The Invictus Games will be familiar to all who watch the ABC, their promoter and sponsor. The Games will be taking place in Sydney in October, the participants being injured service personnel from 18 countries.But why are major arms manufactures ‘official supporters’?
It is highly inspiring to see the human spirit triumph over mutilations of the human body. Who can fail but be impressed by the fortitude of the participating athletes? As the Story of the Games tells us, they have faced life-changing injuries but have somehow found the motivation not to let those injuries define them. From what we can see, they appear to be in comparatively good health both mentally and physically, despite the terrible wounds they have suffered. This is wonderful. And it is entirely fitting that sport plays a positive role in their rehabilitation.
Admirable also is the skill and dedication of those who brought them back to comparative health and the ability to rejoin society – the surgeons and nurses, the technicians who create the equipment and prostheses – and the carers and family members who keep them in their current state of well-being. There is clearly a whole team of people behind each, individual participant.
This part of the story is displayed for the general public in a brilliant light. Under it, we see the heroism of the individuals who have had to face extraordinary misfortune and feel pride in their accomplishments. We are, however, discouraged from exploring what lies in the shadows, where lie aspects that would otherwise complete the picture.
Of the wounded, we only see those who have, to some extent, prevailed over their disabling wounds. Others, out of the bright light, couldn’t find the necessary motivation, or are so damaged that seeing them would horrify us. Are they out of sight, so as to be out of our minds? Besides, there are probably some who are literally out of their own minds, suffering Post Traumatic Stress. We dwell, almost exclusively, on the heroes. An obsession with success takes our eyes away from those who can’t or won’t ‘recover’.
There is a whiff of triumphalism in this (it is in the name of the games). Their spirit may be unconquered, but they have, without exception, been severely beaten. Giving them a special name does not alter that. All the participants have endured life-changing trauma that they must endure as long as they live. Telling them they are admirable because they have suffered ‘in the service of their country’ is inadequate compensation – even with the promise of life-long medical and financial support.
Those words ‘in the service of their country’ have a hollow resonance. All the Invictus participants are from recent wars. In Australia’s case, we have joined these wars out of choice, not necessity. In an objective assessment of them, no service personnel can legitimately claim to have been wounded in the defence of Australia. The only time the ADF has defended Australia was during the New Guinea campaign of WW2.
Also in the shadows, but most noteworthy, is the fact that among the ‘official supporters’ of the Games are major armaments manufacturers – Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, Leidos and Saab. There is something deeply unsettling about this. On the one hand these companies and their shareholders grow rich through creating, selling, researching and constantly ‘improving’ weaponry and weapons systems. But it is weaponry that has produced the horrific injuries sutained by the Games’ participants. It cuts no ice to say “Our injuries were caused by their weapons.” The explosives in IEDs quite possibly have their origin in these multi-national companies. Those who engage in warfare are not choosy about where their weapons originate. Likewise, those who sell them are happy just so long as their clients pay up. Weapons and explosives made by our side can easily end up injuring our personnel, and probably have. We are disturbed by the marketers of damaging products like tobacco sponsoring sporting events. What could be more damaging than weapons – that are sold on the promise of their ‘lethality’?
How armaments manufacturers can reconcile their core business with sponsoring the Invictus Games is, at best, problematical. At worst, it is utterly cynical. It may even be a touch ghoulish. It is beyond possible that their motivation is to absolve themselves of guilt. The organisers might ask themselves why they allowed such sponsorship.
Consideration of the trade in weapons raises another, dark aspect. What of the injured on their side? What of the terrible injuries inflicted on our ‘enemies’ (enemies, who, it must be said, were never even capable to threatening Australia). Injuries like those that our people bear are, no doubt, being born by others elsewhere – in countries less affluent than Australia, with fewer resources and less sophisticated medical treatments. They may be living lives of torment and utter desolation. Will they be holding Invictus Games? ‘Affluence triumphs’ might be the hidden message.
By its emphasis on triumph over adversity through ‘the fighting spirit of our wounded servicemen and women’, Invictus provides one more example of the culture of war and the warrior that runs so deep within Australian society. Like ANZAC Day and Remembrance Day, the Games fit neatly into the myth of the glory and value of military service. However, the time when wars were fought by heroic warriors are long past – overtaken by the march of military technology. By far the majority of the victims of today’s wars are innocent, non-combatant civilians. It is high time they were recognised, alongside the military ones. Focussing exclusively on military personnel ignores the single, greatest impact of modern warfare.
Rather than let the games re-assure us, the battered people taking part should remind us that joining unecessary wars comes at a terrible cost. No matter how ‘complete’ their ‘recovery’, these athletes’ lives have been changed forever – and for questionable reasons.
It is paradoxical that one can support the games, admire the inner strength of those taking part and regret the fact that they are necessary. One can be glad that the Games are taking place, appreciate the positive role they play and enjoy the spectacle, whilst at the same time experiencing anger at some of the sponsors and at the very fact that the games are needed. They are only needed because of the ‘culture of war’ we continue to nurture.
Nick Deane is a sociologist and was in the Australian Public Service for 17 years. He is convenor of the Marrickville Peace Group and one of two members of the national committee of the Independent and Peaceful Australia Network.