default settings

A Corbyn-led Labour was always going to be attacked on defence. Despite the people attacking the new leadership from inside his own party and beyond having an astonishing history of failure and ineptness on every single aspect of defence.

Under pressure the new Labour project has defaulted to an ‘Our Boys’ setting in its attitudes to the military. This is understandable but long-term it must change. It is an example of one key aim of the new brand of militarism: to conflate critique of the military and foreign policy with disrespect for soldiers. This will not do. It limits debate. It should be pointed out and rejected. No government department is beyond critique. If anything our wayward military and MoD need critique more than any other part ofgovernment.

These are sketched ideas and not fully developed recommendations. But if we are to take veteran’s needs seriously we must acknowledge the failings of the current system and propose radical solutions. As in every other area of UK society, the status quo serves those at the top exceptionally well. But veterans are not among these groups.