Commentary |
29 April 2021

Call us soldiers, sailors or aviators, but never warriors

Originally published in The Australian.

Rodger Shanahan
Rodger Shanahan

The language used by the Secretary of Home Affairs, Michael Pezzullo, in his Anzac Day message to staff, which was published in The Australian on Tuesday, raised quite a few eyebrows.

I had concerns, too, but less ­because of its alarmist phrases — “free nations again hear the beating drums (of war)” — and more because of the worrying way the author described military personnel. Nowhere could there be found a reference to soldiers, sailors or aviators, servicemen and women, or even ADF personnel.

Instead, we heard reference to warriors six times — including, perhaps in deference to the Amazons, a reference to our female warriors.

“Warrior” is one of those meaningless identity terms so beloved of certain groups that use it to connote aggression and a willingness to stand up for a cause or to attack those who don’t agree with their views. Hence, rather than politicians, ideologues or ecologists we now have political warriors, ideological warriors and eco warriors. There are also culture warriors, woke warriors and a myriad of others who have been given this appellation.

Surprisingly, but definitely comfortingly, the military in Australia has not normally been described in this way. Perhaps it was because military service was seen as exactly that — service to the country. People had a role to play in providing that service and the country had an obligation to support them because ultimately those servicemen and women were drawn from the citizenry and would return there at the end of their service.

In all my years in the military I can never recall soldiers describing themselves, or being described by others, as warriors.

But more recently there has been some effort made to craft an identity onto the role of servicemen and women that is at odds with what that service is about. Use of the word warriors to describe them places them somehow above other citizens, rather than just being performing their service. Books such as Warrior Training and Warrior Elite and events such as The Warrior Games round out a burgeoning identity industry that embraces the use of this word.

The problem is then defining what one means by warrior. The role of the infantry, which includes “killing or capturing the enemy”, would appear to qualify one as a warrior. Yet fewer than six months ago Bob Katter showed exactly how meaningless the term has become when he called for the sacking of the Chief of the Defence Force (a former SASR squadron commander and infantry battalion commander) by saying “he’s not a warrior”.

Were it just a case of semantics then this would be of relatively ­little import. But when senior public servants and politicians start describing military personnel as warriors and set them apart from broader society in some attempt to appear hard-nosed, they betray the whole nature of military service.

Earlier this week, US historian Bret Devereaux wrote a piece in the journal Foreign Policy entitled The US Military Needs Citizen-Soldiers, Not Warriors in which he argued that the recent American obsession with the term “warrior” was misguided and harmful. As he put it: “For the warrior, war is an identity. For the soldier, it is a job done in service to a larger community, polity, or authority.”

In Australia we need to look no further than the Brereton report to understand how harmful the focus on being a warrior, rather than a soldier, can be. The report’s unredacted sections used the term warrior 19 times, all of them in a context that criticised the emergence and maintenance of a “warrior culture”. As Brereton wrote in his report, special forces operators should pride themselves on being model professional soldiers, not on being “warrior heroes”.

In any case, in the modern operational environment, the idea of everyone being a warrior is meaningless and fanciful. As a soldier, I didn’t want my RAAF loadmaster to be a warrior — I wanted him to be someone who was master of his trade and understood his role in the broader mission. That goes for all the services and all the corps in the army.

The Brereton report criticised some of the domestic commanders of the SASR and said they bore significant responsibility for contributing to the environment in which war crimes were committed by embracing, fostering or failing to restrain the “warrior culture” that grew within parts of the unit. Given this, referring to ADF personnel as warriors should ring alarm bells that the lessons of the Brereton inquiry about embracing a warrior culture, if only in the words used to describe the military, may not have been absorbed by the senior civilian leadership.

Land battles are fought by soldiers, not warriors; aerial engagements by aviators, not warriors; and maritime operations by sailors, not warriors. It is time to expunge the term warrior from the lexicon of politicians and public servants and go back to describing members of the ADF as they really are — servicemen and women.

Rodger Shanahan is a research fellow at the Lowy Institute and a former army officer with operational service in the Middle East, East Timor and Afghanistan.