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Death iconology: A reflection of societal expectations or a tool of national power?

There was palpable furore after the Chief of Army Angus Campbell announced the banning of “death iconology” across the Australian Army. This move entailed the banning of symbols and images such as the Punisher and the Grim Reaper on items like t-shirts or custom-made patches. Many veterans and conservative commentators labelled the announcement as ‘political correctness gone mad’.

As with most contentious debates concerning the trajectory of our cultural and societal norms, there were polarising views based on strong emotions. Australian Defence Force (ADF) personnel take great pride in observing their customs and traditions very closely. Because these symbols have been in use for a long time, there is a certain pride and tradition affiliated with them that should not be dismissed out of hand.

A significant amount of the uproar was the result of soldiers feeling like they were not given a thorough enough explanation. Given this change was made without a more detailed and humanised explanation, the announcement was quickly reviled.

When reflecting on why the Department of Defence (DoD) took this course of action, one possible explanation could be that the use of “death iconology” affects the attitudes of soldiers in an unconscious and insidious manner. While the announcement includes a passage on detailing how the use of these symbols ‘implicitly encourages the inculcation of an arrogant hubris', unfortunately it does not further explain this statement.

Part 4 of the directive admits how ‘without explanation some will rile at this decision’ and goes on to ask unit level commanders to “ensure my reasoning is explained”. This means it was left to unit commanders to try and explain the situation and the 'reasoning', without being given a more detailed explanation of what that reasoning was. Chief of Army Angus Campbell is considered to be an articulate and deep thinker. This makes it even more disappointing that a more thorough explanation was not offered, and instead it was left to subordinate commanders who might not have been as able, or inclined to articulate this reasoning as effectively.

There may have been other unexplained factors behind this decision. The DoD might have assessed that these symbols and the culture they help foster, negatively impacts on the ability of soldiers to effectively transition out of the military at the end of their service period. These symbols can be used to glorify killing for killings’ sake and thus contribute to a culture where soldiers see themselves as embodying death. If the DoD assessed that this mindset makes it harder for soldiers to integrate back into broader society, why was this psychosocial rationale not explained?

It comes down to how we view our service personnel, in particular the combat men and women who are expected to lay down their lives in service of their country. Do we see them as tools in the inventory of national power, or as members of society who are temporarily undertaking a period of military service?

If the DoD wants to hold soldiers to the same standard of behaviour as the broader citizenry, then they deserve more detailed explanations in line with this expectation. A more thorough and empathetic statement would at the minimum have made soldiers feel their concerns were at least being properly considered at higher levels within the DoD. If this is not perceived to be the case and the only offering is a short and limited statement, then it negatively contributes to the perception that the upper echelons of the DoD are out of touch elites. This perception can damage morale and is bad for organisational cohesion.

The ADF needs professional soldiers who can kill and die when required for their country. The DoD also simultaneously wants individuals who reflect the values and attitudes of broader society. The only way to foster personnel with both these qualities is to treat them as valued and informed members. Soldiers need to be spoken to rather than talked down to. It is contradictory that service personnel are expected to be upstanding professionals, but are not offered an explanation that treats them as such. If DoD wants to hold soldiers to a higher standard then it must hold its own handling of emotional issues for service personal to a commensurate standard.

The response to the announcement was so strong that the DoD seemed to walk back the proposed policy, by stating that commanding officers would be able to make special requests to retain a symbol or icon. While this subsequent statement shows that the DoD has been responsive to the furore, there has been no further explanation or context provided regarding the original decision. This lack of clarification was disappointing and may have left diggers feeling devalued.

There was always going to be significant backlash to this announcement. A more detailed and empathetic explanation could have mitigated against this, by providing more clarity as to why this change was required. A detailed explanation requires effort and shows not only rationality, but also caring. Caring signals value and this boosts morale and in turn increases capability. Conversely a lack of care decreases perceived value, which reduces morale and leads to capability loss. For a military with a small combat force, morale should be more highly valued.

Thomas Paterson is a Master’s student at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at the Australian National University.

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