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Sunday, 28 November 2010

Help For Heroes: Uncritical, Political, Militarist

Last week, USBlog noted the surprise use of X-Factor to sell a record to aid Help For Heroes. The character of the presentation (a wounded ex-serviceman, his weeping mother, soldiers on patrol in Afghanistan, mourning families at graveside, the militarist-nationalism inherent in the overall message) it was argued, was to encourage uncritical admiration of military service in Britain's current wars.

Since then, it's been suggested that USBlog was "hard" on young men and women who serve in Iraq and Afghanistan, who probably do not even understand what's going on there and serve in the armed services just because they have a vague love of country, sense of adventure, and not necessarily because of the 'politics' of the wars.

In the background there was also a suggestion that unless you lay your life on the line, you really shouldn't criticise those who do. And, the argument went, how can you possibly deny or bemoan assistance to those who have been injured, regardless of the circumstances?

USBlog takes on board all those arguments: I suspect some of those arguments are acceptable. They strike at the most vulnerable flank of those who oppose Britain's war in Iraq and in Afghanistan, and make opponents suitably defensive.

But there remains an issue or two that need addressing: should H4H be using programmes like X-Factor to promote their message, especially the way it was done last week? Secondly, why isn't the British state taking care of these wounded soldiers? Where is the 'military covenant' that Cameron spoke so much about when he was in opposition?

Also, what does H4H do to push the British state on this matter?

To address such questions, USBlog conducted a fairly quick check on H4H to find out who they are and what they do. The results are not surprising and tend to support the views expressed in last week's blog post:

H4H as it is often labelled, is an uncritical, deeply political, and militarist 'charity', formed by a former military officer, Bryn Parry, at the instigation of General Sir Richard Dannatt, the-then Chief of Staff, with seed-money from the Army Benevolent Fund.

According to information gleaned from H4H's own website, the charity assists serving service personnel - not just those who have been discharged. It works closely with the MoD and other Service charities.

Its patrons and trustees offer a glimpse into the military culture in which H4H is steeped. In addition to Dannatt, the charity draws patrons and trustees from across the British army, navy and air force. There are links with serving naval ships' crews and other armed service units. Celebrity patrons include Jeremy Clarkson, Ian Botham, James Blunt, Andy McNabb, and Ross Kemp. From the Tory ranks in parliament there is Richard Benyon MP, a former Green Jacket who served in Northern Ireland. 12 of 20 patrons served in in the armed forces - Northern Ireland, Iraq, Bosnia, Afghanistan. Trustees include an Air Vice Marshal (John Ponsonby), and Sir Robert Fry who, among other things, was deputy Commander of Coalition Forces in Iraq.

Its publicity machine counts among its ranks The Sun, the Sunday Times, and the Daily Mail, helping the charity raise ca £64 million in just 3 years since its formation. It was The Sun that hooked up H4H with Simon Cowell's and X-Factor. The Sun is an organ that has long supported Britain's wars, frequently in the most gung-ho, jingoistic and xenophobic manner. "Supporting Our Boys" is not far from the oft-repeated "supporting our blokes" phrase used by H4H.

One (unintended?) effect of H4H's work is, according to Richard Dannatt is to weld the general public to the armed forces, showing the public's "respect and gratitude to the Armed Forces". Dannatt notes that "The excellent relationship that now exists fills our troops with pride and confidence that they have the support of their nation." The money H4H raises, he says, assists the Government in its work with servicemen and women. The people, the armed services, and HMG: working together to fight wars and clean up the mess they leave so many young men and women with.

Is this not political? Is this compatible with charitable status?

Andy McNabb, the ex-SAS officer and best-selling novelist says that, "Your money also [in addition to medical rehabilitation] provides simple things in life for our troops, like providing Troop Aid 'Hero Grab Bags'", handed out to the wounded admitted to hospital. This is direct assistance to serving soldiers in combat.

H4H says that they work closely with MoD and Armed Forces who are "happy to accept our contribution". They claim they are "not letting the Government off the hook" by their work but its clear that H4H is an essential aspect of the state's efforts. Is this the sort of thing that is meant by the Big Society that Cameron promotes?

H4H claims to be "simply" there to "support our blokes" and does not involve itself in politics. They claim to be "non judgemental" on the nature of the wars Britain is waging. According to H4H, "wars happen" - and they don't question why they happen or what they're for and whether the cause is just. They're effectively unconcerned that the wars might be illegal under international law or wars of aggression.

What they do not acknowledge is that the positions they take ARE political: they were formed by, are led by, military personnel proud of their service in various wars and conflicts. What they implicitly admit but publicly deny is an imperial mindset that considers perfectly normal the waging of wars in faraway lands. That mindset continues to exert power in British society today.

Should all those who lay down their lives, or at least risk them, be considered heroes? Is a suicide bomber a hero? Were Nazi stormtroopers heroes when they carried out genocide?

Are there no other considerations involved in determining who is a hero and who a villain? Surely, we must consider what someone does, why they fight, how they fight, and the consequences of wars before reaching a conclusion?

It used to be quite conventional to think that people should make up their minds on the merits of an argument, considering key public issues in an all-sided way.

In post-modern imperial Britain, matters have been simplified: forget the reasons for wars, just "support our blokes".

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the refreshingly critical analysis. As an ex-pat living in Germany I had become puzzled by the profusion of charity events in Britain in aid of "Help for Heroes" and searched in vain on the internet for critical voices until I found your blog - and only your blog - on page 18 of the browser. It all reminds me of the chauvinistic atmosphere during the Falklands war -"our boys"- which I remember being shocked by.