New Olympic sport: sneering at squaddies

The hostility shown towards some soldiers during the Games is a product of the elite’s disavowal of military values.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics World

One of the least commented on aspects of Britain’s summer of sport was the hostility shown towards troops who helped police the events.

While injured British soldiers turned Paralympians were cheered, the fit, uniformed squaddies who kept an eye on Olympic and Paralympic events were subjected to what one newspaper described as ‘verbal abuse and harassment’. Things got so bad that troops were warned by their superiors to ‘travel in groups’ and avoid carrying their military daysacks when off duty, because ‘a military daysack is just as recognisable as a uniform’. There’s something very odd about the fact that these soldiers are expected to promote British values overseas, yet on the homefront they feel the need to disguise themselves for fear of insult or assault.

Troops were brought in at the last minute for London 2012, after the private security firm G4S failed to recruit enough staff. Around 4,500 soldiers were on call to carry out simple duties like ID checks and crowd management. But it soon became clear their job wouldn’t be easy. The Ministry of Defence confirmed last week that there was a ‘spate of attacks’ on soldiers. It won’t say how many there were, and it has used the word ‘isolated’ in relation to them, but it has said that there was ‘verbal abuse’, ‘harassment’ and even ‘physical assault’. In the worst incident, a lone off-duty soldier, recognisable by his daysack, was attacked by four youths described as ‘Asian’. He was left with two black eyes. Navy personnel based at HMS Ocean at Greenwich Pier were subjected to ‘verbal abuse’ and to what the MOD described as ‘extremist leafleting’, as various radical Islamists handed out anti-soldier propaganda.

As a result of these incidents at the Olympics, military chiefs issued tips for troops covering the Paralympics. They advised soldiers to always ‘travel around in groups’ and never carry a military daysack ‘when in civilian clothing’. They also encouraged them to be on their guard against abuse. Now, it is of course entirely possible, even likely, that these incidents have been blown out of proportion, which in itself would be revealing – military chiefs and journalists depicting soldiers, the cutting edge of the state’s armoury, as victims of yoof harassment. But on another level, these incidents do tell us something important about attitudes towards the military today, and about the loss of the battle for values on the homefront, never mind in the Khyber Pass or Basra.

One problem facing individual soldiers is that there has been no ceremony for them, no public recognition of what they did in Afghanistan and Iraq. Where our Olympians have already had a massive parade, there has been no such event for soldiers. This was a conscious decision. In April 2003, when our leaders daftly believed that their two-month-old war in Iraq was going well, then PM Tony Blair said Britain’s ‘victory’ would not be celebrated ‘in any spirit of elation, still less of triumphalism’. There would be no victory parade, he said, and apparently the House of Windsor and the Church of England agreed with him, both making it clear, in the words of The Times, that they were ‘keen to avoid any service that could be interpreted as an expression of triumphalism’. Even Queen Elizabeth II, who never says anything of substance, ‘made it known’ that she was ‘not in favour of a victory march’.

Instead of a victory parade, all that the soldiers were allowed to have were victims’ parades, most of them informally organised outside of the purview of the triumphalism-avoiding state. Military families held very emotional, funereal ceremonies in the town of Wootton Bassett, near RAF Lyneham, where the bodies of soldiers slain overseas are flown. Perhaps feeling more comfortable with these victim-oriented celebrations than she was with anything resembling a ‘victory march’, the queen renamed the town Royal Wootton Bassett in 2011. Meanwhile, Help for Heroes, a celebrity-backed charity, has overseen the parade of very badly injured soldiers, normally on primetime TV shows like The X Factor rather than on the streets of London. Where once soldiers who fought overseas could expect to be cheered by appreciative crowds, now the most they can expect is a one-minute appearance in between bad singing acts on a TV show, strictly as put-upon victims rather than as brave fighters. The soldier-turned-sportsman stories of the Paralympics have continued this trend for relating to squaddies as victims.

The state’s desperate avoidance of triumphalism and the corresponding rise of informal displays of military victimhood speaks to today’s profound disavowal of military values. All the things that might once have been admired in soldiers – bravery, valour, risk-taking – are today frowned upon as the emotional pursuits of foolhardy folk. Our society celebrates victimhood, the act of having been damaged, far more than victory, the act of having done something to the world. And so we feel extremely uncomfortable with soldiers. We don’t know what to do with them. Politicians send them to war, in the cynical name of scoring some short-term PR points by appearing resolved, but then shun them when they come back and ask, ‘Where’s my victory parade?’. No wonder so many military families are so angry with the political class.

The avoidance of triumphalism, the political and media class’s shamefacedness about soldiers and their exploits, sends a signal to the rest of us: it says these men and women of the military are morally ambivalent creatures. It invites us to be at least morally conflicted about them, perhaps even hostile towards them. Yes, we can handle soldiers who are now in wheelchairs, but the walking, talking ones? No thanks. They’re potentially too triumphalist, too visibly strong and able. In such circumstances, is it any wonder that some people, in particular Britain’s infantile Islamists who fancy that they are in a clash of civilisations, feel confident enough to sneer at and even attack soldiers, as happened during the Olympics? Stripped of the cultural validation they might once have enjoyed, soldiers have become targets of scepticism and even abuse.

It would be very unwise for anyone who is anti-imperialist, which spiked most definitely is, to view this anti-soldier ambivalence as something positive, or even as a political statement. In truth, what we have here is a situation where the ruling sections of society – from the monarchy to the political elite to the chattering classes – have utterly abandoned the old values once associated with military pursuits and risk-taking, which effectively leaves the largely working-class men and women who make up the army to bear the moral burden of representing British values and might overseas. This is a story of top-down cowardice and discomfort with militarism, of elite relativism that occasionally gets dolled up as pacifism, which impacts on how soldiers are seen and understood. How do our political rulers expect to win any war of values in Afghanistan when they have abandoned that war on the homefront? Maybe they don’t expect to win much in Afghanistan, but they’ll leave their soldiers there anyway, because what else are we supposed to do with them?

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his personal website here.

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Topics World


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