The Armed Forces Day 'family fun' extravaganza in Colwyn Bay's Parc Eirias went ahead on Saturday in intermittent drizzle and behind a prominent banner near the main gate stating what you'd have thought would be bleedin' obvious, but apparently to many punters wasn't: 'WAR IS NOT FAMILY ENTERTAINMENT'. As you'd expect of any attempt to disguise the brutal reality of war as fun and games, the event was at best conflicted and contradictory, at worst downright dishonest. With the stated aim of "recognising and honouring our armed forces and veterans" AFD is designed to leave no space open to question the legality or morality of the wars they've been off fighting in recent years, to ask whether warfare offers any real solutions for the problems we face, nor indeed to consider whether our various wars of aggression might conceivably be an aggravating factor in these problems.
In the end it was down to a handful of protesters to pitch up and create this space, right by the main entrance, and to break the illusion that everything in the military garden is rosy.
This event was held a week before official Armed Forces Day on 27 June. There's time to organise a presence at an AFD event in your area and it's well worth doing, however small. Even one person standing vigil at the gate can have a big impact.
The responsibility for organising Armed Forces Day moves around north Wales each year from county to county. AFD 2014, held in Wrexham, cost £40,000 and swallowed up most of the county's events budget for the year. This left funds so depleted that the council couldn't even, so it claimed, run to a few flyers or posters for the completely unfunded Peace Day event in September. By all accounts, this year's AFD looked like it will have cost still more. A Freedom of Information request might shine some light on that question and, with a bit of luck and enough encouragement, a cash strapped council might well cancel its own turn sometime soon.
Billed as 'fun for all the family' and free to boot, the event is a thinly disguised recruiting exercise. We know that military recruiters target children as young as seven, aiming to spark interest at events like this and then build on it gradually thereafter through a process described by the head of army recruitment as 'drip, drip, drip', with school visits, websites and products aimed at children, cadet forces and adverts promising excitement and adventure. Claims by the military that their child-focused activities have nothing to do with recruitment don't stand up to scrutiny.
We're always hearing about the scandal of child soldiers in dodgy regimes elsewhere. This coming week, military veterans are going to be holding up a mirror and forcing the British military to look at its own practices as Veterans for Peace UK, in conjunction with Darren Cullen of Spelling Mistakes Cost Lives and Price James, launch a film full of wounded and traumatised Action Men as part of a campaign to end the recruitment of children into the British military. See also this article in today's Observer.
Was Armed Forces Day Family Fun?
Back in Parc Eirias, what did AFD have on offer for impressionable young people? In one field there was a climbing wall, assault course and zip wire with a long bedraggled queue in the rain, along with glittery face painting and a definitely non-military play area. We can only assume that these latter had offered their services in the context of a local population gripped by hysterical mass blindness over our military misadventures. On the car park opposite were recruitment trailers, a flight simulator, field hospital, some old military kit, and a tank for kids to play in and on where we spent some time handing out our 'How the Army Targets Children' flyers.
One of the recruitment stalls belonged to the Royal Welsh regiment. Last year in Wrexham, children - including under 7s - were helped by soldiers from the same regiment to pretend to shoot using a range of ground and table mounted guns, some of which were set up to point into the crowd [see letter to the press below]. This year there were just a couple of guns on a table. As I passed, a young cadet was encouraged by the soldier on the stall to try one out. They were sniper rifles and there is only one use for sniper rifles...
For the morning, we spread ourselves out between the pavement just outside the main entrance, where our WAR IS NOT FAMILY ENTERTAINMENT banner facing the road was by far the most prominent sign for the event, and just inside the entrance where our friend from PAWB (People Against Wylfa B) in a hi-vis jacket and his placard 'NO NUKES, NO TRIDENT' looked for all the world like an event steward with an official welcoming message. The local peace group's big and beautiful 'PEACE, JUSTICE, EQUALITY' banner was hung on the main park gates up the road for the duration. We went into the event in ones and twos to look round and hand out flyers, but concentrated our efforts on the individuals and families arriving or, when the rain started, leaving in a hurry. In an attempt at co-option, the local peace group had this year been offered an official Armed Forces Day stall at the event but had (sensibly) declined.
There had definitely been some co-ordination going on between the council, the military and the cops beforehand as the sergeant who said he was in charge of policing the event informed us on arrival of the offer of a stall and subsequent refusal, and stated his intention to 'facilitate your peaceful protest'. He forgot to add 'only if you do exactly what you're told' and later managed to obstruct part of the event himself - a race that passed by the main gate - while supposedly acting to avert a 'breach of the peace', which is how he interpreted us walking round with a banner and a peace flag. I guess that in a country committed to the promotion and prosecution of war, peace will necessarily be seen as a threat. The words of George Orwell came to mind: "During times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act."
A couple of other comments on the policing...
Parc Eirias might be situated right next to the North Wales Police HQ and their firearms officers might have been otherwise kicking their heels, but on what possible legitimate policing grounds did this 'family fun' event require an armed response? I don't remember them in Wrexham last year.
