Response to Dr. Baker’s UNSW Opinion Piece

An unusually-acerbic opinion piece was recently published by the University of New South Wales’ Newsroom. Therein, the author, Dr. Deane Peter-Baker, an ADFA academic, took issue with my most recent Fairfax op-ed on the conduct of Australian special forces in Afghanistan.

Although worth reading, many of the arguments, including the nigh-on verbatim passage about alleged paedophiles and their tarnished reputations, appear to have been recycled from an earlier op-ed written by Dr. Baker last year.

(Sidenote: it was me who suggested to Small Wars Journal’s Dave Dilegge that Dr. Baker’s first op-ed might be published on SWJ because it was the best public rebuttal to the original ABC op-ed I had earlier written on the topic).

Additionally (and sadly), there are also a number of demonstrable falsehoods in Dr. Baker’s latest rebuttal – most of them related to what was actually written in my Fairfax piece. Some of his gymnastic re-renderings of my arguments are, to use his phraseology, “frankly laughable”.

As such, while I readily encourage robust debate, I would also invite Dr. Baker to carry out a more careful examination of the text when crafting his next rebuttal to whatever it is that I write. This might help him avoid any future misinterpretations and/or misrepresentations of what is actually being said.

Of course, it is partly-true, as Dr. Baker was quick to point out last year, that I am but a “blogger turned ABC analyst [Correction: I’m a freelancer]”. And who is a mere blogger, after all, to have an opinion about anything?

Even so, it would be nice if those who choose to dive into my works would dive in proper and read all the sentences in all their completeness.

So. In full, and as kindly published by the UNSW Newsroom after I raised the factual inaccuracies with them, here is my response to Dr. Baker:

 

RESPONSE FROM C. AUGUST ELLIOTT

I would like to re-state my position to avoid misrepresentation. Dr Baker suggests I have been “throwing around the ‘war criminal’ label willy nilly”. This is not true. None of my writing has used the term “war criminal” to describe any member of the Special Operations Task Group. I used the term “illegal violence” (which comes from the Crompvoets Report) when referring to special forces allegations and used “war crimes” only in relation to historic case studies of Mỹ Lai and Srebenica. Dr Baker also says that I was “quick to condemn not just a whole Regiment but the entire 3000-strong Special Operations Command and all those who have served in it since 2001” for alleged misconduct in Afghanistan. The Herald article to which Dr Baker refers used phrases such as “some soldiers”, “certain charismatic corporals” and “insidious sects within special forces” (emphasis added) to ensure my critique specifically did not apply a broad brush to all within the organisation. Some members of the command are now blowing the whistle on alleged wrongdoing. They are witnesses, not suspects, and their claims should be heard out in full.

 

All Along the Watchtower

Carl and I had been getting about a bit. Chief laps, cragging, a new variation on the East Face of the South Nesakwatch Spire. It was time for something big.

With leave secured, we weighed our options. The Waddington? Nah. Princess Louisa Inlet?  Nah. Washington Pass? Nah. The Chehalis Range? Perhaps. Something on the North Face of Viennese? Maybe. Let’s pack anyway.

The heatwave rolled through and The Chehalis – with its solar-drenched walls and snowless ridge lines – was out. We rallied for a backup. Options were slimming.

Something further east at the very least, beyond the worst of the millibars.

Yep. Plenty of unclimbed rock on The Deacon, I think.

Primed, watered, fed, we galloped out of town.

In Keremeos, the mercury read thirty-eight degrees and the Cathedral Range was on fire. With the daylong approach, our water source unknown and the possibility of an unplanned self-rescue across the border into the US, the plan seemed uninviting.

There must be some kind of way out of here.

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The Purcell range – the Bugaboos – were a surer, if a further, bet. Higher elevation, cooler climes. A known known, if not The Unknown we were looking for. They would have to do. And besides. I had plans with Splawinski to try the North Howser Tower the following week. The Pole was flying out from Thunder Bay especially. Why not get the rope and rack up to base camp?

