I suppose that just after the war everybody knew a soldier. Or his mum, or wife, or orphaned child. RN and RAF, Wrens and WRACs were familiar and close to home. But the war had been hard and heartbreaking, something to move on from into a promised age of affluence, comfort and peace.
By the late Sixties the old sport of “making mock of uniforms” was back – Monty Python’s dim Colonels and RAF wizard-prangers, with handlebar moustaches and saloon-bar tremors, became staples of comedy. Gradually, over the decades, centralisation, shrinkage and technology had made the Armed Forces all but invisible.
Meanwhile, and I remember this well as a BBC Today reporter, senior MoD figures kept repeating confidently that “conventional warfare” was over because future conflicts would be nuclear. Infantrymen, rifles, house-to-house combat were all things of the past, except for a bit of peacekeeping.
So the emotional distance between the military and the population grew even wider. But then came a new age of soldiering: the Falklands, Gulf, Balkans, now Iraq and Afghanistan. The wars may be unpopular but the young men and women, returning hurt, maimed and weary, touch a raw nerve in our memories, stoked perhaps by films, novels and a school curriculum strong on the Second World War.
They arouse compassion and admiration – those who cheer the parades, support the charities and wear the poppy are no longer widely accused of “supporting war”, as they would have been 15 years ago. No politician now would dare to sneer, as Peter Mandelson did in 1997, describing the Guards, working soldiers, as “chinless wonders”.
And there’s another thing. In a wet, whiny, litigious, victim culture, the Services are pleasantly bracing to contemplate. When they stood in for firemen in beat-up Green Goddesses, we admired the briskness and bravery of our troops on home turf. When the Agriculture Ministry fouled up the BSE affair and carcasses had to be burnt in their thousands, the Army stepped in to do an unpleasant job with crunchy, well-organised dispatch. Watching the precision and faultlessness of royal funerals and the Jubilee, one commentator at least expressed envy: “Pity we can’t all commute to work every day by Royal Horse Artillery.”
Nor did it go unnoticed when a series of Service chiefs challenged the Government openly about its disorganised, cheeseparing, slipshod preparation for the war in Iraq, with no plans laid for the aftermath of Saddam’s fall.
Military values of service, briskness, sacrifice, comradeship, obedience and plain speaking are so far removed now from modern life that it draws us. Combine that with a pendulum swing and a growing sense of fairness, and you will have a crowd lining the streets for those who were once almost forgotten.