War heroes or hapless victims?

spiked editor Mick Hume in The Times (London).

Mick Hume

Mick Hume
Columnist

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Are the British forces in Iraq supposed to be seen as heroic warriors who demand our support, or hapless victims who deserve our sympathy? The Government and its supporters seem to be having difficulty deciding on the message.

Yesterday the News of the World launched a campaign, backed by Tony Blair and the Defence Secretary, Geoff Hoon, to persuade us to wear a yellow ribbon to show ‘that we truly care’ about the troops. The headline declared ‘Wear a ribbon for our heroes’.

But those ubiquitous loops of coloured ribbon have nothing to do with military-style heroism. They are the modern symbols of victimhood, worn to demonstrate that you empathise with those who have involuntarily suffered diseases and ordeals ranging from Aids or breast cancer to child abuse or terrorism.

Ribbon-wearing is a public display of how deeply you feel somebody’s inner pain, not of how fervently you support their fight on a battlefield. These emblems of today’s cult of passive suffering are at the opposite end of the emotional spectrum from traditional patriotic flag-waving.

So it might seem odd that the News of the World, normally one of our more gung-ho newspapers, should have adopted the yellow ribbon for its pro-war campaign, apparently with government backing. The paper’s motivation confirms the ambivalence of the message. Announcing its launch ‘with pride -and sadness’, it declares that the campaign ‘is not about politics’but ‘about standing up for our Forces’. Yellow ribbons were hung by those waiting for the American hostages to come home from Iran 25 years go, and the NoW concludes: ‘So, on this Mothers’ Day, we pray for the safe return of our warriors.’ Not exactly ‘Gotcha!’, is it?

Yet, the ribbon campaign could be said to reflect the confused state of public opinion. The latest polls suggest a majority of British people now back the war against Iraq. But much of this support remains soft. Public opinion seems best characterised by the oft-repeated sentiment: ‘Whatever the rights and wrongs of this war, we should stand by those in the firing line now that it’s started.’

Many people appear more comfortable empathising with the troops as individuals caught up in somebody else’s war than cheering for them as part of an army. Thus, the practice of laying flowers to commemorate the death of a stranger at the scene of a tragedy, which has become a national ritual since the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, has now spread to the outside of British military bases. By contrast, there are few Union Jacks flying on the home front, and servicemen’s friends and families have even felt the need to organise a ‘Patriot Rally’ in Devon, to protest that the Forces ‘are not getting the support they deserve’.

The Government’s support for the yellow ribbon campaign chimes with its attempt to touch the public through the new politics of victimhood and personal emotion, rather than an old-fashioned Falklands-style appeal to patriotism. The ceremonies for the return of the first British servicemen killed in the Gulf were as dignified as one would expect. Yet there did seem something manipulative about the unprecedented way that the authorities shipped the bodies home in the midst of war, turning the relatives’ reception into a made-for-TV spectacle that could move a wider audience.

There was something dubious, too, about the haste with which Mr Blair announced that those two British troops had been ‘executed’ by the Iraqis, as if he was keen to depict them more as hapless victims than as soldiers killed in battle. The Prime Minister’s office had to apologise, after it became clear that he had broken his own first rule of the politics of emotionalism: never offend the victims’ relatives.

Mr Hoon might boast that the Government is winning the public over. But there is an inherent tension in the current mood. Many people are effectively saying ‘we support the troops, but not necessarily the political aims they are fighting for’.

The loudest wish is for the Forces to come home safely. Which rather leaves open the question -if the soldiers’ safety is our main concern, why send them into danger in the first place?

Public empathy for the troops as vulnerable potential victims seems unlikely to translate easily into enthusiasm for, say, an all-out war in Baghdad. This confused state of affairs is what happens when our ribbon-bedecked society, that has elevated victimhood and suffering over heroism and struggle, tries to mobilise support for war. The new mood was symbolised a few years ago when the Queen unveiled a memorial to the suffering of the Unknown Victim, as a counterpoint to the tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Westminster Abbey. When this conflict is over, some might be unsure at which one they are supposed to lay their flowers.

This article is republished from The Times (London)

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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