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Monday, 22 November 2010

First Remembrance Sunday, Now the X-Factor: Heroes or Villains?

A few weeks ago, a number of former British soldiers, who fought in wars ranging from the Falklands to Northern Ireland to Iraq and Afghanistan, among others, wrote a letter to The Guardian newspaper (6 November 2010) protesting about the hijacking and misuse of the annual Poppy appeal ahead of Remembrance Sunday. They articulated a sentiment that I had felt but also felt unable to express that the British Legion, with the tacit consent one assumes of HMG and the Ministry of Defence, was "selling" the poppy appeal by bundling up Britain's most recent war-injured and dead with those killed in two world wars. (Of course, conflating those two world wars is in itself problematic).

Last night's X-Factor, which is rather eagerly followed in my house (but more significantly in millions of homes across the UK, possibly elsewhere too, and across the generations), featured the performance and release of a song by all 16 finallists from the show, a new version of David Bowie's "Heroes". It was called "Heroes" when released in the mid-1970s: the inverted commas meant to convey a sense of irony or ambiguity about the idea of heroes, perhaps the notion that one person's hero might well be someone else's villain.

In addition to the X-Factor song performance, during which a number of men and women in military uniform, presumably still serving in the armed forces, appeared on stage, there was a brief report on the crippling injuries sustained in a bomb attack by one young soldier while on "routine patrol" in Afghanistan. The injured soldier came from a military family - his father had been killed in Ulster.

According to the soldiers who had written to The Guardian, the Poppy appeal had "subverted" Armistice Day - a "day that should be about peace and remembrance" - and had converted it "into a month-long drum roll of support for current wars.... The true horror and futility of war is forgotten and ignored." They also noted that the poppy had been promoted as a symbol of support of "our Heroes", arguing that "There is nothing heroic about being blown up in a vehicle. There is nothing heroic about fighting in an unnecessary conflict."

Last night's X-Factor, I think, falls broadly into line with the sentiment expressed above. It was hard not to feel sympathy for a young soldier wounded in action, especially as his tearful mother was shown expressing horror at the news of her son's wounding. But the more political sentiment was also significant: there was no suggestion or hint, so far as I could tell, that the war in Afghanistan might be problematic in any way, nor that the number of Afghans killed and injured runs into hundreds of thousands, and that this war has gone on too long and should now end. There was just an understandable expression of sympathy for the injured soldier who, it was clearly stated, sustained his injury in the service of "his country" - which was not questioned at all.

"My country right or wrong," conveys the sentiment. Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori - words used by Wilfred Owen in his world war one: It is sweet and seemly to die for one's country, no matter the cause.

In addition, the soldier showed and expressed considerable courage in getting his life back together and seemed to be unrepentant about anything he or the British army might have done or be doing in Afghanistan. He resolved to go forward with his life - no looking back.

That resolve is precisely that urged by the current goverment in regard to Afghanistan - keep going. It is what Tony Blair argues over and over again in his unrepentant memoir, A Journey.

Is someone a "hero" just for fighting or dying in the military, regardless of the cause for which they fight? Why isn't the British state looking after these young men and women? After all, they sent them out there in the first place? Why is left to a charity? Why do they use a mass entertainment programme for what is a political/military cause?

I have no problem feeling sympathy for someone injured in a war. I have no problem in charitable organisations rasing funds for such causes. My problem lies with why the British state does not look after those who risk life and limb.

I have a problem with the misuse of a mass entertainment programme that unquestioningly, and probably unwittingly, promotes an unjust war. While David Bowie and Brian Eno, who wrote the song, had a sense of irony about heroism, the X-Factor betrays no such subtleties.

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