What did they serve for? Was it for the illegal war in Iraq, physical trauma from an IED, the PTSD, the low-pay, the distance from family, or the cynicism from the public? For many neglected veterans and active military personnel in the modern era, it seems that it is only the far-right that is listening.
Many vets have legitimate grievances against the state, which used them, and then binned them. The far-right are festering in this reality.
Professor Alberto Testa, an expert on far-right terrorism, said that extremism in the Armed Forces is magnified. “The Army [is] an ideal organization because the far-right groups are shaped on Army narratives, symbols and structure and this helps in their recruitment strategies.” These groups also provide veterans and active members with a sense of community and appreciation of their identity based on a military ethos. This is scarily similar to the pre-war Blackshirts and Brownshirts.
In popular culture the Armed Forces invoke a deep sense of respect due to ideals of sacrifice. Sacrificing for your neighbours instills an image of selflessness that transcends petty politics. However, in modern Britain, there has been a decrease in collective remembrance, for our grandparents participation, but also recent conflicts. For those that do participate, standing in silence once a year is not enough, as veterans and active personnel matter 364+1.
The benchmark in collective historical memory of ‘sacrifice’ can be largely appreciated in Britain’s victor narrative after World War Two; the ‘standing alone’ in the face of Nazism. But what about the vets in our ‘less glorious’ wars and conflicts, such Afghanistan and Iraq? Well, the 2011 British Social Attitudes survey showed that the British public is doubtful of the missions’ achievements and cynical about the purpose. This public reaction throws cynicism on sacrifice.
456 and 178 UK military personnel gave the ultimate sacrifice in Afghanistan and Iraq, respectively, with an additional 2348 injured. The battle does not end there for many of our vets, as the British Journal of Psychiatry found, 6% of current members and veterans in 2014-2016 were suffering from PTSD. Sir Wesseley at King College said that part of the legacy of conflicts on mental health is that it can take time to reveal itself. Irrespective of opinions on conflicts in the Middle East, our Armed Forces are operatives, not politicians. They answered the call, it was up to all of us to make sure that the cause was legitimate. We cannot simply wash our hands with another foreign policy disaster by turning our backs on those that served.
The far-right is exploiting this public reality, surging it’s support in active Armed Forces and leading very pro-military agendas. Recently the conviction of Lance Corporal Vehvilainen in 2018 is demonstrative. Vehvilainen, a member of the banned right-wing terrorist organization National Action, attempted to form a cell within the Armed Forces, reportingly recruiting other soldiers. Similarly, in 2019, two black paratroopers sued the Army for racial abuse from other soldiers that draped their barracks with Nazi flags. Other examples include, a video of soldiers using a poster of former Labour leader Corbyn as a target, or pictures of British cadets posing with right-wing extremist and former EDL leader, Tommy Robinson. These are active forces, but what about the veteran community that are civilians now. Here is the real surge of support.
Far-right groups and individuals, such as Britain First and Tommy Robinson have largely taken up the fight against Black Lives Matter in the UK, seen in 2020 with their ‘defence’ of memorials and statues. Ironically, this also included far-right activists giving Nazi salutes in front of the Cenotaph war memorial, as well as at Churchill’s statute. They also exploit other emotionally provoking instants, such as the murder of military drummer and Fusilier, Lee Rigby, in 2013. Far right groups use Rigby’s brutal murder by two homegrown terrorists to parrot anti-immigrant and anti-Islam narratives, even though Rigby’s family have denounced the far-right’s attempt to co-opt Rigby’s death for political gains.
If we want to stem far-right narratives in veterans and military communities, we need a new covenant. One that moves past window-dressing remembrance and token-appreciation. Our men and women, active and decommissioned deserve more. Firstly, the Ministry of Defence must take an active role in transitioning military personnel to civilian life. This can include increased funding for mental health support centres that focus on PTSD and homelessness. The government can increase public-private partnerships that seek to hire veterans and give them jobs retraining. In regards to active personnel, recommendations include, Army recruiters doing extensive background checks for radicalization before entering service, make countering violent extremism training mandatory, and engage with family and friends of military personnel to give our veterans and military families the support they need at home.