Tony Abbott and his media advisers probably thought it was a great idea to say he wanted to go out on operations in Afghanistan on his weekend visit but that the military brass stopped it because he was — according to the subtext the advisers wanted people to read — so valuable. At least it sounded a bit more gung-ho than missing a trip because of jet lag.
But the reasons the military probably objected was only partly to do with his safety and more to do with the safety of the troops and the need to communicate just how dangerous the place is and what a great job our boys are doing.
Military PR has become more and more sophisticated. It took more than a century for the brass to realise that having a reporter like Russell around during the Crimean War was a disaster for any attempt to promote our brave soldiers and a bigger disaster if you wanted to hide your incompetence.
From the Grenada invasion onwards the US military has been obsessed with controlling the message in a way which makes ALP apparatchiks look like the amateurs they proved themselves to be during the last election.
The US military now employs more PR people than any other organisation in the world. Part of their job is presenting a positive view of all things military; part is obscuring the disasters; and, an important part which helps with both is co-opting the media. There will be, under this policy, no more Vietnams where reality was broadcast into US living rooms.
There are many neocons and many military types who believe Vietnam could have been won if not for the disloyal media. Just as Douglas McArthur believed that with more troops — and the odd nuclear weapon — the Korean War could have been won. For anyone tempted to believe this nonsense a quick trip to the Cu Chi tunnels outside Ho Chi Minh City is a good guide to why their side won and the US were never going to. An enemy which can do this is very hard to defeat — as shown by Vietnam’s astonishing record of having defeated the French, the US and the Chinese in less than 40 years after the end of the Second World War.
Since Grenada, and particularly in Kuwait and Iraq, the military has made an art of embedding journalists. In both Iraq invasions it was probably not very dangerous as the speed with which both wars were concluded — at least in their first stages — demonstrated. There were to be no, or very few, Ernie Pyles and Damien Parers for generations of reporters to admire.
The embedded journalists are totally dependent on their protectors to channel the news. Indeed, few mainstream journalists have revealed as much about recent wars as soldiers who send email messages, with attached images, home and to their friends. The end result is that the new system is far more effective than old-style military censorship.
So Tony’s brave offer to go on patrol was doomed for three reasons. The notice was probably too short to organise a safe patrol; the war zone is dangerous enough to require massive resource deployment to ensure he was safe; and, the military want to keep reminding people just how dangerous it is.
Abbott probably knew none of this. He may have imagined that he could have ventured forth in his budgie smugglers and awed the tribespeople and the Taliban. Probably like John Howard during the guns buyback campaign he would have worn a flak jacket but in colours matching the smugglers and his tan. He may well have hoped for some great optics — as real as the stuff the embedded reporters send back.
But it was not to be.
However, it also raises a more fundamental problem about neocons — like Howard and Abbott and their US teachers — that most of them have never actually experienced a war. It’s easy to send someone off. It’s easy to watch the television footage and imagine that it is not actual blood, gore, agony and young people dying in pain crying for their mothers.
These are the same people who gave the US the vicious 2002 election campaign on behalf of the Republican candidate, Saxby Chamblis, against the multiple amputee Vietnam veteran incumbent, Max Cleland, accusing him of being ‘unpatriotic’.
In a just world they would be given the point position in an infantry patrol in the middle of the nastiest people and terrain imaginable. Sadly it’s not going to happen.