By George Chesterton, Friday 23 December 2011 06.00 EST
The only place you could be sure of seeing a British soldier used to be outside a pub in a garrison town at chucking-out time. Now there are soldiers on talent shows, parading in sports stadiums and singing on daytime television. The narrative is always the same: sacrifice, suffering, redemption. As individual tales they can be inspirational, but what they represent collectively is more worrying. Britain has been drawn into a deep sleep about war and nowhere is this slumber more pernicious than in the militarisation of popular culture.
Dedicated servicemen and women should be respected and those who suffer deserve the very best support and care. But it is our fault we allowed our politicians to send them to conflicts that served little purpose other than to cling on to some amorphous notion of national power. Now the debate about why they are still dying – and killing – in Afghanistan has disappeared from public life. Instead, an acceptance that the military is an agent for good has become the norm, and we are told to love our soldiers as if they are members of an extended family. This year, from the The X Factor to football, from Radio 2 to the tabloids, we have been encouraged to welcome the military into our homes and hearts. There are, potentially terrible, consequences for this love affair.
This month, BBC4’s America in Pictures: The Story of Life Magazine interviewed photojournalists working between the 1940s and 1960s. Most striking was the uncompromising honesty of their picture essays of war. These stark and provocative images were so different to the sanitised and cowardly portrayal of war in British media over the past 10 years. Imagine how the Daily Mail would react if the BBC showed pictures of Britons face down in the Helmand mud on the Six o’clock news.
Tough questions about a conflict that has cost, at the time of writing, 344 British combat deaths have been replaced by an invitation to demonstrate our gratitude to the military (BBC3’s Our War aside). But what we are supposed to be grateful for has rarely, if ever, been mentioned in 2011. It’s as if, in a scary and bankrupt world, we’ve been invited to take consolation wherever we can find it. In this case our consolation is the last refuge of the scoundrel. It’s easier than thinking about a decade of fighting that has cost billions of pounds and at least 30,000 Afghan lives, and let’s not forget six years in Iraq during which 100,000 people died.
We have turned the reality of war into an emotionally nourishing theatre – this year the home-counties Valhalla, Wootton Bassett, was rewarded with royal patronage for its role at the vanguard of our delusion. A key part of this is the politically stultifying Help for Heroes campaign, which, of course, serves an ideological and financial function for a broke government.
It’s no coincidence that we are being chaperoned down this path amid economic gloom. On the X Factor serving soldiers emerged from behind a hydra of desperate contestants – the sound of military drums accompanying karaoke singers is the sound of a nation battening down the hatches. If David Bowie’s Heroes can be dressed up as a paean to the British army then anything can.
The convenient marriage of sport and the military has been a boon to jingoism and apathy for a succession of US administrations. This is where we are heading. The kerfuffle over the Football Association’s request to adorn England players’ shirts with poppies – which Fifa rejected Johnny Foreigner-style, until Prince William (Sandhurst, Blues and Royals, RAF) intervened – confirmed the prejudice abroad that we (in this case the English) are bombastic and backward-looking.
This month Radio 2 has promoted the Military Wives choir’s single, Wherever You Are. There is no argument against the good intentions of those who want to help injured or ill soldiers, but in cultural terms this is sickly icing on the Christmas cake for a year in which the public have been taught to love those who fight but not to hate the fact that they are still fighting, 10 years on, with little more to show for it than the dead and injured on both sides. Worthy though the appearance of a soldier on a TV Christmas special is, it is a deeply political one if his participation in the war, and therefore the war itself, is portrayed as unquestionably good.
If the presence of the military becomes normal, then war, for those at home anyway, becomes normal, especially as attitudes to non-conformity harden into a jackboot of public outrage.
It is the government’s responsibility to look after the soldiers it sends to war, but it is our responsibility to stop the government sending them out to die in the first place. If we blindly endorse the goodness of the military we are in danger of forfeiting our ability to stop wars, or better still, prevent them from starting.
Photograph of U.S. Army soldiers with the Continental Color Guard, 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment (The Old Guard) marching onto a football field at the Baltimore Ravens vs. San Francisco 49ers Thanksgiving football game on Nov. 24, 2011 (DoD photo by Staff Sgt. Megan Garcia, U.S. Army). http://www.defense.gov/photos/newsphoto.aspx?newsphotoid=14893