Combatting the Fighting Spirit

long tan IIWhile 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.

  • [email protected]

    Albo more patriotic than Trumble.

  • staffnsnake

    I would be interested to hear what Prof Michael Evans would say, given the first part of this essay, from which I drew on my Spectator piece on the subject.

  • Warty

    I served in the Royal Rhodesian Regiment, C Coy, way back when, and became a bit of a military ‘tragic’ after missing the bush war my two younger brothers endured. Mark, the youngest, received spinal injuries when the F250 he was in hit a roadside IED. Graham developed a drinking problem and died in February last year. He simply couldn’t get his life together, having married, divorced and brought up two rather unpleasant children. I discovered that the ‘I don’t have a problem’ is not in fact a cliché, particularly for the wife and children that had to live with his bare faced denials. I could at least talk to him, which is more than I can say for Mark, who developed a hard edge I couldn’t penetrate. We don’t speak at all nowadays.
    So where am I going with all of this? War does strange things to people, and for many of them those experiences draw them back to the companions they shared them with, and even keep them pinned down in memories that the rest of us can’t even begin to imagine. But Angus Campbell, who hasn’t been through Peter’s Vietnam, or Graham and Mark’s bush war, would deny these same men some of the symbols that aid in preserving a rather special camaraderie rarely found in civilian life.
    I’ve read some of the readers’ comments in response to articles written in The Australian on the insignia issue, who see them as puerile and unnecessary. But this is akin to my trying to fathom why Mark and his experiences keep me at an arm’s length, my having left the country before the bush war really erupted.
    My advice to Angus Campbell would be leave well alone those things he doesn’t understand, in his case for fear that he might undermine the moral of those wonderful soldiers he no longer directly commands.
    As for me, I don’t really know what Graham went through, and acknowledge he didn’t receive the help he needed in a country many thousands of miles from his former battlefields. And I have to accept that Mark will keep me at an arms length until one of us goes to meet his maker.
    These are the not so little things that plague people who’ve been through war, and their relatives, who were affected in one way or another.
    Angus Campbell ought to read up on his military history. He might start with Paul Ham’s Vietnam: the Australian War.

    • lloveday

      “War does strange things to people…”.
      3 friends who served in Vietnam, 3 very different stories.
      One, from an Army family, Duntroon graduate, putting into practise what he had been taught, doing the job he’d wanted and got.
      Two, National Service volunteer, came back, married an Australian and adopted a Viet orphan, did not get rid of his demons, marriage broke up and he went and lived alone on a boat. In later life, remarried, seemed happy at last, hit an emu while riding their vintage motor bike, and his wife, in the side-car, was thrown out and killed. The adoption of the Viet girl could be a result of his demons – he was driving a troop truck, full of fellow soldiers, with strict instructions to not stop under any circumstances to mitigate the chances of ambush. A little girl appeared in the middle of the road, presumably ordered there by the communists to get the truck to stop so they could kill the occupants (they did not have the IEDs of Middle East wars), he kept the pedal to the metal and ran her over. Bad memory, bad dreams, maybe she was just playing with her friends; it’s not, I imagine, like shooting an armed man aiming to kill you.
      Three, National Service conscript, engineering degree, had “the best time of his life”, but he was in Supply!

  • Warty

    It is of course Anzac Day tomorrow, celebrated by Australians and New Zealanders alike. But those Rhodesians and South Africans now living here fought in many of the same theatres you did, though we never had such a unique commemoration like the one you celebrate. Our BSAP (British South Africa Police) fought under British command in the Boer War, as did the Australians. The descendants of those whom we fought are the Afrikaner farmers who seek asylum here today. We fought in France and Belgium in WWI, and again in the Second World War, this time alongside the South Africans we fought some thirty to forty years earlier. We fought again in Malaya after the war, possibly alongside the descendants of those Australians we no doubt bumped into in Europe and North Africa (in particular).
    You may not know it but you have some strange bed fellow in amongst you, but we’ll remember many of the same battles.

  • peter prenavon

    as one peter to another, your thoughts have lifted me out of the swamp today, the comments likewise

  • Lewis P Buckingham

    Covering onself in warpaint has a strong connection with Britain and its earliest struggles.

    In all, Tacitus claimed, Boudica’s forces had massacred some 70,000 Romans and pro-Roman Britons. Though her rebellion failed, and the Romans would continue to control Britain until A.D. 410, Boudica is celebrated today as a national heroine and an embodiment of the struggle for justice and independence.

    Tacitus did not like her much


    Suetonius, however, with wonderful resolution,

    marched amidst a hostile population to Londinium, which, though undistinguished by the name of a colony, was much frequented by a number of merchants and trading vessels. Uncertain whether he should choose it as a seat of war, as he looked round on his scanty force of soldiers, and remembered with what a serious warning the rashness of Petilius had been punished, he resolved to save the province at the cost of a single town. Nor did the tears and weeping of the people, as they implored his aid, deter him from giving the signal of departure and receiving into his army all who would go with him. Those who were chained to the spot by the weakness of their sex, or the infirmity of age, or the attractions of the place, were cut off by the enemy. Like ruin fell on the town of Verulamium, for the barbarians, who delighted in plunder and were indifferent to all else, passed by the fortresses with military garrisons, and attacked whatever offered most wealth to the spoiler, and was unsafe for defence. About seventy thousand citizens and allies, it appeared, fell in the places which I have mentioned. For it was not on making prisoners and selling them, or on any of the barter of war, that the enemy was bent, but on slaughter, on the gibbet, the fire and the cross, like men soon about to pay the penalty, and meanwhile snatching at instant vengeance.
    Tacitus was writing from the POV of her opponent.
    Incidentally,the Britons covered themselves in blue dye, woad, as war paint.

    Now the Roman criticism was not that they used war paint, but they acted like barbarians.
    Only in that respect need our commanding officer have any qualms about war paint.
    There is a precedent.

Post a comment