Time to dust off the ticklists of yesteryear, Carl.

We angled north to Golden. By midnight we were at the trailhead. Atop the Applebee Dome, by three. Tent laid and in bed, by four.

Morning came and we woke to the usual Applebee scenes. Snowpatch Spire. The eponymous Bugaboo. The Crescent Towers, Eastpost. The Hound’s Tooth – the dog’s denture adrift in a crevassed minefield.

Later, after coffee, we packed and rallied. The late night on our feet had meant a just-as-late start. Nevertheless, we trotted off to do something. A forgotten rope realized halfway up the col confirmed our brains needed rest. It made more sense to chill, to brew the afternoon away. Do something big tomorrow. We returned.

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Applebee was full of “jokers and thieves”. Calgarians and Canmorons. Euros and would-be Beckey-Chouinarders. Voracious marmots with food-raiding predelictions.

We’d brought folding camping chairs and we made of them our thrones. Talked of plans. Sprayed and pre-sprayed our way into a self-constructed corner. Half-dolefully re-packed for the next day when we realized what we had done.

Sunset, darkness, first light. We set out for the North Buttress of Snowpatch. Sunshine Crack. “The best rock climb in North America,” I’d heard it called. It climbed well, especially the headwall – a sixty metre arcing whip-crack of fist-jams and finger locks.

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Satisfied, we returned to Applebee to resume our thrones. To hold court with friends in the dimming light. Come the morning, Kyle and Nina were headed up the Northeast Ridge of Bugaboo with plans to climb it fast.

“We’re gonna leave early,” said Kyle. Six a.m was early round here, apparently. It makes sense in a way. If you’re in the alpine already, any start of any kind is an “alpine start” after all.

Rosy-fingered dawn came and went. In the end, we were away by seven. Carl dropped an axe early on-route. Rookie move but it wasn’t worth whining about. It was my tool but complaints to management wouldn’t have much effect on the customer’s situation. I was sure we could figure out a way to get down the col on the other side.

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The climbing on the Ridge went well. Simul-climbed everything, passed everyone, gave a nod to the long-dead Conrad Kain as we moved au cheval across dead-if-you-fell knife-edge traverses. Guiding clients up here on the first ascent in 1916 with hemp ropes and hobnailed boots was no trivial feat.

The descent went smoothly enough though the col was too crowded.

Too much confusion. I can’t get no relief.

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The Applebee spray resumed and we hiked out the next day, a low pressure system inbound.

Carl was off to his cabin in the Cariboo and I was off to the shops to replace some ailing kit. The credit card came out and I didn’t much care to keep track. If Splawinski and I were truly going to go try The Watchtower on the North Howser then I didn’t want gear to be the precluding factor. What happened at the checkout seemed immaterial compared with the cost of a failed belay loop.

Business men, they drink my winePlowman dig my earth.

Leaving the city once more, I returned hillward. The fresh green fields of Chilliwack. The stochastic landslid layers of Hope. The lakes and lights of Kelowna – West and K-Town proper. University students and beach-going revellers. Fast boats, faster undergrads and the fastest time between shotglass and hospital visit this far east of Whistler. Downtown Kelowna – especially its darker shades – looked about the same as usual. The sad, the tragic, the meth-addled – stuck down here in the valleys of the world.

None were level on the mind. Nobody up at his word.

I fetched Splawinski from his family home in Coldstream.

Hey, hey – no reason to get excited.

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But we fucking were. Couldn’t help but be. Headed in as we was to climb All Along the Watchtower on the goddamn North Howser Tower. Twelve hundred metres of Bugaboo granite. An El Cap-sized feature in the middle of nowhere. Everybody whose anybody’s dream route. Big, cold, committing, rad. Some kind of excruciation probably mandatory. A true fête de souffrance awaited.

By mid-next-morning we were back in Applebee, packing for the following day. The weather forecast was perfect. Obscenely good. Unfair to the mountain, almost.

