The Invictus Games, taking place in Sydney over October 20-27, features athletes who were injured serving in the armed forces of 18 countries.
The games celebrate the undefeated human spirit, but come with deep irony, being sponsored by the very same arms companies that profit from causing the injuries in the first place.
It is 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 found the motivation not to let those injuries define them. 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 with the ability to participate so fully in society: the surgeons and nurses, the technicians who create the equipment and prostheses, and the carers and family members who support them.
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 the shadows cast by this light, where lie factors needed to complete the picture.
Of the wounded, we only see those who have, to some extent, prevailed over their injuries. Others, out of the bright light, are too damaged. Are they out of sight, so as to be out of our minds? There are also those who are literally out of their own minds, suffering post traumatic stress disorder.
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, Latin for “unconquered”). Their spirit may be unconquered, but the participants have, without exception, encountered 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.
The words “in the service of their country” have a hollow resonance. All Invictus participants are from recent wars. In Australia’s case, we have joined these wars out of choice, not necessity. No objective assessment of these wars can legitimately conclude that those injured in them did so in the defence of Australia. The only time the Australian Defence Force has clearly defended Australia was during the New Guinea campaign of World War II.
Also lurking in the shadows is the noteworthy fact that among the Games’ “corporate partners” are major arms manufacturers such as 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 and selling constantly “improving” weaponry and weapons systems. But it is this same weaponry that has produced the horrific injuries suffered by the Games’ participants.
It cuts no ice to say: “Our injuries were caused by their weapons.” The explosives in improvised explosive devices used by insurgents in places such as Afghanistan and Iraq quite likely have their origin in these multinational 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. Weapons and explosives made by “our” side almost certainly end up injuring “our” personnel.
Tobacco companies are banned from sponsoring sporting events due to the damage caused by their products. But what could be more damaging than the weapons these companies produce — that are sold precisely on the extent of damage they cause?
For arms manufacturers to reconcile their core business with supporting the Invictus Games is utterly cynical. It is ghoulish.
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 borne 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” is 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. Focusing exclusively on military personnel ignores the single greatest impact of modern warfare.
Rather than let the games reassure us, the battered people taking part should remind us that joining unnecessary wars comes at a terrible cost. No matter how “successful” their “recovery”, these athletes’ lives have been changed forever — without good reason.
It is paradoxical that one can support the Games, admire the inner strength of those taking part and regret the fact that the Games need to be organised at all.
One can be glad that the Games are taking place, appreciate the positive role they play and enjoy the spectacle, while at the same time feeling anger towards the sponsors and the need for the Games at all.