A ban on “death symbols” distinguishes an Army from a ‘death cult’

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.

Frank Castle - The Punisher

Jon Bernthal as Frank Castle/The Punisher (Source: Netflix)

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.”


Ben Roberts-Smith on operations in Afghanistan. Note the skull-and-crossbones shoulder patch.

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.

iraqi soldier

Iraqi soldier with a skull face mask popularized by the character “Ghost” in the video game Call of Duty

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.



6 thoughts on “A ban on “death symbols” distinguishes an Army from a ‘death cult’

  1. You’ve clearly been out of the defence force too long. You’ve forgotten all the Australian Army units that currenty have this symbology and those units that have had similar symbology for almost as long as our Army has existed.

    This directive is supported by only a very small minority of serving troops and the wider public and those with common sense see it for what it truly is (pandering to the political correct class that you sent this is for). The CDF risks losing the influence of and ability to direct and retain a well trained force and is no doubt the target of jokes amongst Generals around the world.

    In any regard as a Defence Force that never deploys without international armies, banning this symbology is useless when our troops are embedded in foreign units that pridely display that symbology. Additionally does this mean that the Army cannot travel on our new C-27J “Spartan” Aircraft because they will be displaying a large flying death symbol?

    Your opinion piece is just that, devoid of facts, based on limited information and clearly lacking in an understanding of the culture and the drivers that motivate our volunteer forces.

    • It’s also possible that I’ve been out of the Defence Force just long enough to understand this issue both from the perspective of an infantry soldier and a member of the civilian public whom Defence members enlist to serve.
      Considering this, last I checked it doesn’t matter what the majority of troops think of the CA’s directive. The Australian Army, as you well know, protects Australian democracy but it does not practice it.
      As Rodger Shanahan put it: “You don’t have to agree with the order, just obey it. Long-standing military tradition.”
      As such, if there are still some soldiers who are so fixated on the supposed requirement to fly non-state symbology on ops that they must express their outrage by leaking CA minutes via Facebook here is what I would ask them:
      “Did you sign up to the Army to 1.) be a soldier and defend the interests of Australia or 2.) be insubordinate to your chain-of-command by gobbing off about internal memos online?”
      If you’re answer is 1.) then I would suggest that you acknowledge the issuance of a lawful command from a superior officer, throw a boxer in the CA’s direction and get back to those non-techs.
      Elsewhere, where the C-27J “Spartan” and other unique cases of actual historic symbology is concerned my understanding is that the Chief has provided some scope for leeway in the form of exemptions. The C-27J, as the RAAF have already stipulated, is exempt from this ban because the name comes from the aircraft’s minimalist or “spartan” (lower case “s”) attributes – not from a nostalgic affiliation to extinct warrior cultures.
      Take care.

  2. I find these discussions very interesting.
    While I am not ex-military, I can clearly see both points of view.
    I just attended my first ANZAC Day Parade, most impressive. However such linguistic/iconographic squabbles appear only to detract from the main game (clearly this is but my own humble, civilian, opinion).
    By the way, does anyone ever actually actually survey (or ask) for actual current serving or veteran or civilian opinions when quoting mafority/minority viewpoints? Just wondering….
    Kind Regards,

    • Given that the symbols Australian soldiers choose to fly are supposed to represent the values of the public, my opinion is that the views of the civilian populace on this issue are even more important than the views of the soldiers themselves. Defence serves the public not the other way around.
      I wouldn’t pretend to be a bellwether of soldierly opinion on any issue, nor have I conducted any polling or collected any quantitative data on this topic. It’s definitely true that there is no shortage of upset grunts though.

  3. Dear Mr Elliott.
    I recently read your “Opinion” article for the ABC – “Death symbol ban is the difference between an Army and a death cult”.
    I was surprised to discover that the Chief of Army needed to issue such a directive. I served in both the Australian Army Reserve, and nine years in the RAN, and I noticed these “nut-jobs” were weeded out either by the “psyche testing” before recruitment, or during Recruit Training.
    We always sneered at the Yanks, because they appeared not to have a filter for “sicko’s” – hence their inability to win “Hearts and Minds” (and their proclivity to commit “atrocities”).
    A Professional Army represents “The Rule of Law” – upon which a civil population should be able to Trust, to protect them from the likes of “lawless vigilantes”. The Army must be “scraping the bottom of the barrel” if their filters have failed to eliminate these “crazies” before they could get their hands on a weapon.
    Or, maybe some in the Army have been “radicalised” by such as the Honourable Senator Pauline Hansen (AS), and the Honourable George Christiansen (MHR). Selfies of civilians wearing military uniforms or totin’ hand-guns, boots and black leather, and/ or death symbols, invariably evoke Freudian connotations of penis envy, or similar self-image inadequacies.
    I would urge the Chief of Army to go further than forbid the accoutrements of these pitiful freaks in the Australian Army. Remove the freaks themselves, from a professional service that is supposedly enforcing the Rule of International Law and representing this Nation to the World.
    Furthermore, re-introduce a psychiatric assessment system that will ensure that those employed to uphold (or create) The Law, and represent (and paid to represent) the Nation, are mentally stable.
    I am not suggesting that any sort of judgement or discrimination should be laid on those who, like to dress in “action man” clothes, photograph themselves in “armed action man” poses, wear “death cult” masks, or engage in sado-masochist indulgences. Providing we don’t hurt or offend (without consent), we should all be free to express our peccadillo’s.
    I am suggesting however, that those engaged in representing Australia to the World, should not just abide by the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights, (of which, we are a founding signatory nation), but also be seen to abide by the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights. (Just as Cricketers should not just abide by the “Rules of Cricket”, but be seen to abide by the “Spirit of Cricket”).
    Those objecting to the Chief of Army’s directive appear to have forgotten the purpose of the Australian Defence Forces, which primarily should be, to not only enforce international law, but to be seen to do so, with Compassion.
    There is no role for Terror, Vigilantism, or Bullying, in the Military. Those so inclined, would be better employed in an outlaw bikie gang, the ku-klux-clan, or an international terror organisation. They should not be International Representatives of the Australian People.
    I enjoy and appreciate your enlightened and sober writings. Thank you.
    Reply ↓

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