The thief he kindly spoke: “there are many here among us, who feel that life is but a joke”.

As the sun slipped behind the summit of Bugaboo, Splawinski was fretting some. His life of late had been clinics and patients – the first year of a Thunder Bay medical residency. He’d been away from the rocks and the mountains for a bit so his questions were natural. Had we done enough prep? Had we adequately studied the topo? Not an invalid concern, though the double negatives were better put aside for now.

Sure, I hadn’t yet replenished all the carbs I’d burned the week previous, but I felt relaxed, well-exercised – comfortable at least with the current, hyper-local conditions in the range. Everything looked like it was good to go.

We talked strategy.

Leave camp at 2am – two men with their thirty litre backpacks. Cross the col. Surge over to East Creek. Rap into the North Howser cirque. En route at 9. One bivy. Hopefully find snow to boil somewhere on the ridge. Tag the summit. Off the next day or soon after.

Eight packets of energy chews, two protein bars. Silk liners for sleeping bags. We’d carry four litres of water as a contingency in case there was nothing to melt. Pretty damn super-alpine style. But were our margins too fine? What if we didn’t find any snow at all? Even on the summit? It was possible – and a potentially shitty, though survivable, eventuality.

But, uh, but you and I, we’ve been through that
And this is not our fate
So let us stop talkin’ falsely now
The hour’s getting late, hey
We slept, woke and moved. East Creek was a hive of waking bodies when we swept through at six – a veritable tent city with generators and Arctery’x™ athletes™.
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Watchtower
Atop the North Howser cirque, we found the anchors with which to thread our ropes. Rappelled, Rapunzel-like. Pulled the cords. Traversed steep snow to the base of the route. Committed to the monster.
Splawinski took off quickly, running the rope out long. I followed well enough. Challenging route-finding in the lower third led to a ledge. A brief rest and a gel and a moment to warm the feet in the sun. Splawinski took off again.
An offwidth – grunty with a backpack – then a boulder problem – not the best gear, bad fall if you whipped – before I led through on a long, disturbingly good hand crack. After, as the grade began to dip, we simuled till I ran out of gear.
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The day lumbered on and so did we, a pair of colour-coded vagabonds lost in the sky-vault vert. Halfway up, the route cut left and we could see The Watchtower – with its legendary corner system – above us. A looming grey keep, cantilevered at the top of the dihedral. The colour and texture of weather-worn alabaster.
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We continued. Then, an impasse. Splawinski had run out of road. The top of a crack. Above, a runout slab. To the left, an arête – crack-riven on the underside. Unlikely but maybe-probably-has-to-be climbable.
Reluctantly, I racked up and swung into the lead. A brass nut in a seam protected the belay and a splits manoeuvre brought me to the arête. Reaching round the buttress-blade, I fondled at something and committed. Up, above and over the rock protected poorly but there was no means or desire to down climb.
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Face-climbing edges and a traverse led to a bulging crack – perfect hands. Better protection came with better climbing.
A corner, which Splawinski took while my nerves recalibrated, led to the bivy ledge.
Half a metre wide and utterly wind-exposed. We settled in for the night – hot water warming our bellies before the evening delirium.
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Morning followed a typically-bad sleep and we brewed some more water, slurping through our supplies in the dawn-lit sky. The wind picked up and I led away. Slovenly grovelling up a chimney, my energy levels not what they were the day before. The shiver-bivy had sapped us. A more-than-real possibility that we were’t yet ready to accept.
Leading into and up the initial corner, I climbed to a stance and slumped. The pitches above looked hard. Finger-width cracks in a dead-vertical, perfectly-symmetrical, perspective-distorting dihedral. Forever.
Splawinski arrived at the belay, looking warmed up. I baulked. Something was wrong with my starter motor today.
Caloric deficit from my ramblings with Carl? Or was I under-slept and unrecovered? Or had I been pulling too many all-nighters for work. Cumulative effects. Or was I just making excuses for a lacklustre half-finished lead block.

