I know you’ll be as shocked and disappointed as I am, but someone on television said something stupid last week.
George Negus and Yumi Stynes, on a morning talk show that no-one watches, made some smartarse comments about the intellect of an Australian soldier (or as headlines unemotionally put it, an “Aussie war hero”). The chap in question was Ben Roberts-Smith, an SAS corporal who recently won a Victoria Cross. The comment boards, radio, and news-report talking heads veritably exploded in a kind of indignant patriotic hyperventilation.
This all came to my attention when a friend in the defence force posted a Facebook note addressed to Stynes. At the time I’d never heard of her, and was wondering whether she was one of the now-adult Tin Lids, until I dug through the brain-crud deep enough to remember that their dad was Jimmy Barnes, not Jim Stynes. Having laid that crucial matter to rest, I read the following.
“An NCO in SASR is a man specially selected and trained to lead similarly selected and trained men into harm’s way to achieve objectives of national importance to Australia beyond the range and scope of conventional forces. They most often do this in either non-permissive or outright hostile environments at great personal and mission risk.”
“These men have not only prepared for and passed the infamous ‘Cadre’ Course to be accepted into the regiment, they have committed countless hours and days to their physical and professional development. A commitment almost unimaginable in today’s gentle society.”
“The NCO among them has been identified, further trained, and assessed as capable to lead them. Split-second decisions hold life-or-death ramifications for them, their mates, and their adversaries.”
“You sit on a couch, and gossip. Who do you really think should look for their brain on the bottom of the pool?”
Compared to other responses, it was accurate and dignified. But I also wondered at just how its author – someone normally impassive to society’s ignorance about the armed forces – had been stung enough to write it.
This may surprise you, but Network Ten’s The Circle is not in fact one of the names muttered reverentially by comedians as existing at the finely-honed cutting edge of their craft. So here, looking at photos of an inordinately muscle-bound Roberts-Smith in a pool, its hosts went with that old classic about how attractive people aren’t particularly smart. (A blackface skit was presumably scheduled after the break.)
Negus took the cue to speculate that it would be sad if someone attractive (and therefore stupid) was no good in bed. “But that sort of bloke…what if they’re not up to it in the sack?” he asked, prompting Stynes to question whether he was suggesting the corporal was “a dud root.” The clap-o-meter was going wild.
The real traction for the offended, though, came from presuming that the “in the sack” remark referred to Roberts-Smith conceiving his children via IVF, as he’d discussed in a current affairs interview a couple of nights previously. How dare someone insult to the virility of the corporal’s manly sack-juice?
I want to stop you here. To the best of my knowledge, after some research on the issue, I’m pretty sure that being designated as “good in the sack” does not generally correlate to your ratio of impregnation per sex act. In fact, you might argue that one factor of sack-goodness directly relates to the efforts you undertake to ensure that precisely that outcome does not result. Many other criteria of sack prowess, at the same time, involve acts from which conception is a distinctly distant possibility. From personal experience, my girlfriends have generally been much more appreciative of my bedroom efforts when I don’t knock them up than when I do. Nothing says ‘sexy’ like a first-trimester abortion.
Nonetheless, the fury of the bored media-consuming public came down like a pillar of holy cleansing fire. Channel Ten’s website, their Facebook page, any outlet that ran an article on the story, was subjected to strings of sputtering outrage from readers. A large proportion of these were demanding apologies long after all the parties involved had already issued them, which didn’t show the most comprehensive grasp of the subject.
Then again, a comprehensive grasp on anything is not really indicated by comments like “I will never watch this The Circle again. What Ms Styne and Mr Negus said was totally inappropriate. Corporal Ben Roberts-Smith is helping to keep our Great Country safe from the Terrorism.”
Consider the following (asterisks belong to the artists).
“You Yumi are simply a vacuous inconsiderate mole, and George, if you’d be too gutless to say this to Cpl. Bens face. Both of you should have your tongues slit out.”
“Yumi Stynes you are a dumb gutless low life! You live in your little bubble you know NOTHING of sacrifice you low breed talentless bi*ch!”
“Lock George up and deport that inbred bitch Yumi!!!!!”
“It doesn’t surprise me that Yumi made comments like this when she’s part Japanese..Look how the Japs treated our men in World war 2..a total disgrace of a woman..Learn your history and respect Love and get off your high ****y horse.”
