Stephen Smith could be described as a brave man — indeed even a hero — in the real sense of the words rather than the debased usage much of the media and many militaristic politicos have adopted.

Approaching that time of the year when the words heroism, selflessness, sacrifice, courage sometimes get used in apposite contexts — rather than in reports on the weekend’s sporting events — we have a Defence Minister who might just challenge some of the assumptions that have been left unchallenged as a result of  PR and fear.

Every Defence Minister, and most Treasurers, knows that Defence is a mess. We buy expensive toys that we won’t use even if they did work.

We neglect equipment for the sorts of operations we do get involved in and we get surprised that people we train to kill other people sometimes behave in anti-social ways.

Trying to deal with that reality confronts a very successful form of framing and a network of individuals and interest groups who can be trotted out to support the status quo.

Many societies were very ambivalent about standing armies. The United Kingdom was probably the most famous example of this. Many societies have also celebrated militarism — the Germans and the US being the most famous examples.

These celebrations were always counter-balanced by the ambivalence of the first case and the actual experiences of people who served in wars. Except in Germany in 1919 there weren’t that many people who had been through World War One who were that keen on getting involved in another. Ditto World War Two.

Now, for more than 60 years, most of the population of Europe and Australia have never experienced combat — other than vicariously. This is still the case even in the US despite the fact that they have been at war almost constantly since the Revolution and even more frequently in the decades since the last world war.

This absence of widespread participation in military violence makes it easier to idealise military life and frame national defence around a narrative that doesn’t allow for any counter-narrative. This framing also locks into the fear, which is manufactured over the decades — in Australia’s case starting with fear of the French, the Russians, non-white people, the yellow peril, the red peril (Russians again even if under a different form of government), boat people and terrorists.

In fact no one, other than the British, have ever been that serious about invading Australia. I should say here (before the Crikey army leaps in) that the doubtful nature of the threat of Japanese invasion was irrelevant compared to the other compelling reasons for prosecuting that war.

Australia Remembers, the Anzac Spirit campaigns, the recent ritual attendance of PMs and Opposition Leaders at military funerals, the constant re-iteration of themes that accentuate fear all create a climate in which defenders of defence can metaphorically get away with murder.

That’s why we can seriously consider spending $36 billion on Australian-made submarines when we can’t crew the ones we’ve got and when we could buy off-the-dry dock versions from the Germans, which would be cheaper and better. We could wipe out much of the deficit with one rational decision — scrap the subs — but that’s one three-word slogan you won’t hear Tony Abbott mouthing around the country.

This framing in a climate of fear is made easier by platoons of pontificating military pundits (this is in honour of their tendency to rely on alliteration in between passing the port) — some representing the defence industry, some representing interests such as the Australian Defence Association and the RSL, and some plain old reporters who want to be seen as strategic experts able to opine on what are the best tanks and tactics for any given situation.

With some notable exceptions — Brian Toohey at the AFR in particular — their voices drown out opposition.

The campaign has been so successful that people who raise dissent have been effectively delegitimised. It is much easier to get a headline on “welfare fraud” than it is to argue for an end to defence waste and a hard-headed assessment of what our defence needs are.

This is the massed force ready to attack Stephen Smith. There will be leaks, opinion pieces, attempts to traduce him as foolish or unpatriotic deployed as tactics. The outrageously biased and misleading attacks by Alan Jones on the government about the courts martial system is an example of how bad it can get. He may be harder to undermine than his hapless and foolish predecessor, Fitzgibbon, but the attempt will still be made.

Most former defence ministers, except perhaps Kim Beazley, will be on his side although you can bet that none of his Liberal predecessors will come to his aid.

There are also many professional and honourable men and women in the military, or with a military background, who will support him.

But the framing is so strong, the PR campaign and the media coverage of the issues so predictable, that you would have to be brave or heroic to take it on.

*Ritual declaration of interest: the author is a former (very junior) artillery officer who served in Vietnam in the American War as the Vietnamese so accurately describe it.

Peter Fray

Help us keep up the fight

Get Crikey for just $1 a week and support our journalists’ important work of uncovering the hypocrisies that infest our corridors of power.

If you haven’t joined us yet, subscribe today and get your first 12 weeks for $12.

Cancel anytime.

Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

JOIN NOW