Either way I felt burned out – frazzled, toast, pork crackle – my brain the hot mess of an old tire left blazing on an Outback asphalt road.

Valiantly, Splawinski took the reins. Indolent and in the back seat, I generously paid out slack and wondered when it would end. The corner continued. Forever. Amazing, other-worldly touching-down-once-in-the-entire-universe climbing, but forever is still forever and we still had a-ways to go.

All along the watchtower.

 

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The dihedral jogged left. The crux.

My lead. A free-for-few, aid-to-most undercling traverse pitch. Hanging plates of granite, riddled with offset pinscars. Zero feet, hence the aiding. With most of the big wall experience between us, it made sense for me to lead it. My amygdala functional but still a mess, I set out across the roof, flake-to-flake, with bounce-tested gear. Offset cams and funky wires – here and there old tat to clip. Slow is smooth, smooth is fast.

 

 

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I arrived and belayed then the Pole arrived and led through, whipping off in the final hard moves before the ledge. We reached the crest of the North Ridge in style. Rested. Shook hands – though we both knew there was plenty still ahead.

A ducking, weaving serpent of a ridge, in fact. We bivied in the early evening. Home for the night? A snowpatch-plugged wind-protected nook, with a view of the South Howser before us. Golden light on the Becky-Chouinard. The silhouettes of sundry summiteers rapping down the other side.

Princes kept the view
While all the women came and went
Barefoot servants, too

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The second bivy – though technically unplanned – was warmer, stiller, more hydrational. With flecks of granite dust in the meltwater, the Pole theorized we’d also claw back some  precious minerals. Doctor’s advice.

Outside in the cold distance, a wildcat did howl.

Two riders were approaching, and the wind began to howl.

Morning returned and so did morale. Summit-bound were we.

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We reached it swiftly and sat for long, warming our toes in the morning sun.

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In the distance, below us, layers of fresh smoke backlit by the rolling ridges. Above, an apocalyptic mushroom cloud – spewing forth from a wildfire in the Kootenays – hanging like a burning bauble over all.

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Hendrix played. Figuratively.

Nice one, Jimi.

The descent would be horrible, what with stuck ropes and double-crested bergschrunds to survive. But dammit, Donahue and Harvey were right about this climb. The wildcat did howl, indeed.

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Summary of Statistics:

Sunshine Crack (5.11-, 400m), North Buttress of Snowpatch Spire, Purcell Range, BC

Northeast Ridge (5.8, 1000m), Bugaboo Spire, Purcell Range, BC

All Along the Watchtower (5.11+ A2, 1200m), North Howser Tower, Purcell Range, BC

 

Disbanding Might Be the Only Option for Australia’s Special Ops

A version of this article appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald.

The facts have been laid before us. It’s high time we came to terms with the chequered history of our special forces in Afghanistan.

Where last year, leaked inquiry documents shone a spotlight on the disquiet of some within Army ranks, this year many of the allegations levelled against Australia’s special forces have come from the mouths of Afghans themselves, adding volume to the ever-growing whistleblower orchestra inside Defence.

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Abdul Mohammad, the brother of Ali Jan. His brother had gone to get flour and ended up dead, allegedly at the hands of Australian special forces. (Photo: Supplied)

It comes at a time of increased outcry by local people across the country. Since the International Criminal Court began collecting material for a sweeping war crimes case in November 2017, Afghans have submitted over 1.17 million individual statements to investigators – alleging claims of wrongdoing against all sides, Coalition and Taliban alike.

Not every one of those 1.17 million submissions will be corroborated. The Afghanistan conflict is a complex conflagration, overlaid and underpinned by an intricate information war. In the battle to control the narrative, every party is adept at leveraging propaganda from the deeds of their adversaries.

Even so, it is time that Afghan testimony was heard in its entirety. Where these new allegations against the Special Operations Task Group are concerned, many of the critical facts appear to be damning, harmonising as they do with whistles already blown by Australians.

