On the 20th October 2018, the Invictus Games will be heading to Sydney, Australia for their fourth tournament. The usual #Invictus Twitter storm is already brewing, and with the appearance of the Games’ new hashtags such as #makeyourmarkdownunder alongside the usual #weareInvictus, I’ve been thinking again about the ‘spirit’ of the games.
According to the Invictus Games Foundation, the word ‘Invictus’ means “‘unconquered’; it embodies the fighting spirit of the wounded, injured and sick service personnel and what these tenacious men and women can achieve, post injury” (see the Invictus Games website here for more info). This is so much of what the Invictus Games is about, this overcoming of injury and trauma in a way that marks them as tenacious warriors. Harriet Gray (2015) has written some interesting stuff on the narratives of redemption at work here;
“According to the Invictus Games website, the ‘wounded warriors’ who compete ‘have been tested and challenged, but they have not been overcome. They have proven that they cannot be defeated. They have the willpower to persevere and conquer new heights.’ The injured bodies of these servicemen are thus reinterpreted, and understood not as something which makes servicemen weak, but conversely as something which makes them strong through providing the opportunity for demonstration of their ability to overcome” (pp.13-14).
As Gray tells us, the Invictus Games provide the opportunity for the injured bodies of servicemen and women to be remade, and presented to the public as conquerors of their weakness. The men and women of the armed forces are thus not simply heroes, but warriors, not only because they have fought in wars, but because they have fought to overcome the physical and mental impairments that these wars have inflicted upon them.
But there is something troubling to me about this. Is there a violence at work in remaking the horrors of war as an opportunity to ‘overcome’? What do we lose in our understanding of war and trauma when we display the wounded bodies of servicemen and women in this way? HRH The Duke of Sussex, patron of the Games, said in his rousing speech at the closing ceremony of the 2016 Orlando Games that;
“What could explain the remarkable sportsmanship of Mark Urquart in sacrificing gold on the track to push Stephen Simmons into first place? Invictus!
How else could I describe the way I felt seeing Tim Payne, a man I met three years ago to the day, in his hospital bed at Walter Reed, beaming as he wore his gold medal round his neck? Invictus!
What defines the spirit of Denmark’s Jonas Andersen, who loaded the coffin of his friend onto the flight which changed my life in 2008, and then fought through his own dark days to compete in London and Orlando? Invictus!”
He then goes on to say
“You are all Invictus. You are now ambassadors for the spirit of these games. Spread the word. Never stop fighting. And do all you can to lift up everyone around you”
(Invictus Games Orlando 2016 closing ceremony – you can read the full transcript here).
There is clearly something very powerful about such calls to action. Harry tells us that we are “all Invictus… Spread the word. Never stop fighting”; thus, we are all implicated in spreading the Invictus spirit. But what does the glorifying of the ‘Invictus spirit’ do for those who cannot or choose not to overcome? This is a question I come back to again and again when thinking about the role of the Invictus Games in shaping how we come to view and understand wounded veterans.
There is of course nothing inherently bad about the Invictus Games, and the work that the Foundation does to help wounded servicemen and women. The recovery from trauma and injury in the military is and should be a central concern of the state, and organisations such as the Invictus Games Foundation clearly have a role to play in this. There is also nothing inherently wrong with, as the Duke of Sussex says, being ‘ambassadors for the spirit of these games’. If the Invictus spirit is characterized by a renewed tenacity for life, a drive to overcome injuries and psychological traumas that might very well have broken you, then how can we critique that? Why would we want to?
And yet, there is something troubling to me about the way that wounded military bodies are displayed through the games, and claimed as national competitors. It seems to me that the lived experiences of wounded veterans are very much sidelined, or even erased in favour of a more positive ‘heroic’ representation. I can’t help but be reminded of Gareth Malone’s 2016 Invictus Choir, a two-part mini-series in which Malone works with a choir made up of physically and psychologically wounded servicemen, women, and veterans towards a performance at the 2016 Orlando Invictus Games. This of course was the first year that mental trauma was incorporated into the representation of wounded servicemen and women in the Games in any real way. In the programme’s two episodes, Malone echoes the ethos of the wider Games by telling choir members that their goal is to “inspire the world with your voices, what you’ve been through, and what you’re doing now” (Invictus Choir, Episode 1). The choir actively seeks to shed light on the emotional and physical trauma of war, but largely as a means of providing a compelling and entertaining story to viewers. Viewers are invited to spectate upon these men and women, revel in their pain, but importantly follow the story to its conclusion in the form of their final performance in Orlando. But what happens after that? The audience are given a sense of closure, a warm fuzzy feeling that everything was alright in the end, but that isn’t the end of the story. And, just because we are afforded the opportunity to watch wounded servicemen and women achieve something remarkable in the face of inconceivable adversity, this does not mean that we should close our eyes to the bigger picture.
Some of the material for this blog post has been taken from my doctoral thesis, which you can access here if you’d like to read more.
Cree ASJ. (2018) The Hero, The Monster, The Wife: Geographies of Remaking and Reclaiming the Contemporary Military Hero. Ethesis available here. Accessed 18/09/18.
Gray H. (2015) The Trauma Risk Management approach to posttraumatic stress disorder in the British military: masculinity, biopolitics and depoliticisation. Feminist Review. 111(1): 109-123. Available here.