In researching Australia’s Defence, my new book, I corresponded with a senior Defence officer on Russell Hill. His email was signed off with these words:
I acknowledge the Ngunnawal people as the traditional custodians of the land on which I work and live.
There are two things about this, once you get over the inanity of the gesture. Firstly, it is quite inappropriate to state one’s personal beliefs on your employer’s correspondence; secondly it is the same as stating that you are a Moonie, or a Scientologist, or wiccan or the like. If the stated belief is honestly held, it suggests that the correspondent should be treated with wariness as someone likely to be mentally deficient. If not, that means the Defence is in the grip of some Aboriginal-worshipping cult able to deal out punishment to those who fail to perform its rituals.
How would this have come about? This cult is simply filling a void. Some research indicates that evolution has hard-wired us for religion. A large proportion of the population states that they are atheist or agnostic, but the need for something greater than self persists, and insists on ritual. The devotees are just unaware of why they are performing their genuflections.
Aboriginal-worship, as performed on Russel Hill, is ancestor-worship, a quite primitive form of religious observance. Worshipping ancestors, even if they weren’t your own, provides continuity and the promise of immortality. Edmund Burke said it another way with his dictum that “society is a contract between the dead, the living and those yet unborn.” Ancestor worship doesn’t build nursing homes though.
Ancestor worship is not the only form of religious observance on Russell Hill, it has competition from another couple of ancients gods that have also made a comeback. Nature worship is observed as climate change, and the fertility goddess has returned as gender equality. Defence has set up offices for all three of these religions. Ancestor worship has the office of Indigenous Affairs, nature worship the Combat Climate Change Initiative, and the fertility goddess can be found at Gender Equality Advisory Board.
Like Valhalla, the gods have their hierarchy and, normally, Aboriginality trumps the others. The new Defence Minister, whose profile brings to mind a Palaeolithic fertility figure, suggests that the fertility goddess will give Aboriginal worship a run for its money. Expect the subject of women in combat to be raised once more.
There is one Western, liberal democracy that remains in constant danger of being overrun by its neighbours — neighbours who have been taught to hate it with their mother’s milk. That nation is Israel. With its small and beleaguered population, Israel has always had an interest in maximising the number of people who can be deployed in combat units, so it tried using women. That wasn’t successful for two reasons. Firstly, troops are trained to keep advancing despite the injuries and screams of their comrades who have been hit by enemy fire. If they don’t, the attack breaks and you end up with a worse situation – troops held down in exposed positions and the wounded and dying needing attention.
Troops can be trained to happily ignore males screaming in pain but seem to be evolutionarily conditioned to help females in distress. This breaks the attack and makes such mixed units useless on the battlefield. Secondly, troops react to female comrades being wounded or killed by conducting reprisals against anyone to hand, enemy combatants or civilians. This isn’t good for discipline. So Israel abandoned using women in combat because it just didn’t work out.
There is more to defence policy than paying conspicuous homage to ancestors and fashionable notions of gender and equality. Is there a Russell Hill incumbent who has not forgotten that?
David Archibald is the author of Australia’s Defence (Connor Court 2015).