A version of this post appeared on ABC News
A short directive, bland in tone, from Chief of Army Angus Campbell titled “Use of Symbols in Army” would normally go unnoticed outside of the Army.
But Lieutenant General Campbell’s order to prohibit the display of “‘death symbology/iconography” is likely to have an outsized impact on military culture-at-large.
No doubt, grumbling in the ranks over the ban — which includes the Grim Reaper, the Skull and Crossbones, Spartan, vigilante and death-related symbols — will lead to accusations of political correctness.
In some barracks lines, parallels have already been drawn between Lieutenant General Campbell and his predecessor, Lieutenant General David Morrison, whose diversity crusades made him less-than-loved by the troops. And there are a great many unhappy troops.
The outcry has two predictable arguments.
The first posits that “death symbology” is good for “morale”, a necessary part of maintaining an army capable of violence. It’s all just a bonding exercise used for the purposes of “group absolution” — psychological relief for individuals trying to cope with the pressures of war.
Death is indeed an indivisible component of war, and such criticisms see a gross kind of irony in an Army chief banning death symbols. After all, military training is itself a form of operant conditioning specifically designed to dissociate recruits from the natural aversion to killing.
The second argument is premised around heritage — the so-called “spirit and pride” attached to these symbols. Given how closely soldiers wed themselves to the customs of their forebears, such attachments shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand.
But most all of the banned symbols are imported from overseas. These banned totems have very little, if any, Australian lineage.
The Spartans were Greek. The Phantom hails from the fictional African island of Bengalla. The scythe-wielding Grim Reaper dates back to the Middle Ages.
To argue that the image of Death incarnate is some kind of Australian icon (as opposed to, say, the kangaroo mounted on the slouch hats of infantry units) seems dubious at best.
Similarly, displaying Punisher memorabilia on the battlefield has always reeked of US influence.
A vigilante worshipped in the American military, the Punisher’s distinctive skull emblem was first co-opted by Navy SEALs on operations in Iraq. The skull was painted on body armour, hessian barricades, butt-stocks — sometimes even graffitied in the streets.
As Chris Kyle writes in his autobiography-turned-posthumous-action-film American Sniper:
“We spray-painted [the Punisher skull] on every building or wall we could. We wanted people to know: ‘we’re here and we want to f— with you’.”
For the most part, the pre-occupation with this character stemmed from the Punisher’s willingness to go off-reservation. As one Marine Corps veteran explained the fetish to New York Magazine:
“Frank Castle is the ultimate definition of Occam’s razor for the military… Don’t worry about uniforms, inspections of rules of engagement. Find the bad guys. Kill the bad guys.”
It’s not hard to see why flying the Punisher skull, to quote Lieutenant General Campbell directly, “encourages the inculcation of an arrogant hubris and general disregard for the most serious responsibility of our profession: the legitimate and discriminate taking of life”.
No surprises then, that the Chief would want to stamp down on subcultures that glorify individuals taking the law into their own hands — as patrolling Afghanistan with the Punisher symbol on your body armour implies.
Forefelt, it’s inevitable that the concurrent ban on Spartan iconography — described as symbolising “extreme militarism” — will be reviled by many combat units. Some grunts are besotted with the muscled hoplites of ancient Sparta, especially since the release of the Hollywood film 300.
Heed, for example, the way Victoria Cross recipient Ben Roberts-Smith’s battlefield actions have been described:
“He just tore into the enemy … He is the epitome of the Spartan soldier. It was only a matter of time before he would demonstrate his true ability.”
With an internal Defence inquiry into the conduct of special forces in Afghanistan ongoing, Lieutenant General Campbell’s reservations about Spartan imagery are not without merit.
Indeed, politically incorrect as it is to say in the mess-hall of an infantry battalion — extreme militarism was a major cause of ancient Sparta’s eventual downfall.
The proscriptions also apply to the Grim Reaper. And Lieutenant General Campbell is right — revelling in “death” iconography precisely misses the point of soldiering.
As a comparison, the explicitly violent bayonet drill practised by new recruits, should not be read as a celebration of death but rather a tightly rehearsed routine where a commander exercises his monopoly over a soldier’s newfound killing ability.
While it’s true that soldiers are weapons who occasionally reap death, it is not true that soldiers embody death. This is because a weapon symbolizes not only the use of force but also the threat of force. A demonstrable, calculable, avoidable threat that makes militaries instruments of state power in the first place.
This is the distinction between “death” symbols and the ADF’s formal iconography. Iconography like the Army’s skill-at-arms “cross rifles” badge or the solar-ray bayonets on the Rising Sun badge.
While the banned symbols are fetishistic and in poor taste, these icons evince a well-disciplined soldier’s membership to the profession of arms.
Weighed against all the facts then, Lieutenant General Campbell’s directive has little to do with political correctness or avoiding offence and everything to do with a strong leader engineering a culture of discipline that is appropriate for a military force in the 21st century.
In the end, the difference between an Army that marches into battle beneath a symbol like the Rising Sun and an Army that marches into battle beneath symbols of vigilantism, lawlessness, extreme militarism and death is the difference between a force that values professionalism and obedience to the law and a force that defines itself by its own violence.
The difference between an army and a “death cult”, if you will.
It’s not difficult to guess which fighting force the Australian public would prefer to have represent them on operations abroad.
Lieutenant General Campbell should be applauded for setting the tone for his future tenure as Chief of the Defence Force.