In the afternoon, we put the banner up on the other side of the main gate. I walked round to take a photo and was intercepted by a woman who appeared to be in charge of indoctrinating the Air Cadets. She asked me to make sure none of 'her cadets' were in my picture since parents had to give their consent to them being photographed. I pointed out that her cadets were in a public place, explained that I'd only be a minute taking my photo and that she could perhaps ask them to stay inside their gazebo if they didn't want to risk being in my picture. She took offence at this and stormed off to 'tell the police' while I went and took my photo that didn't feature her cadets in any case. Two WPCs headed over to me, said there had been a complaint and asked me to be 'mindful' of who was in the photos I was taking. When I pointed out that this was a public place, one of them nodded sympathetically and said "I know, I know" but then proceeded to tell me that she had warned me and that if she received any more complaints, she was going to have to stop me from taking photos. I've had a bit of trouble over the years with photography and the police and I don't appreciate being threatened, especially without any legal grounds. I recounted the conversation I'd just had with the air cadet leader which the WPC claimed not to have been told, but she repeated her threat, at which point I said that I didn't think that basing policing decisions simply on the number of complaints received was a good idea for obvious reasons. As we walked back toward the main gate, I asked the WPCs to consider that while they were concerning themselves about hypothetical photographs of children taken perfectly legally at a public event, we were there because we're concerned about children who are actually being killed, maimed and traumatised, often unlawfully, in warfare that this same event was promoting.
From our base at the main entrance to Armed Forces Day, we didn't get to see many of the attractions on offer further into the park, but some of these merit a mention.
A trio of items in the programme caught my eye. Punters were invited to have a go at blind veterans archery, wheelchair rugby and wheelchair basketball. What a great idea to let youngsters try out these fun sports before they sign up to be blinded and have their legs blown off. They might usefully have added mock up prison cell, psychiatric ward, cardboard box (for rough sleeping) and detox clinic to the activities on offer.
It wasn't clear to me why there were a couple of US flags flying in the 'military village' area. Was the idea to emphasise the 'special' and subservient relationship our military and government enjoys with the United States?
Lastly, there were some aerial displays. The first amounted to being buzzed by a helicopter, which some of us have had more than enough of at demonstrations, so I couldn't see the attraction of that, but then I'm hardly in the military's recruitment demographic. The second was a Spitfire fly-past which I missed and the third a synchronised parachute display, concerning after the previous day's Red Devils incident in Cumbria, since the parachutists were right above our heads if anything had gone wrong, but they managed to land safely.
North Wales Armed Forces Day was graced with the presence of Secretary of State for Wales Stephen Crabb, who attended the same school in Pembrokeshire as Chelsea Manning. Manning's courage in telling the truth about the wars was noted on one of our placards. Stephen Crabb is 100% in favour of the right of the government to declare war without prior parliamentary approval and 100% in favour of Trident replacement - maybe they've given him the job of Welsh Secretary so he can argue for it to be based at Milford Haven. He is also 100% in favour of ending some of the support for 16-18 years olds in education - in which case they're more likely to sign up for the military, I guess. All in all, a friend of the armed forces. Stephen Crabb was joined at the event by Wrexham MP Ian Lucas, who last time I met him refused to shake my hand on account of a grudge he's been holding for 12 years over an occupation of his office in 2003. They must have come into the event via the dignitaries entrance as we didn't see either of them from our position on the main gate and almost all our interactions were with members of the public, leaving aside the few conversations with the police as already detailed, with the Air Cadet leader and some of her cadets who E declared afterwards 'had been brainwashed'.
I'd expect a certain amount of hostility at an event like this, but actually there was very little. If the police were to be believed, most of it seems to have been directed to them by way of complaints. Quite a few people stopped to voice support for our actions and many took our flyers. For me, the most memorable interaction was with a self-confessed traumatised army veteran who started out angry and aggressive but, although we didn't find much to agree on, ended up shaking my hand (Ian Lucas could learn from this man) and came over to say goodbye as he was leaving with his family.
ARMED FORCES DAY will be coming to a town near you on Saturday 27th June. DON'T MISS IT!
Letter to the media sent before the event
At North Wales Armed Forces Day held in Wrexham last June, young children were encouraged by soldiers from the Royal Welsh regiment to play with guns, some of which were set up to point into the crowd. In September 2014, UNICEF reported that children are the main victims of war and that one billion children live in areas affected by conflict, suffering both physical and psychological trauma. If we are to have any hope of changing this desperate situation, we need to move away from any pretence that warfare is fun.
We know that the forces' recruitment strategy is to draw young children in by a process of 'drip, drip, drip' . This is done by presenting an unrealistic picture of the military to impressionable young people. It is unacceptable for the military to bring its weapons into civilian areas as playthings and we urge that such behaviour is not repeated at this year's Armed Forces Day on Saturday in Colwyn Bay. War is NOT family entertainment.
Genny Bove, Wrexham Peace & Justice Forum & WISE Up Action
Conwy County Peace Group
Berry Daines, Wales Green Party
Tim Devereux, Chair of Movement for the Abolition of War
Jill Gough, CND Cymru
Ben Griffin, Veterans for Peace
Noel Hamel, Chair of Kingston Peace Council
Joan Meredith, Trident Ploughshares
Katie Saxby, Ethical & Environment Officer, Glyndwr University
Marie Walsh, mother and grandmother