The specificity of time, place and person. The exactitude with which the events were described – and their correlation with actual Australian operations. The descriptions of weapons, sound suppressors, camouflage uniforms. Right down to the gruesome nature of the deaths at Darwan – a village few in Australia had heard of till now – faraway as it is in the northern reaches of Uruzgan province.

 

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In the village of Darwan, a special forces soldier kicks an Afghan prisoner off a cliff. (Illustration: Matt Davidson/Fairfax, based on an eyewitness account)

The testimony from Defence insiders too is devastating. Accounts seem to show the emergence of a psyche within special forces where all Afghan males came to be imagined as “associates”, “spotters” and “sympathisers” – somehow in league with the Taliban – a common trope in many war crimes scenarios, from Srebenica to My Lai. The coarse strategic logic behind the killings is clear then. By launching brutal retaliatory attacks against those imagined to be Taliban collaborators and by allegedly executing persons in custody, some members of Australia’s special forces sought to win their war through a campaign of fear.

With unfettered violence, these patrols sought to send a message that did not discriminate between farmer, family or foe – a message of capitulate or die.

As military theorists have reminded warfighters again and again over the years however, this “art of intimidation” approach cannot deliver improvements to a security situation. Counter-insurgency is less about what one is doing to the enemy and more about what one is doing for the population.

Namely, protecting the people from insurgent coercion and addressing the root causes of popular dissatisfaction. All this to build support and legitimacy for the host nation government. It’s no secret that the employment of heavy-handed tactics in any community erodes the trust and goodwill of those who security forces are assigned to assiduously woo.

But if the reported events are symbolic of a problem that goes right to the heart of Australia’s special operating culture, the next question to be asked is how did such a culture take root within such a well-regarded fighting force.

By all accounts, this pivot towards ultra-violence has been incubating for years, typified perhaps by the veneration of vigilante icons, Spartan imagery, death symbols and other gory phantasmagoria.

Indeed, the role played by this now-banned iconography in desensitising soldiers to what the Crompvoets Report called “illegal violence” should not be understated.

As the anthropologist Clifford Geertz writes, culture is nothing but a collection of such symbols – a process of “semiosis” or “sign-making” – “by means of which men communicate, perpetuate, and develop their knowledge about and their attitudes towards life”.

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The visage of the Phantom, as depicted on the shield of a Melanesian warrior. (Source: Christopher Johnstone)

Akin to how cargo cults in the highlands of Papua New Guinea form coalitions around charismatic leaders and paint the image of American comic book vigilantes on their shields for protection, there will be much to be discussed in future about the role played by certain charismatic corporals and foreign “cargo” (including the violent attitudes imported from American popular culture) in the formation of insidious sects within Australia’s special forces.

Nowhere is this strand of cargo cultism more palpable than in the story surrounding the soldier codenamed “Leonidas”, reported by Fairfax to have kicked an Afghan man off a cliff – mirroring a climactic scene in the film 300.

But this is only one element of the story. The organisational behaviour of humans is complex and the fall of a culture can be a difficult process to map. The totems glorifying murder and vigilantism were emblematic of a drift away from traditional beliefs and Chief of Army Angus Campbell was right to ban them. But they are only one facet of a more entrenched problem writ large. It’s clear now though that Defence is coming to terms with a crisis within the ranks.

In the 1990s, when members of Canada’s elite Airborne Regiment were found to have tortured and murdered an unarmed teenager in Somalia, the Canadian government’s ultimate decision was to disband the unit. With this history in mind, one wonders how Australia’s Special Operations Command as an institution could recover from this. One wonders if it should.

