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Declining interest in Armed Forces Day reported as councils don’t want to host

The absence of a national event for Armed Forces Day in the UK this year – 29 June 2024 – marks a notable departure from recent tradition, as no councils came forward to host the 2024 celebrations. This shift has been applauded by peace campaigners, who view the occasion as problematic for its portrayal of military activities.

Previously a recent cornerstone of national observance, Armed Forces Day has seen a dramatic reduction in local events in recent years, with only 189 listed this year compared to 316 in 2019. This decline is emblematic of shifting attitudes towards the uncritical glorification of armed forces and the militarisation of public spaces.

The government decision not to hold a national event this year coincides with broader scrutiny surrounding the conduct of British military personnel. Accusations of SAS war crimes in Syria and extrajudicial killings in Afghanistan have, in part, cast a shadow over the military’s reputation. Reports of unlawful killings during counterinsurgency operations in Afghanistan’s Helmand province, where unarmed civilians were allegedly targeted, have sparked judicial inquiries. The allegations include the deliberate withholding of evidence and obstructing justice, prompting questions about transparency and accountability within the armed forces.

Geoff Tibbs from the Peace Pledge Union (PPU) highlighted concerns about Armed Forces Day’s role in normalising militarism: “In light of ongoing conflicts abroad and allegations of misconduct at home, celebrating Armed Forces Day risks trivialising the consequences of war. It’s crucial to foster critical dialogue rather than glorify military actions.”

Joe Glenton, a veteran and spokesperson for ForcesWatch, discussed the origins and implications of Armed Forces Day: “Initially conceived to rehabilitate the public image of military service following conflicts like those in Iraq and Afghanistan, Armed Forces Day risks normalising war and promoting militaristic values. While honouring individual service members is important, the day often glosses over the complexities and human costs of armed conflict.”

Local resistance to Armed Forces Day has gained momentum, with communities organising protests and alternative events to challenge what they perceive as a sanitised portrayal of war. Cities like Irvine and Cambridge have become focal points for dissent, with residents expressing discomfort over festivities that they argue fail to acknowledge the human cost of armed conflict.

The Ministry of Defence’s decision to allocate over £420,000 to support local events amidst a cost-of-living crisis has drawn criticism. Campaigners argue that these funds could be better invested in education and social services, reflecting broader discontent with priorities in public spending.

As discussions around Armed Forces Day evolve, there is a growing consensus among campaigners that honouring military service should not come at the expense of critical reflection on its implications. The absence of a centralised national event in 2024 serves as an opportunity to reevaluate the cultural significance of Armed Forces Day and to ensure that public commemorations align with principles of transparency, accountability, and respect for international humanitarian law.