LONDON — The British troops preparing to return from the Gulf should not expect much of a heroes' welcome. Britain's political and military leaders may be thankful for the "victory" that was won in Iraq, but they have ruled out any kind of victory parade for the troops as inappropriate and possibly offensive.
Modern Britain, it seems, is increasingly uncomfortable with celebrating war heroes, and much better at empathizing with war's victims.
Prime Minister Tony Blair set the tone when he first tentatively mentioned the V-word on April 14. He told the House of Commons that "We are near the end of the conflict," but victory should not be celebrated "in any spirit of elation, still less of triumphalism." Blair made clear that there would be none of the flag-waving antics of earlier British conflicts, like the Falklands War of 1982 or the Gulf War of 1991.
In discussions about the troops' homecoming, everyone tries to avoid mentioning words like "victory" or "triumphant." Downing Street officials are reportedly planning a quiet church service to commemorate the British dead, because, as The Times (London) reports, they are "keen to avoid any service that could be interpreted as an expression of triumphalism."
Queen Elizabeth II, who marked the end of the 1991 Gulf War by parading through central London flanked by Margaret Thatcher and the Crown Prince of Kuwait, has "made it known" that she is opposed to a parade. The Queen never says anything of substance in public, instead "making things known" through her private secretaries - and this time, her private secretaries report that Her Majesty "is not in favour of a victory march."
According to The Daily Telegraph, Rowan Williams, the archbishop of Canterbury, also prefers the idea of a quiet service for the dead, as he is "reluctant to take part in a national religious event which might seem to bless conflict." Even in military circles, there are doubts about having a parade. Adm. Sir Michael Boyce, chief of defense staff, warns that such an event might "seem arrogant or patronizing [toward] the Iraqi people."
The returning British forces will not see many British flags either. Displays of the Union Jack here were notable by their absence during the Iraq war. Instead, a newspaper campaign to "Support Our Boys," backed by Tony Blair, encouraged us to wear yellow ribbons to show "that we truly care" about British troops. The wearing of ribbons speaks to today's victim culture, where we empathize with the diseased and downtrodden by picking a color to stick on our lapels. In sentiment, it is a world away from the wartime flag-waving of old.
The plans for an antivictorious, nontriumphalist, inoffensive homecoming point to a certain ambivalence about the Iraqi war. A majority of British people supported the war, but it was a soft kind of support. Across the United Kingdom, from the war planners themselves down to the rest of us, there wasn't much stomach, much less passion, for the invasion of Iraq. Instead, most seemed to have a shoulder-shrugging approach to the conflict, expressing empathy with individual soldiers by wearing ribbons rather than support for the actual war by waving flags.
The parade issue also reveals a broader discomfort today with war, aggression, and decisive displays of victory. We live in an age that feels uncomfortable with aggressors, but comfortable with victims; uncomfortable with old-style ideals about military heroes, but comfortable with the notion that we're all "damaged goods" now. While flag-waving is out, ribbon-wearing is in - and where we feel awkward celebrating victories, we seem much more at ease empathizing with victims.
So as the British authorities plan a quiet service to commemorate Iraq's dead victims, they seem almost embarrassed by the return of the living "victors."
• Brendan O'Neill is assistant editor of www.spiked-online.com.