The Great American Drift

The decline of Rome was the natural and inevitable effect of immoderate greatness. Prosperity ripened the principle of decay; the causes of destruction multiplied with the extent of conquest; and as soon as time or accident had removed the artificial supports, the stupendous fabric yielded to the pressure of its own weight… The victorious legions, who, in distant wars, acquired the vices of strangers and mercenaries, first oppressed the freedom of the republic, and afterwards violated the majesty of the purple… The story of its ruin is simple and obvious; and instead of inquiring why the Roman empire was destroyed, we should rather be surprised that it had subsisted so long.” – Edward Gibbon, The History of the Decline & Fall of the Roman Empire, 1776.

Much of recent domestic discourse in the US has focussed on the earmarking of Gina Haspel to run the CIA. A matter of some controversy, the debate has centred around the specifics of her role in the CIA’s infamous “enhanced interrogation techniques” program – the torture initiative which has since come to symbolize the dark early years of America’s war on Terror.

This was a well-covered story, and even though Haspel’s confirmation by the Senate ultimately went smoothly, the American public was right to examine her past with a critical eye.

Many would share the view that torture is legally unjustifiable and morally repugnant – a barbaric practice whose presence in Western society has been the subject of periodic extenteration in the writings of Voltaire; the wartime orders of Napoleon; and the big print of the UN Convention against Torture.

But while many of Haspel’s domestic critics – from John McCain to the editorial board of The Washington Post – argued that her murky past wasn’t a fit with their country’s basic values, perhaps Gina Haspel’s rise to the CIA’s directorship is precisely in keeping with the current trajectory of American moral drift – a drift she merely symbolises.

Take, for example, the White House’s May 7 pick for the next recipient of the Medal of Honor, the US military’s most prestigious decoration for valor. At a ceremony this Thursday, President Trump will award a Navy SEAL by the name of Britt Slabinski the highest award in the American military honors system for actions “above and beyond the call of duty”.

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Master Chief Petty Officer (ret.) Britt Slabinski is to receive the MoH this Thursday.

Such a lofty laurel is reward for a 2002 action that took place on an Afghan mountain called Takur Ghar. In the face of heavy fire, Slabinski single-handedly assaulted an enemy position in an attempt to rescue a wounded teammate – at great risk to his own safety.

This single act, in and of itself, might well be praiseworthy. But what is less well-known about Master Chief Petty Officer Britt Slabinski is his role as a central figure in a tradition of corpse mutilation that became the norm within the US Navy’s Special Warfare Development Group. To some, that last sentence might read as shocking and out-of-place – as if this graphic but factually neutral statement was some colossal new revelation. But all these details have been on the public record for a long time.

See for instance the interview Slabinski conducted with Newsweek journalist Malcolm Macpherson for his award-winning book Roberts Ridge. “Talking about funny stuff that we did,” Slabinski described of coming upon the corpse of an Al-Qaeda fighter on an Afghan hilltop known as Objective Wolverine. “There was this guy whose feet were sticking out of some little rut. He was dead but, you know, people got nerves so I shot him about twenty times in the legs… Every time you’d shoot him he would kick up and you could see his body twitching. It was like a game. It was good therapy.”

 

Article 18 of the Geneva Convention states that soldiers presiding over the dead must “take all possible measures… to prevent their being despoiled” but according to SEAL team leaders interviewed by The Intercept reporter Matthew Cole in findings published last year, such desecrations were widespread – even going beyond riddling corpses with bullets. Skinnings were frequently carried out, ostensibly to collect DNA evidence. In one infamous incident, one of Slabinski’s operational orders to bring him “a head on a platter” was interpreted as more-than-rhetorical, resulting in one of his subordinates decapitating a dead enemy fighter during a raid in Helmand province.

Unsavoury allegations about Slabinski’s teams extended to live targets as well. In 2015, the New York Times reported complaints about civilian casualties from Afghans at the site of a Slabinski-led raid. When the US Navy’s chain-of-command requested comment from Slabinski about an order he had allegedly given to “kill all the males” he did not deny the claim.

Under normal circumstances, such allegations levelled at the feet of somebody who is to receive the Medal of Honor on Thursday would usually draw attention. But few in the US seem to know. Fewer seem to be concerned. Given that all this information was on the public record while the medal approval process was taking place one might conclude that there is a problem here.

