Diggers keep larrikin spirit alive
The Australian flag stands out amid dust and harsh terrain as our soldiers patrol Oruzgan Province in Afghanistan. Photo: Corporal Hamish Paterson
BELTING golf balls into the hostile enemy terrain of Afghanistan from inside a secured perimeter may not be the most effective way to dispatch the Taliban.
But it sure sounds like a great way to blow off a bit of steam when you are part of an Australian military force that has given so many lives in pursuit of an end that, it seems, is less likely than ever to be realised.
Almost every year when Federal Parliament debates Australia's Afghanistan commitment, the prime minister of the day says words to the effect that it is with a heavy heart that he/she must concede that by the same time next year more of our troops will probably have died there.
That weighs heavily on the families of those who are deployed. And even more heavily on the men and women on the ground. For who among them would be remembered as the last Australian Digger to be carried up the ramp in a box, as Australia prepares to decamp from a war that it, our American and NATO allies, has virtually conceded?
Professional soldiers on deployment, Australian or otherwise, will tell you that their jobs involve long periods of tedium and boredom that are punctuated with brief bursts of excitement and the adrenaline that only the exposure to life-threatening danger can bring.
In every conflict involving our soldiers since the Boer War, Australians have managed to find ways to make their time inside camp - and their rec leave - more tolerable.
And so, late last week we also learnt that some of our Diggers in Afghanistan are wont to kick footballs around in tactical positions; stand around bonfires near the enemy zone; sunbathe shirtless when they ought to be more vigilant and listen to music on duty.
And there was this: the Diggers occasionally greet helicopters at landing zones while wearing thongs and t-shirts. While there are doubtless some serious health and safety breaches attached to such sartorial understatement, it is hard not to be struck by its resonance with the Australian Digger's general untidiness and refusal to salute the heads, from Mena, Marseilles and Gallipoli to Damascus and London.
This has, of course, contributed to the time-honoured image of the "Digger", equally grounded in myth and fact, which continues to be perpetuated by our political leaders.
Fairfax Media's David Wroe disclosed that the stupid and potentially dangerous malfeasances above were catalogued in a post-operation report by Lieutenant Colonel Chris Smith, a former commanding officer of Australians in Afghanistan. The army later released parts of the report.
It all sounds pretty consistent with what we have come to regard as the "larrikin" behaviour of Australian troops in war zones across the world since colonial days.
But what Smith and others have inferred from the behaviour is actually more significant than the misdemeanours themselves.
Smith is reported to have said that young Australian soldiers had developed a "distorted and fanciful perception of wartime soldiering" from "stereotypical images of Special Forces soldiers and characters from films and computer games".
"The hyperbole surrounding the contribution of Australian soldiers in Afghanistan makes the soldiers feel entitled to be treated almost as Roman gladiators. They give the impression that they expect everyone, including their superiors, to lavish them with attention and unregulated time when between tasks."
Retired general Jim Molan astutely observed: "When the minister goes overseas and pats every soldier on the head and says 'You are doing a fantastic job', soldiers are going to believe it, and therefore why can't they take their shirts off. The real failure in any military is to believe your own myths and legends."
Aided by a largely compliant media that tends to deify the Aussie Digger on operation while overlooking his foibles - and human failings - it has always been the case.
And so it was that the newspapers rarely carried the stories back during World War I of the Australian soldiers pillaging the fine cellars of liberated towns across the European western front, guzzling the contents and going on the ran-tan.
They didn't talk about their enthusiasm for whoring in the estaminets close to the front line, of the astounding prevalence of VD or of the pillaging from the dead, including allied troops. And they certainly didn't talk about the murder of Middle Eastern natives by the revered Australian Light Horse, immediately after the war in Palestine. This extreme behaviour was aberrant, of course. Nonetheless, it made little more than an awkward footnote in the official Australian history and was left to others, generations later, to deal with.
When the Americans finally arrived on the western front and fought beside one another under Australian command in 1918, they shared a strong antipathy towards the British heads.
"Some aspects of Australian behaviour, however, were repugnant to the Americans. The 'systematic looting of the American dead … was a case in point. Australian officers were said to have dismissed such incidents in a 'light-hearted manner'," according to the Australian War Memorial Journal.
" … the lengths to which some Australians were prepared to go was nothing short of disgraceful. The commander of the 27th Division, Major General John F. O'Ryan, while full of approbation for the Australians, could not hide his revulsion at the knowledge that an Australian soldier had allegedly cut off a dead American officer's finger to acquire a ring. O'Ryan clearly did not doubt the veracity of the claim, noting that the Australians were well known for moving 'over the fields with gunny sacks seeking whatever was of value'. It was suggested that ill feeling from such incidents was offset by the lavish praise the Australians directed at the Americans."
This didn't make the papers at the time. It hardly fitted with the myth of the white-hatted, egalitarian Digger that already had - and continues to - define Australia's emotional image of its service personnel.
Australia's soldiers will view and portray themselves in the way we want them to.
If they belt a few golf balls into the Taliban's scrub at the tail end of a lost war, well … worse could happen.