The tremendous public response to the extraordinary Poppy Installation at the Tower of London seems to have taken much of the political class and the cultural elite by surprise (the bafflement at the BBC is almost palpable).
Like the growing numbers of people who attend Remembrance and Armistice Day ceremonies every year, it shows that ordinary British people are at least as moved by the sacrifices made by Britain’s veterans as they have ever been.
The fact that some five million people – equivalent to the population of Scotland – has made a pilgrimage to the tower, ought, at least in theory, to prompt our political leaders to consider the positive public response they would get if they were to take up the cause of today’s veterans.
It’s particularly an opportunity for Labour and UKIP, the Cameron-Clegg Coalition having notably failed to live up to its rhetoric about the so-called military “covenant.” It is no secret that Britain could do a lot better by its veterans and their families. And the fact that recruitment efforts are failing to meet the needs of even Britain’s radically shrinking forces shows that failing to look after veterans is not just an issue of morality, decency and gratitude, but has a practical, real-world cost.
The most immediate and obvious way the UK could do better by its veterans would be to actually honour the Covenant, or rather to transform it from a mere political marketing gambit into something concrete.
More than anything, this would require a commitment to spend whatever it takes to look after the very severely injured for the rest of their lives, so that the burden of 24-hour care no longer falls, as it does now, on already-devastated military families.
It is also now clearer than ever that the UK should have at least one dedicated military hospital. Though NHS funded, it could be exclusively devoted to veterans of all generations. Like its equivalents in America, it would specialize in those fields of medicine which are uniquely relevant to veterans young and old.
For instance, we now have hundreds of young ex-military amputees, many of them multiple amputees who also suffer from traumatic brain injury. They need and deserve specialized care from medics who understand what American doctors now call “polytrauma” who are up to date in the latest research into “phantom pain” and post traumatic stress.
Honouring the covenant isn’t only a matter of medical treatment. It’s also about showing gratitude, about helping veterans adjust to post-war life, and about ensuring that the wider society gets the benefit of the rare skills and personal qualities that so many veterans have.
Veterans who have risked life and limb for the rest of us could and should get preferences in public housing, in public sector housing, and in subsidized education. At the moment when it comes to benefits they are sometimes treated with rather less generosity than the British state shows to asylum seekers and the families of terrorist suspects.
In the USA the so-called GI Bill provides vocational and academic training for veterans – and their widows and orphans – and a subsistence allowance for those in full time education. It also pays for counseling and employment assistance for disabled veterans. Thanks to the same World War II era legislation a large, if cumbersome, Department of Veterans Affairs provides a whole range of services for veterans ranging from subsidized business loans to hospices.
We could learn a lot from the American example, and not just from the way their government treats veterans: some American airports actually offer special lounges for military families. It’s much to the credit of the capital that Transport for London offers free travel to war veterans; but it really should be the case all around the country.
Perhaps the least discussed aspect of the covenant is the efforts that could be made to help returning veterans make the most of their lives. This is not a matter of charity or even repaying a debt that is owed. Nor does helping discharged soldiers, and marines assimilate back into civilian society mean turning them into objects of pity or treating them as victims. It’s a demonstration of due respect by the wider society, and also an act of self-interest.
After all, we would all benefit if our society made better use of veterans’ unique qualities. We have 21-year old ex- corporals who have borne more responsibility and made more life and death decisions than most civilians twice or three times their age. Imagine the energy, maturity, courage and public spiritedness men and women like them could bring to, say, Britain’s police forces.
As defence cuts bite and the armed forces shrink, we will have at our disposal thousands of people who not only have remarkable technical skills (many soldiers, sailors and airmen operate cutting-edge technology on a daily basis) but who have been selected and trained for abilities that are often lacking among their generational equivalents. Many came from deprived backgrounds and had few paper qualifications but possess a talent for leadership which was spotted and cultivated by the military and has since been tempered in battle. When these highly trained veterans end up stacking shelves or on the streets, it represents both a moral failure and a terrible waste of human capital.
The sensation surrounding the Poppy exhibition presents an opportunity for our leaders. They can, if they choose, ride the wave of public awareness of and sympathy for veterans, and use its power to transform the way this country looks after and honours the men and women who serve in our armed forces. Or they can do what they have done for decades and just throw away their poppies and forget about veterans until next year.