It certainly doesn’t require any kind of boldness to offer that there is something wrong with a political system that would allow the subject of ongoing, credible war crimes allegations to receive that country’s highest decoration for bravery.

Indeed, one way to assess the bill of health (shall we say, the constitution) of a society is to examine the personalities of those chosen to occupy positions of high status. Gina Haspel as CIA Director. Britt Slabinski as Medal of Honor recipient. Donald Trump as President of the United States.

The presenting signs seem to belie an illness – a necrotic rot – not a system in stasis.

Perhaps then, when Trump’s critics in America’s technocratic classes perceive the President as the cause of their country’s problems their political sphygmomanometers are giving a bad read-out. Perhaps Donald Trump is not the problem at all. Perhaps he’s but a symptom. A symptom of America’s moral drift.

On Being Nominated

I have been nominated for an award.

I submitted the entry myself. Filled out the form. Sought out a reference from my editor. Selected the “New Writer’s” category in the drop-down column. Hoping, probably, that the award for neophytes was less competitive. It doesn’t seem that way, for future reference.

Now I’m a “nominee”.

“Congratulations.”

But what does “new” to the game – this highly-temporal, self-categorizing word “new” – actually mean? I’m a “New Magazine Writer” now apparently. But I’ve been writing obsessively since I was five.

Told my grade school teachers I wanted to write for a living. Wrote it down on a collage about my grown-up dream job. Spelled the dream “W-H-Я-I-T-E-R”. The “R” scrawled back-to-front in the bad handwriting I still live with today. Experimenting with Cyrillic script, maybe. Or so I’ll say at parties.

“New to the Magazine Writer’s World,” is what it means. And it says as much explicitly. The capital “M”s and “W”s etched into the announcement.

“Welcome to Magazine Writer’s World. Here is the coat-check, there is the first aid station. There’ll be a half-time show where chimps show off their skills with a crayon at ten o’clock.”

Above the heads of the anointed in the entrance hall, a banner with that famous apocryphal quote often falsely attributed to Hemingway: “Writing is easy. You simply sit down at your typewriter, open your veins, and bleed.”

Very “work-making-free” in its implied hardship but absent any real suffering.

But there you have it. The writer’s lot. Written plainly in the entrance hall to Magazine Writer’s World. The red carpet has been rolled out.

A nomination then is a ticket with a scannable barcode. Bring it with you on the night and you can queue up while the doors open. On the other side of those doors? Upward mobility into the literary cosmos. Access approved.

“Here are some publishers. Some publicists. Agents of dissemination whose presence in your life negates the need for self-promotion.”

“Leave the blog behind. Self-publication is for the uninitiated.”

All in my imagination, of course. I’ve only been nominated. I haven’t inherited the Chocolate Factory yet.

But more important than this? This newfound access? The money, of course. The fame. F-A-M-E. No Cyrillic typos in “FAME”. No bad handwriting (others will do the ghost-writing for you now). Just the word itself, in big block letters, a neon-illuminated sign.

Public lectures and private functions with guest lists. The nightclub narthex with the vanishing queue.

“Witness me then worship me.”

Honorariums worth what it used to take the whole summer to earn. All the glitz. All the glamour. All the praise. Inevitably corrupting.

Not good for the ego but good for the pocket. The equivalent of academic tenure-track for a freelancer trying to cobble together a living on 25 cents a word.

I repaired my car with the pay I banked for the Outpost article – a travel piece about a train ride across Mauritania. At the time, as I drove away from the mechanic, it seemed a great reward just to have new wheel struts. It didn’t seem to matter that the three-figure cheque had barely fifthed the cost of a trip to a Saharan country in Africa’s northwest.

A reminder then, that I don’t write for money, for fame. Those words are there because they’re deeply embedded in my person. Because without this form of self-expression I am but a vessel of half-formed, swirling, unedited thoughts – thoughts without elocution, refinement and excision.

