This article was published in Lot’s Wife on 20/3/2012.
In the 21st century, warfare can be a little hard to sell. Ours is a generation raised on Oliver Stone and Wikileaks; one in which the horrors of war are transparent and widely acknowledged. Pacifist sentiment, once seen as treacherous and cowardly, is now something close to the norm. It wasn’t always this way. In 1914, millions of impressionable young men from Europe, Australia and elsewhere were seduced into signing up by fantasies of patriotism and gallantry. Even as the dreadful realities of that war became apparent, new myths emerged. Anzac Day—a day originally instituted in order to commemorate the futile massacre of Australian and New Zealander soldiers at Gallipoli—was immediately appropriated as a symbol of national pride and a recruitment device. The bravery of Australian soldiers became a vital component in the war propaganda of the day.
Today, we live in a more skeptical age; and yet, in some ways, little has changed. To this day, our country holds elaborate ceremonies in order to honour individual troops, who are duly ordained as ‘war heroes’ in media reportage. In towns and cities all over Australia, huge monuments commemorate the local war dead. But who, or what, do these symbols really celebrate? Are they a lamentation for senseless loss of life, or a tribute to the glory of fighting and dying for one’s country? Much like the contemporary celebration of Anzac Day, it’s probably a bit of both; regardless, as the recent controversy involving Victoria Cross winner Ben Roberts-Smith has demonstrated, war propaganda still exerts a significant influence on societal paradigms. The incident, if it can be called that, arose from an exchange on the television programme The Circle as the hosts and special guest George Negus discussed a photograph of the SAS corporal. Referring to the soldier’s muscular figure, presenter Yumi Stynes made a disparaging comment about his intelligence, while Negus followed up with an awkward joke about external hyper-masculinity and sexual performance. Neither of their comments were, really, specifically aimed at Roberts-Smith at all; even if they had been, the response would have still been absurdly disproportionate. “War hero mocked,” announced newspapers the next day, as talkback radio listeners demanded that the show be taken off air and sponsors duly withdrew their funding. Negus and Stynes were directed to make private and public apologies, which were apparently not sufficient to prevent the latter from receiving death threats.
How could such a minor incident have provoked such outrage? The answer lies in the phrasing employed by the media: ‘war hero’. This is the paradigm that Stynes and Negus (rather unwittingly) undermined. To make fun of a decorated soldier, no matter how indirectly, is to challenge the last bastion of war propaganda. For if neither country, nor religion, nor soldier is to be deified, what justification for war can remain? In the days before the incident, Roberts-Smith was described positively in the News Limited papers as a “highly skilled killing machine”. The label is not wide of the mark. His Victoria Cross earning mission alone resulted in the deaths of 22 Afghani insurgents, men who may well have perceived themselves to be fighting against foreign invasion. These were, of course, armed combatants; still, it says a lot about our society’s capacity for doublethink that the taking of human life can be deemed reprehensible in most situations yet so admirable in others that a killer can be considered heroic. Despite popular sentiment to the contrary, armed combat does not have a tendency to produce heroes. Certainly, there are acts of individual bravery, sacrifice and endurance; by and large, however, the history of warfare is one of teenagers and conscripts sent to their deaths by governments more concerned about
territory or alliances than the lives of their citizens. It is right that we do not demonise soldiers for their actions when they are fighting at the behest of our democratically elected government. Nevertheless, it is equally crucial that we do not glorify armed conflict by deifying soldiers. Warfare, in general, is an appallingly horrific phenomenon which requires ordinary people like Ben Roberts-Smith to be trained to forgo compassion and empathy in order to kill more effectively. That is not something to be praised, but lamented. In the meantime, Stynes and Negus have well and truly learned their lesson. The Circle, if it survives at all, will be a much safer, more carefully scripted programme. Television and radio presenters elsewhere will be far warier of deriding military personnel. On this occasion, war propaganda has received a resounding endorsement. Until we as a society begin to respond more critically, it will remain unchallenged.