Rehabilitating the military

Issue section: 

In 2007 General Richard Dannatt, head of the UK armed forces, complained, "The British public do not support the troops enough." Within weeks a range of support the troops initiatives materialised including a new annual Armed Forces Day, homecoming parades, Help for Heroes, Tickets for Troops, concerts for heroes, on X Factor "song for heroes" (twice), and various military-inspired album releases.

Most recently we've seen the introduction of the government's Military Covenant accompanied by a £30 million sweetener to be shared among councils who agree to produce military-related propaganda initiatives. These multi-agency practices and invented traditions bear a remarkable similarity to the propaganda-centred activities of the US and Canadian governments' programmes "Operation Tribute to Freedom" and "Operation Connection" which both seek to "re-connect" civilians to the military.

We've been reminded of the military's central position in British life with their inescapable ubiquity at London 2012, which has enabled the government and corporate media to reiterate to us how necessary the armed forces are. From manning apartment rooftops with anti-aircraft weaponry to carrying the sacred flags to the podiums with ceremonial reverence, London 2012 has showcased the British government's armed forces, reminding us how morally just, irrevocably essential and downright inspirational they are at the heart of this "nation".

This has facilitated the required rearticulation of the relationship between civil and military society that was at breaking point pre-2007 and was the raison d'etre for Dannatt's outburst. London 2012 offered those in power invaluable opportunities to rearticulate the horrors and outrage of dead and damaged Britons returning from Afghanistan by transforming the narrative to pride, inspiration and patriotism.

No sooner had the Olympics finished than the Paralympics emerged triumphantly into the spotlight. Britain had eight current or former armed forces in their team and the US had 20, with blind veteran Brad Snyder selected as US flag bearer.

While these are admirable and invaluable outlets for the victims of militarism, the ideological rationale soon became apparent. US Olympic committee CEO Scott Blackmun explained: "Brad lost his sight in an explosion while serving our country in Afghanistan... His service on the battlefield had been extraordinary and I am excited he now wears the colours of our nation on the field of play."

Additionally, US joint chief of staff and curiously (or not) the US Paralympics team head of delegation General Martin Dempsey informed Channel 4 News that "these games and feats inspire us". Sport provides convenient cover for British and US citizens to be incorporated by proxy into being inspired by the military's feats in the battlefield.

Arthur Williams (former marine and Paralympic cyclist who presented Channel 4's coverage of the Games) revealed the growing number of military Paralympians is partly "down to a change in policy... Now they've got people at world level in sport so they are happy to fund them and have them representing the forces." This is easily understood by considering the subtle propaganda potential elite sport offers the military ideologues. Operation Tribute to Freedom openly admits one of its aims is "to include soldiers in high visibility events" and they don't come more highly visible than the Olympic Games.

These subtleties are further illuminated when Williams admits "It's more than just about the sport. It's what the athletes have done to get there and what they have overcome. Their stories are far more interesting, awe-inspiring and inspirational than an Olympian who has trained since they were 12...It's to inspire and to create legacy."

This echoes Tickets for Troops' Major Spicer's admission, "to have the odd perk is great, but just as important is the thought that what we do is appreciated," and the Football League's Lord Mawhinney's comments that "the football for heroes week will provide an excellent opportunity for supporters to show their appreciation for the outstanding work being done".

The Paralympics offers hope, recognition and pride to many individuals whose everyday existence lacks what most of us take for granted. Yet the current hyperbolic narratives do a disservice to disability and wounded veteran groups. Just as we all need genuine legacies, disability groups need proper infrastructures, excellent health care, financial support, real jobs and genuine acceptance.

And just as the Olympics do not provide this for the wider population, neither do the Paralympics for disability groups. Using sport to surreptitiously transform paralysed and damaged military veterans into celebrities or heroes distorts the reality of military violence and its victims.

The fact that previously healthy individuals are now crippled for life is sad, tragic and horrific and we should be outraged, not proud, that they received these disfigurements (while trying to do the same to an "enemy") in the belief they were acting in our name! Sport, so often disdainfully rejected by the left, offers the mass kinship so sought by it and the right learned this lesson well before the Goebbels-inspired Olympic torch relay invention at the 1936 Nazi Games.