What did they do before the written word? Orated, I suppose. Without the electrics to power this blog, without the ink-wells to blot an A4 page, I’m sure I’d soon learn to speak properly too.

But I have this privilege – the privilege to not merely speak but also to write. It’s incumbent upon me to make the most.

I would like to believe that merit alone matters in this market.

But, “Christopher Augustus Elliott”. The whiteness is self-evident and my surname is soon to be hyphenated.

The fact of my white skin is a fact of genetics beyond my control, but the history which privileged it is one I should all the while acknowledge. Yes, I was born this way and without my permission.

But these words are all middle class, all private school, all three square meals with space to think and travel. There’s no real struggle here. Just words on a page. Phonemes on a blank blog template. Or however you wanna put it.

Born in Australia with the right to live and work in two Western countries. Raised in suburbia. But close enough to the city limits to escape, at will, to wild places. Before returning.

There are many places where others were born. But I was born in none of them. Not in a refugee camp. Not in some urban hood. Never the birth-written subject of some Ta-Nehisian riff – like one of the ones that inspired this screed.  So how lucky am I?

Lucky enough to be nominated, anyway.

Dresden,_Zwinger,_Mathematisch-Physikalischer_Salon,_Louis_de_Silvestre,_Personifikation_der_Fama,_Figur_1

The Personification of Pheme, Louis de Silvestre

 

FYI, And in Case You Were Wondering…

 

For those wondering who I am.

I am a writer, yes. But I am not a journalist in the news-man sense.

I was once a soldier, yes. But I have not served in uniform for a number of years. My military background helped shape how I view the world but it is not central to who I am anymore.

I am an academic now. The word “anthropologist” is written right there as the first word of my Twitter bio.

This means I spend my days as a recording instrument (an imperfect and completely fallible one) – examining social structures and documenting cultural practices. I am an outsider looking in on foreign systems.

One of these systems is Australia’s Special Operations Command – an institution to which I have never belonged nor sought to join.

As with my credit card and social insurance numbers, other unmentioned specifics about my person are reserved for employers and others who need to know.

All my public writing has occurred post-service and through the lens of somebody who has been anthropologically-trained. I don’t write about infantry minor tactics or TOETs for basic weapon systems although I could probably still operate a 66 or an 84 if I had to.

That said, my usual choice of topics tends to reflect former lives and many people I use as sounding boards for ideas (especially on controversial issues) were individuals I met while in uniform. They were my colleagues. They are my friends. My love for them is real and I hope that it’s mutual.

Some of them deployed with Australia’s Special Operations Task Group to Afghanistan. Some discussed the details of unsavoury things with me. Some are still serving. I, however, am a former.

I use the phrase “former soldier” in my public writing because I don’t self-refer as a “veteran”. A personal preference because I never thought I earned the status my Granddad earned when he helped liberate Kokoda.

My great-grand-uncle Major J.F Walsh was the first Queensland officer killed at Gallipoli – nailed by a bullet through the spyglass of a spotting scope while conducting a reconnaissance of an elevated machine gun position.

Still, I have never marched on ANZAC Day. At dawn every 25th, I prefer to reflect on the meaning of sacrifice while alone on a run, or away in the bush, or up on a granite wall – not out at the memorial monuments. Not everyone finds the same meaning through the same rituals and I have reservations about religions of the state.

My main interest is in data and analysis, not in credentials and personalities. Discussions about military topics are not the sole purview of those whose primary pre-occupations are pissing contests and medal counts.

In an academic round-table, I am less interested in whether or not someone has a PhD and more interested in what they have to say.

Key points to note – focus on the facts, not the personality and the qualifications behind the byline.

People don’t like “experts” these days anyway, remember?

So. I won’t ask you about your gongs if you don’t ask me about mine (I don’t wear my militaria anyway). Nor will I ask after the legal first and last names behind your anonymous social media avatars. Partly because a name is just a name but mostly because I don’t care.

 

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.”

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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.