“The constant and jingoistic use of the word Digger is at the heart of the effort to secure support for a profoundly unpopular war.
Three Australian soldiers serving in Afghanistan were killed last week in what the obscurantist shorthand of modern war terms a ‘green-on-blue’ attack. This is tragic and inherently sad.
Dead in a sudden act of violence: too young, too soon … it’s universally poignant, in or out of war.
By now, a decade into this seemingly ill-starred conflict, we’re all well-schooled in the appropriate responses. Press conferences: from the Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition, the Defence Minister, the head of the armed forces.
The media kicks in, as shocked and dismayed each time as the last: more Diggers are dead, the casualty list mounts, public sympathy for the conflict is strained.
This is war, armed conflict. Why do these deaths take us by surprise? Why, in particular, do our politicians seem so shocked when the people they order into war – with all its implication of mortal risk – become its victims?
It’s not hard to sense the competing strains of awkward dualities in all of this. So many lines of tension and contradiction: between the public unease at Australia’s place in the occupying coalition and the almost bellicose jingoism of the press; between the enthusiasm shared across our mainstream politics for ‘staying the course’ in this necessary confrontation with terror and fundamentalism, and the routine shock and sad outrage from those same politicians that our troops might, in the course of that military intervention, become targets.
It’s a muddle.
One certainty here is the declining popular support for Australia’s presence in Afghanistan. According to the most recent Lowy poll:
Just a third (33 per cent) of Australians say Australia should ‘continue to be involved militarily in Afghanistan’, down seven points since last year and from 46 per cent in 2007.
That gives moments like last week a special awkwardness. There was a collective lesson learned through the Vietnam war that serving military can be unfairly sandwiched between a government determined to pursue a conflict in spite of public opinion and a public agitating to end that same unpopular war. Our fighting men and women are, after all, just doing their job.
The media’s role is complex … and interesting in how it hesitates to reflect public opinion of this latest war, an engagement (to generalise not so wildly) it supported from the outset and stands by now.
For proof of that, consider the prominence it gives to the sombre, elaborate pageantry of death. Last night’s news featured footage of “the traditional ramp ceremonies” as our latest Afghanistan fallen came home by air to Queensland’s RAAF Amberley and New South Wales’s RAAF Richmond.
Presumably these ceremonies have only been “traditional” since the arrival of large cargo aircraft and the ramps that deliver their contents, but “traditional” in this context lends gravitas … a sense that what we are seeing is steeped in military history, part of an honoured and honourable continuum, not just the sad product of a war most Australians struggle with.
The Australian media’s language and mood seem critical in the continuing prosecution of this war. Look at the angry, indignant protests this past week when Afghanistan’s president dared criticise the operation that brought two Afghan deaths in the pursuit of the man who killed three Australians.
This editorial from The Australian was typical of the tone:
Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s ill-tempered outburst over the raid to find the rogue soldier who killed three of our Diggers displays an absence of sensitivity and gratitude that does him no credit and ill-serves the relationship between our two countries.
Punchy and indignant to say the least. Never mind the issue of mismatched equivalence between three soldiers killed on duty and two men – a 70-year-old man and a boy – killed in the subsequent hot pursuit; the second set of deaths (anonymous, suspect) readily justified by the first (heroic).
Never mind all that. Never mind the oddness of this heated affront at what are simply the expressed views of the regime we are purportedly fighting in Afghanistan to nurture and protect.
Never mind “ill-tempered” and “gratitude”; in a funny way, the key word is “Diggers”, because here, in this one loaded word, we see the strands pull together. Here we see how between them military, politics and media seek to support a profoundly unpopular war by constant reference to something deep and almost unquestionably revered in our national culture.
Think what you like of our presence in Afghanistan, respect Our Diggers – men and women treading a path that has its origins in the honourable mass sacrifice of the early twentieth century.
It’s a proper noun, readily capitalised, and a headline favourite:
Diggers killed in Afghanistan on ‘black day’
Defence names diggers killed by rogue Afghan soldier
‘Tough day’ as fallen Diggers flown home to Australia
Wanted: Diggers’ killer revealed
‘Fair winds’ as fallen Diggers travel home from Afghanistan
Defence names fallen diggers
Afghan insider captured as Diggers hunt killer
Its repeated use draws a line from Afghanistan to the stiff-upper Aussie lip that confronted the years of almost generational slaughter in World War I. It gives respect to our fighting forces, whose deaths now are as real and violent as any in the trenches of Gallipoli or the Western Front.
But its use also recalls another similar circumstance: that our troops are in Afghanistan not so much through reason and necessity, but through the demands of alliance and realpolitik; heeding the call of a new century’s empire.
And that’s where the muddle begins … and where maybe the conflation of all this history lets us down”.
Jonathan Green is a former editor of The Drum and presenter of Sunday Extra on Radio National.