Sisters Uncut

Taking direct action for domestic violence services.

Why feminists shouldn’t celebrate armed forces day

Friday, June 26, 2015

June 27th is Armed Forces Day. Not many people know that though, as it’s a recent invention and hopefully this year it will be overshadowed by London Pride, which falls on the same date and at which there will be a contingent of LGBT forces personnel — more on that later.

First thing: where did Armed Forces Day come from?  In 2008, the then Labour government commissioned a report entitled National Recognition of Our Armed Forces, in response to the fact that the British public had ‘lost its appetite for war’ (think the massive anti-Iraq war demos there had been).  The report made 40 recommendations for how the relationship between the UK’s civilian population and armed forces might be ‘strengthened’.  Really though, these recommendations were geared towards putting the armed forces beyond criticism, making heroes of the individual soldiers who comprise the armed forces.  That way, any wars the UK might want to use its armed forces to wage would also be beyond criticism: this is the not so subtle subtext of Gordon Brown’s foreword, where he states ‘it is vital for our serving men and women, especially those engaged in difficult and dangerous overseas campaigns, to know that the whole of Britain understands and appreciates the work that they do in our name’.

Given this context for the invention of Armed Forces Day, which is only the most obvious example of a whole tide of militarisation creeping through the UK, it needs to be pointed out that the people who will be most drastically affected by this militarisation aren’t actually in the UK, but in those countries where the UK government would like to be able to go to war if it fancies.  The militarisation of UK society and the pedestalisation of soldiers make such wars of choice more possible for the UK government, and the populations of those countries, especially women, shoulder the greatest burden of war.

The UK itself is also affected however, including the women of the UK, despite the fact that militarism tends to be thought of as a male and particularly masculine affair.  About 90% of armed forces personnel are men after all, and the figure of the soldier in popular imagination is a quintessentially male and masculine one — a minority of soldiers who aren’t in fact men not withstanding.  So even from a feminist perspective that didn’t already recognise the UK’s militarisation as a ruse to enable the UK government to act like an abuser abroad, using violence to get its own way on the world stage, a trend of pedestalising soldiers should surely be of concern: it’s a trend of pedestalising men and masculinity.

It becomes of even more concern when we look at the kind of men soldiers are.  There is of course an important caveat to this: ‘soldiers’ aren’t a monolith, and there’s as much variety among them as any group of human beings.  But as we’ve already noted, the purpose of the armed forces which soldiers comprise is to enable the UK government to get its own way, using violence.  Any assumption that there will be a clear line for soldiers — who largely enlist during the impressionable years of adolescence — between the appropriateness of this use of violence and any other, is ill-founded: research has found that men in the armed forces have a greater lifetime risk of offending violently than men in the general population, despite having a lower lifetime risk of offending nonviolently; men have also been found to be more likely to behave violently upon return from deployment.  So to pedestalise men who are soldiers is to pedestalise violent men, whose violence doesn’t necessarily end with deployment.  And even if it did, that violence would still be a problem.

The violence of men who are soldiers is often turned in sexualised form against women: the armed forces have recently been found to have a rate of sexual harassment that is twice the average of what women encounter in UK workplaces (on average, 12% of UK women report sexual harassment, compared to 24% in the armed forces.  However, another depressing finding is that across UK employment sectors, the rate of sexual harassment for bisexual women is 19%.  The rate of sexual harassment bisexual women encounter in the forces, therefore, is likely to be even higher.  This makes a mockery of the forces’ presence at Pride).  The true extent of the problem may be even greater: in 2012, an equality and diversity survey of armed forces personnel found that every one of the women who responded — 400 in total — had received unwanted sexual attention from her colleagues in the last 12 months.  And if allegations of sexual violence against men in other professions invite accusations of ‘ruining their lives’ — which they do (invite the accusations that is) — how much more likely are allegations against men in the armed forces to be received with hostility?  How much more charity, compassion and forgiveness will be exacted of women towards soldiers than is already exacted of women towards any violent man, when unconditional appreciation for the sacrifices of soldiers is exacted of everyone?  ‘But men get sent to war’ has long been used as an imagined riposte to feminism’s foundational insight that men are privileged and women oppressed in our patriarchal society, as though this were a trade off for the ‘natural hazards’ of being a woman, one of which subjection to sexual violence is patriarchally imagined to be.

It says a lot that in the armed forces, sexual assault, along with exposure and voyeurism, has been formally excluded from the category of offences described as ‘inherently serious’.  It also says a lot that armed forces recruitment material promises would-be soldiers the admiration of civilians, ‘especially the girls’.  The expectation of female admiration of which such rhetoric is probably both causative and symptomatic obviously betrays a sense of entitlement, which goes some way towards explaining what we’ve seen to be the low standards of sexual behaviour among armed forces men.  It also highlights the risk to civilian women, a risk which is magnified in a climate which puts soldiers beyond criticism.  As ever with violence against women however, the greatest risk comes from partners, and women whose partners are in the armed forces have added vulnerabilities stemming from the frequent relocations that come with a forces career.  These cut soldiers’ partners off from their family and friends and make it harder for them to have jobs of their own.

There’s very little for feminists to celebrate in Armed Forces Day then, nor for LGBT/ queer activists to welcome about a forces presence at Pride: no more than there would be to welcome about the presence of UKIP, say, or even less.  The armed forces get to score cheap equality and diversity points, while their own equality and diversity research opens the door onto just how far from deserving those points they are.


Armed Forces Day parade, Cardiff 2010. Image made available at for reuse under the OGL (Open Government License).