“…I am appalled by the comments made by an ignorant, half Jap Bitch and an aging journo with no balls…”
Ah, there it is. That curious chain of reasoning that says: my sense of decency has been offended. The best way to defend that decency would be to subject the perpetrator and all others in earshot to a stream of violent personal abuse in a public forum.
While it was Negus who initiated the more controversial part of the conversation, Stynes was the focus of the coverage and the criticism. Negus was attacked, but generally with less ferocity, or as an afterthought. Comments about him lacked the sexual aspect, and less of the implied or explicit threat of violence.
You can’t help concluding that the tenor of this response has a lot to do with Stynes being female (What the fuck would you know about soldiers anyway?) and a lot to do with being identifiably Japanese (Our Aussie diggers died to keep morning television safe from your kind.). Never mind that Stynes was born in Swan Hill, so deportation would be a tricky exercise even if we did have a Foreign Minister.
But why so much rage to begin with? We can only arrive at the contention that, according to the values of this vocal proportion of the public, no-one has the right to disrespect Ben Roberts-Smith because he was a soldier. As the ANZAC Day mythologising seeps deeper into our cultural self-view, we end up with a situation in which Aussie soldiers are rendered sacrosanct, and no criticism of them can take place.
This is a dangerous place to be. Australian soldiers are and always have been ordinary guys wearing one of a range of funny hats. They’re ordinary guys with a bunch of specialised training in a range of things important to their profession, and perhaps not enough specialised training in others. Some do the right thing, some do the wrong thing, most do at least a little bit of both. To treat them otherwise is dishonest.
Do I respect Ben Roberts-Smith, and what he does? Absolutely. In winning his VC he showed tremendous courage. At the same time, I’m also aware that the fighters he killed were just other men, with their own lives and personalities. In another circumstance, they could as easily have ended up fighting alongside him. None of us are born so very different, it’s just the paths we take from there that can diverge.
The trenches of WWI found Britons up against German friends they’d drunk with in London or Berlin, or half-German cousins who’d chosen a continental university. Of course those cultures live closer together, but there were the Arabs who fought under T.E. Lawrence, the Saudis who joined the liberation of Kuwait, the American covert operatives aiding Iraq against Iran or Afghanistan against Russia. Allies and enemies come and go like any other ghosts.
Sure, the comments about Roberts-Smith were unnecessary and tasteless. An awful lot of what’s said on radio and television is. So is a lot of what I write, so are a lot of the conversations we have every day. Yet we rarely see this kind of response. And sure, a Victoria Cross winner doesn’t knowingly put himself in the public spotlight by virtue of his deeds in the manner of an actor or athlete. But a VC winner happy to volunteer for interviews about his personal life on national current affairs programs can’t have quite the same gripe about being discussed publicly as the curmudgeon who goes back quietly to his cabin in the woods and melts his medal into an ashtray.
VCs don’t come along very often, and as many generations of commanders have known, a VC is more for the soldiers still fighting and the people back home than it is for the recipient. It lifts morale, gives a sense of achievement, of collective ownership of the struggle. “Our VC winners,” people say. By going public with his achievements, Roberts-Smith agrees to be part of that charm offensive.
So the comments were inane. Of course they were. They were made on a show that devotes half of its airtime to informercials promoting new ways to slice carrots. It’s not exactly contributing a lot to society. If a bunch of us were stranded in the jungle, Yumi would probably be the first to be devoured by wild pigs.
All of which just adds to the case for ‘who gives a shit?’ If a man can storm two machine gun posts singlehanded and emerge as the only survivor, I hardly think the not-so-biting satire of a couple of TV hosts is going to keep him blinking at the ceiling through the late hours. Given Ben’s work in defending us from The Terrorism, he probably doesn’t need Schlubhead from Donger Beach to volunteer to defend him, especially not with some charmless noise about killing or deporting the citizens that Ben is tasked to protect.
And yet the letters section of the papers have been full of it. The RSL has been making announcements. Federal politicians from both sides of politics are feeling the need to make their comments known. In the meantime, Syria’s on fire.
Time to get back in your goddamn boxes. And spare a thought for the people being forcibly put in theirs.