‘A Warrior Culture Steeped in Violence.’

What is the problem with that?

The titular phrase has been rattling around in my head since I heard it used during The Guardian’s excellent podcast, Ben Roberts-Smith Versus the Media, released in late October of this year.

It’s a gripping tale, and the producers have skilfully structured it as such. Different listeners will be drawn for individual reasons, but the one that draws me most powerfully is the idea that someone who has been awarded the most distinguished laurel in military service, possibly the highest honour our culture can bestow, is actually a psychopath.

And once you know that, there’s the uncomfortable fact he was awarded father of the year in 2013, in addition to being chair of the Australia Day council in 2014. Are there two versions of this man? Or, because of the way our culture structures identity, are we unable to reconcile one aspect with the other and therefore, can neither see nor understand him?

Part of what compels my interest is that culture seems so far behind the play where this is concerned. As I have previously written on this blog, the film Apocalypse Now, in its portrayal of Colonel Kurtz, effectively portrayed the drive toward military conquest as insane.

Kurtz confides in Willard, his soon-to-be assassin, the story of his own moment of revelation on the path to becoming a kind of wartime messiah. Kurtz explains that while he was fighting in Vietnam as a member of the green berets, he inoculated Vietnamese children against polio.

On return to the village some days later, he and his fellow American soldiers discovered a pile of little baby arms. The Viet Cong, upon discovering the American intervention, had cut the arms from the babies. Those soldiers are so single-minded in their desire to repel the invaders, they will brutally sacrifice their own innocent children to do it.

Kurtz broke down and cried his eyes out, before suddenly being struck by the ‘diamond bullet’ of recognition of the genius of their action. These men were moral, not monsters, but their resolve was so great they could do something so hideous and cruel in service of their ideal. ‘If I had a cadre of these men,’ says the colonel, ‘Our problems would be over here very quickly.’

As a teenager, I was struck by Kurtz’ moment of revelation, peeling him away from the ignorance of his society. As an older man, I recognize that ‘diamond bullet’ of revelation as a metaphor for a trauma so intense it had actually tipped him over into madness. 

In this way, the Viet Cong set for Kurtz a sterling example. Their logic was beyond the grasp of the conservative American military machine, who set out to assassinate him as a result. And the hypocrisy that got them there was ultimately a massive waste of lives and effort.

Killing other people is something profoundly remote from the experience of the average Australian. The question is, however, as long as there is the possibility of a ‘just’ war, there will be a need for warriors. And the instrument of the warrior is violence.

If that is true, then why are the SAS criticised for being a warrior culture, or employing violence to achieve an objective? Surely this is the judgement of a culture which is ignorant of the practical function of the military that acts in its name and interests.

Certainly, as a democratic country, the military are acting on our behalf. But how can we confidently judge them without any grasp of the logic of war, let alone a mind that has been fired in it?  

What else do we need to know, and where can we find it?

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