While Angus Campbell’s admonition that military units need to spurn warlike iconography has ruffled many feathers, I hesitated to buy into this furore lest I be seen as just another old white male bridling at the incursion of political correctness into yet another field of modern life. However, on reflection, I have decided to add my two cents worth. Yes, in the grand scheme of things, Campbell’s edict is but a trivial vanity, but as such it is also one further small incision in the ongoing effort to emasculate the Australian Defence Force.
It’s many years since I left the Australian Army and even more since I commanded a rifle platoon of 30 (if I was lucky) infantrymen on operations in what was then South Vietnam, so I can’t speak with any authority on how the modern Army operates. What I can say is that, in my time and context, the platoon, although part of a larger organisation, was an ‘island entire of itself’ in terms of morale. Most of the time we operated alone, out of physical contact with the rest of our company. My Diggers owed their first loyalty to their mates in 8 Platoon, and many of them knew only the Battalion Commanding Officer, the RSM and the officers and NCOs of our own company.
When you are a forward scout, or a rifleman, thoughts of death are ever present, sometimes only subliminal but always there. There are many ways to manage this and bravado is one of them. The iconography that Campbell so deplores is one manifestation of that bravado. It’s very common for sub-units to employ devices of this kind, which help bind Diggers into a coherent and effective fighting force. It is not a recent phenomenon, nor is it generally obvious to the public. These symbols are never on display when a unit parades or otherwise deploys in uniform before the community.
If Gen Campbell believes that his ‘death symbology’ is contributing to a loss of morale or breakdown of unit or individual discipline, then he should have spelled that out in his directive and provided evidence of such. The best he could come up with is that it is ‘eroding the ethos of service’.
So what is the ethos of service and in what way is it being eroded? At the most fundamental level, the service soldiers render is to kill or capture our enemies.
Here is the relevant passage from Our Values, as explained on the Army’s website:
Courage, moral and physical, to act in the best interests of the nation and the Army; including the moral strength and professionalism to balance the will to win with compassion, and mateship with duty.
Fine words but not, I would imagine, ones found often on the lips of infantrymen, particularly when actually engaged in combat. That is when we must all hope the will to win predominates over all other considerations. Compassion only comes into play when that victory had been secured.
Are Australian troops on operations committing atrocities? Are they losing battles? Are they bringing disrepute on the Army through their actions at home? Not by my reckoning.
If, as I suspect, Campbell’s objection is simply that the imagery offends a puritanical soul — or a politically correct one, in the case of Defence Minister Marise Payne — then his directive is either self-indulgence and/or an effort to please a political superior.
Campbell has only a limited tenure in charge of our Defence Force. Its traditions — traditions that long predate his own service — should be respected. Let us hope they outlive those who would dismantle them for no good reason and with much detriment.
Just as an afterthought, let me suggest that upon retirement Campbell would make a good candidate for putting a broom through various football codes with their violent iconography. They, too, these days are politically correct and must surely have mulled doing something about the offensive names of various teams. The Lions and the Bulldogs probably argue that their mascots are most traditionally associated with courage, but the Tigers and the Sharks are definitely dubious. Of course the Canberra Raiders, whose name resonates with cries of rape and pillage, will have to go.
As for the Essendon Bombers, they are so clearly beyond the pale it is doubtful Campbell will find a moment’s enjoyment should he watch their match on Wednesday’s against Collingwood at the MCG. That game, if you didn’t know, celebrates Anzac Day. Instead of tuning in, Campbell might prefer to write another memo or three, possibly about the threat of climate change.