Operation Iraqi Cliché


At Christmas, all the clichés roll. There are the religious ones -sermons from Church-leaders about peace and goodwill, the gifts of the Magi, carols from King’s, Handel’s Messiah, the Queen’s Message, midnight mass.

More importantly perhaps, there are the military cliches – messages on ABC TV from our Boys and Girls serving overseas with the Australian Defence Force. The troops are suitably attired in combat uniform with tanks in the background. A Christmas message to the loved-ones back home never fails to produce a tear. (But we should not forget that the function of a tank is to demolish buildings, terrorise and kill people.)

I must admit I was somewhat depressed to see a picture in The Age of the Governor-General, Michael Jeffery, clad in camouflaged flak jacket and helmet, during his Christmas visit to our troops in Iraq. In case you don’t know, General Jeffery was, at one time, a Commander of the Australian Defence Force’s Special Air Service (SAS) regiment. And, by the way, he still stoutly defends our involvement in the Vietnam War.

As part of the Coalition of the Willing’s army of occupation in Iraq, the Australian contingent of troops has been visited several times by VIPs this year. There was the Foreign Minister, Alexander Downer the other week, not forgetting Prime Minister Howard’s visit last July. (I’ve heard it said that Mr Downer sometimes confuses Iraq with Iran, but no matter. A consultation of the trusty school atlas usually sorts things out.)

Thanks to Fiona Katauskas

To quote The Age, General Jeffery ‘sung the praises of the Australian troops.’ He said: ‘Australian troops had made an invaluable contribution to coalition efforts in the region and he felt privileged to join the troops for Christmas lunch and see the exceptional work they are doing.’ General Jeffery went on to say, ‘They [the soldiers]are the equal of anything I have seen in over 50 years of service with the ADF.’

This of a war that has brought misery, terror, torture and destruction to the Iraqi people. This of a war that even some US Republicans say America cannot ‘win’.

The clichés uttered by General Jeffery ‘superb command’, ‘well-trained’, ‘well-equipped’, ‘vital and varied tasks’ represent an acceptance of a war whose original purpose (the Western control of oil) has been buried by government propaganda and cultural inertia.

If one, for example, reads the despatches from the UK Independent’s Robert Fisk, one gets quite a different impression of the war in Iraq to General Jeffery’s self-congratulatory, straight-backed account. Jeffery’s version of the war and Australia’s involvement in it is similar to contemporary accounts of the Battle of the Somme during the World War I the carnage and the horror were shielded from the British public by the military clichés spouted by people like General Jeffery.

Our current Governor-General represents Kiplingesque values – for God, for King and for country –  which, although waning, will not quite go away. One sees them, for example, in the passing-out parade at Duntroon Military College, on Anzac Day, and in our veneration for the Gallipoli disaster. At times, it seems this is all our culture has.

Curiously, the notion of ‘service’ – a word so beloved by General Jeffery and his ilk – sits uneasily with a Government intent on destroying the public sector, disarming the trade unions and giving the private sector free rein. The notion of ‘public service’ went out the window a long time ago – except when it comes to the armed forces.

The idea of the Governor-General and the Queen’s representative in Australia is, of course, quite absurd – as are General Jeffery’s values. One can picture him, charging down the Valley of Death in the Crimean War in 1854; or, Webley gun in hand, going over the top at the battle of Passchendaele in 1917.

Despite the protest movements of the 1970s, the Vietnam War and the general cynicism of today’s young people, what might be called ‘Duntroon’ values are still strong in Australia. We still believe in military discipline and that God is on our side. Any attempt at a more thoughtful and subtle analysis of human affairs seems beyond the Governor-General, the Howard Government – and Her Majesty’s Opposition, for that matter.

Whenever I see Prime Minister Howard farewelling the troops, or the Governor-General clad in flak jacket and helmet, I am reminded of King George V inspecting a model trench in London’s Hyde Park in 1916. Surrounded by his aides and senior generals, the King – his boots superbly polished – is touching the carefully laid sandbag with his cane. Meanwhile, in France and Belgium soldiers are dying, smashed in the mud; and refugees are pushing their carts along rutted roads. The children are crying and the old folk are stumbling. And the guns are roaring.

I wonder what the Governor-General had for Christmas lunch?

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