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Armed Forces Day Kids with guns controversy at family celebration for British troops

THERE are hook the duck stalls, fairground rides and countless ice-cream vans.

Clockwise from below: Princess Royal; a military march; the Red Arrows put on a jaw-dropping display; children 'play' with some of the weapons of war and Alex Salmond welcomes David Cameron. Photographs: Phil Rider
Clockwise from below: Princess Royal; a military march; the Red Arrows put on a jaw-dropping display; children 'play' with some of the weapons of war and Alex Salmond welcomes David Cameron. Photographs: Phil Rider

But these are not the most popular attractions with the thousands of small children who descended on Stirling yesterday for Armed Forces Day.

They seemed to prefer handling the high-velocity sniper rifle, getting to grips with an 81mm mortar or staring down the sights of a Starstreak II missile launcher, with its operator on hand to boast of its "multi-target capability" and 7km range.

Private Martin Bruce had a busy day. The 22-year-old, who serves in the 5 Scots infantry battalion and has completed two tours of Afghanistan, has been manning the javelin anti-tank missile and launcher. "It's been really popular," he says. "The kids love it, especially switching to the nightsight."

Asked how he feels about allowing children, some of whom are too young to go to school, to play with this deadly weapon, he responds: "It's not going to do any harm. I say go for it."

One of those who does just that is five-year-old Evan. When asked what he thinks of the guns, which have apparently been redesignated as playthings for one day only, he replies "awesome". His mum, Karen Lindsay, adds: "This is a dream come true for him. He's had a go on the vehicles and all the guns. We're also here for the armed forces, which we support 100%".

Armed Forces Day is where the might and destructive force of the British army is repackaged as wholesome family fun. As the throngs approach the main events field, Apache attack helicopters are seen swooping through plumes of black smoke and the sound of machine gun fire ripples in the distance. As the Apaches - which when doing the job they were built for would be kitted out with 1200 high-explosive ammunition rounds and an arsenal of missiles - depart a crew member gives a friendly wave to the delighted crowd.

Recruitment posters were also liberally displayed throughout the event and army recruitment stands were on site for anyone willing to sign up for the army.

Scottish human rights lawyer Aamer Anwar believes allowing youngsters, many of whom chose to have their faces painted camouflage, to physically interact with guns and missiles is "distasteful" at best.

"At Armed Forces Day, you would expect to see military hardware," he says. "People want to see planes, tanks and soldiers and I don't think there's anything wrong with that. But passing these weapons - that are killing machines - over into the hands of a child is where I would draw the line. That is not acceptable.

"The fact that the state is encouraging this seems to be double standards. Images of children with guns in Pakistan or Palestine are interpreted as encouraging violence or training them to become killers. How is that then not applicable to having children encouraged to look down the sights of a high-velocity rifle here? Why is that OK for our children?"

The MoD chose not to respond directly to the criticism last night, instead saying displays "focused on the many capabilities of the UK's Armed Forces, including search and rescue, peace keeping and humanitarian work, with an aim to educate and inform those in attendance."

Nor were there many voices of dissent at Stirling, other than around 40 members of the Scottish Peace Network who turned out to protest at what they saw as "insensitive and ill-timed event". Their presence was tolerated, if not welcomed.

And in Glasgow, four anti-war activists occupied the Finnieston Crane to protest against the "glorification of war" on Armed Forces Day.

The vast majority of the 35,000 people who are estimated to have turned out appeared to be suitably impressed with a show that also included the Red Arrows, parachute displays and aircraft of a bygone era.

"We're just here for a day's entertainment," said Gordon Pearson. "Although we do support the military. We think the Red Arrows will be the highlight." A Typhoon jet then appears out of nowhere, shaking the earth as it thunders through the sky. "That's the highlight," his wife Gail adds. "You don't see that every day."

While the tools of warfare are everywhere, support for members of the military, rather than war itself, is what Armed Forces Day is meant to be all about, according to organisers and politicians across the political divide. Alex Salmond called it a "fantastic occasion" while David Cameron described it as "absolutely brilliant".

Dr Neil Jenkins, a former Royal Marine who has since pursued a successful career in academia, says the public can and do separate support for members of the military from the wars they fight. "People might have been turned off Government policy, but generally, the country hasn't been turned off the armed forces by the Iraq and Afghanistan wars," he said. "These events attract high turnouts which largely goes to illustrate that. It must be remembered these events are not intended as pro-war but pro-armed forces.

"While the reality of war is a nasty business, and people recognise that, they do not attend these events to be reminded of it. They attend as a display of support for the ordinary soldier and of course to be entertained. However, if they want to talk to veterans about war, they will tell them how awful war is, that it's not a good thing. That's important, these events can facilitate that engagement."

For others, though, the separation of the armed forces and their primary function - engaging in armed conflict - is not so easily rationalised. The Quakers produced a report last week which spoke of "a new and different tide of militarisation" that had developed over the last five years, with events such as Armed Forces Day at its heart.

They see Armed Forces Day as part of a deliberate strategy to mislead the public, promoting recruitment and support for military interventions by confusing sympathy with the military with support for war.

It is no coincidence, according to the Quakers, that Veterans Day was rebranded Armed Forces Day in 2009, as casualties in Afghanistan were soaring. The month after the inaugural event in Kent, which attracted 30,000 people with promises of "ceremony, excitement, have-a-go adventure and commemoration" 22 British lives were lost in Afghanistan in the most deadly month of the conflict for UK personnel.

Either by chance or by design, the first Armed Forces Day, complete with fairground rides and live music, offered an altogether more palatable version of the military than the images of coffins sombrely rolling through the streets of Wootton Bassett, which had then come to dominate the media.

Marigold Bentley, of Quakers in Britain, says: "You've got to take a step away from the music, parades and uniform and ask, "what's really going on here?" Are we supporting peace groups in equal measure? Or are we simply creating a war-ready society? That is a very dangerous thing.

"We are not about not caring for people who give dedicated service. But these events misrepresent war and do not allow the moral space for a real discussion about the kind of world we want. War is not fun and it isn't a circus."

But yesterday, with all the helicopters and hotdogs, the beer tents and bazookas, the facepaint and the fast-ropes, war was fun - for some.

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