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Incoming! The lure of the military cliché

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COMMENTS

14 March 2012 14:28

If you're in the business of military metaphors and clichés, then business is booming this week.

In case you hadn't noticed, there's been something of a spat between Defence Minister Stephen Smith and the Australian Defence Force. Military puns have been flowing like the booze at a regimental dinner. Normally restrained journalists have been drawn to military clichés like racist soldiers to a Facebook wall. The Sydney Morning Herald opines in today's editorial ('Over the top at defence') that 'trench warfare is ugly and often interminable'. That's true, as true now as it was a century ago, but its a strange way to start a discussion on a political-military dispute in 2012.

Journalists and commentators everywhere have been reaching into the war chest (oops!) for familiar military terminology. Why, in the past week alone, Stephen Smith has been sniped, copped flack, jumped the gun, took a lone stand in a stand-off, came under fire, then came under heavier fire in a media ambush, spent weeks taking public pot shots, demanded a point-blank firing, and all this after attempting to scuttle his own position as Defence Minister.

Such was the power of the military metaphor that some journalists became intoxicated. Laurie Oakes thundered: 'the gallant defenders of Fort Fumble, aka Defence HQ in Canberra, have heard the bugle call and trained their guns on a new enemy. Stephen Smith, they cry, is unfit for office and must resign as Defence Minister'. It's important to note that Oakes' generals do not voice opinions, but rather 'cry' — presumably, like Shakespeare's Anthony, as a precursor to havoc, pillage, and chaos.

But the award for military metaphor of the week goes to SMH columnist Mike Carlton, who instructed: 'So, special sea duty men close up. Hands to stations for leaving harbour. Best if the minister were to be towed out to sea and sunk by gunfire, to become an artificial reef for fish.' Curiously, Carlton had previously criticised former colleague Alan Jones for calling for the disposal of political officials at sea.

Words are bullets. The language we use shapes the parameters of debate, sets the possibilities of discourse, and frames perception and bias. In the debate over Stephen Smith and the ADF, the language of commentary exposes a lot of bias.

If you see the generals as 'the military brass' then you won't be surprised that they band together and are unreasonably unresponsive to external criticism. If your military reference point is the Western Front of 1914, then of course you are preconditioned to see the Defence Department as a creaking, antiquated boys club. And if every second journalist tells you that the minister is under fire, then compromise and conciliation between the ADF and Stephen Smith looks impossible.

My bias is that I spent the better part of a decade in the ADF. I've known some military racists and homophobes and I've known some soldiers and officers of the highest integrity who've been willing to risk their life for the kind of values we've been idly discussing this past week.

There isn't one ADF 'culture'; there are hundreds. The workplace culture of Defence HQ in Canberra is very different from that of an infantry regiment in Townsville, or the Defence Science and Technology lab in Melbourne, just as there are differing cultures between the head office of BHP and a mine in the Pilbara.

For the record, I think Stephen Smith's decision to call out Bruce Kafer's actions was problematic. When all media briefings flow through the Defence Minister's office, the inevitable result is that all defence issues become political. I don't think Smith should have offered running commentary on personnel and disciplinary decisions made by officers. But that doesn't mean he should resign.

Being Defence Minister is an incredibly tough job. How tough? This incoming government brief Smith received in 2010 lends some sense of what it means to be responsible for the toughest portfolio in government. So if the Defence Minister made a mistake on this one, then let's call it even for the false information he was given on the amphibious fleet last year. Then lets get on with the job of shaping Australian military strategy for the Asian century.

I am sympathetic to the concerns that some in the military and Defence Department have about just how committed to defence reform this government is. There have been plenty of reviews in the past two years which have gone a long way towards unearthing problems in our increasingly complex defence organisation. But reviewing is not reforming. The litmus test of government commitment to defence reform will be on 8 May when Australia's budget surplus materialises. If that surplus is achieved by a cunningly camouflaged lightening raid on the Defence budget (sorry, last one), then all this talk of reform will prove to be exactly that — just words.

Photo by Flickr user Thomas Hawk.

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