The growth industry of pollies in war zones
With the beginning of a parliamentary debate into the war in Afghanistan this week, the more localised conflict between Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott of trips to the warzone came to a periodic truce.
But the outbreak of the highly politicised PR war between the leaders over who was supporting the troops in Afghanistan more does bring us to an interesting question: what is the point of politicians hanging in war zones?
Earlier in the week the Greens Senator Bob Brown was asked by the 7:30 Report’s Kerry O’Brien why, as the leader of a party pushing for troop withdrawal from the war, he had not visited Afghanistan.
Brown initially gave a disingenuous response asking O’Brien “well have you been there”, but when pushed he came out with this response:
Well my understanding, my advice is that the spokesperson in Defence for the Coalition hasn’t been there either. John Howard had our troops for six years in Afghanistan before he went on a very quick visit. But let me make this clear: in going to Afghanistan, you have to be very careful that you don’t divert the time, the concentration, the wherewithal of our troops away from task at hand to looking after politicians who can be briefed equally well at home
Certainly, I would like to go to Afghanistan, but let me tell you, I am very concerned that in doing so wherewithal is taken away from our Defence forces to give us briefings back in comfortable circumstances where politicians end up in Afghanistan, briefings which could be given here in Australia. I would rather look after - make sure that the interests of our troops in Afghanistan are put before those of flying-in, fly-out politicians.
Brown’s point here isn’t a bad one. The notion that you have to get off a Hercules, have a big blue helmet and flack jacket strapped to you and be shown around a highly secure base by a some super human blokes from the SAS in order to have an opinion on the war is pretty ludicrous.
There is a genuine desire on behalf of leaders to meet and understand the people they have put in harms way through there decision to go to war. A combination of modern military technology and the kind of wars in which we are fighting has made such war zone day trips by politicians increasingly easy.
But as much as the trips are a product of modern warfare they’re also a product of modern politics. While Brown is correct to point out John Howard didn’t make his first trip to Afghanistan until six years after the war started, he made his first trip to Iraq with a beautifully timed ANZAC day visit in 2004.
It is a pretty easy formula once you have it down: plan an overseas trip, have about 12 hours spare on the way there or home, organise security, brief the very select few photographers, camera crews and perhaps journalists who are coming along under strict conditions that they can’t report anything until the leader is there, get some good shots in a flack jacket with receptive soldiers, eat in the mess with the lads and get on the plane and head to Tokyo or wherever it was you were going in the first place.
Howard started the modern Australian tradition of the Diggers visit, Rudd mimicked and now Gillard and Abbott are feverishly attempting to replicate with a twist. The politics of the warzone visit looks increasingly like a Zoolander walk off.
The consequence of this is that politicians have begun to trip themselves up in attempts to out do each other in support of the Diggers. While Gillard initially looked to profit politically off Abbott’s bad excuse that jetlag prevented him from joining her in Afghanistan, it may yet backfire on her following Abbott’s trip a week later.
Meanwhile Abbott managed to tie himself up it knots on his own trip. Deciding that it wasn’t enough to visit the troops, he wanted to become one and join them on patrol. Not surprisingly the army objected to the notion of the alternative Prime Minister taking a walk through IED country this time of year. Fortunately he got to fire off a few rounds, despite the fact he then decided releasing the footage (above) may not be a good idea.
None of this is restricted to Australia of course. President George W. Bush wins the prize for most stylish and dangerous entrance to a troops visit, landing on the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln in 2003. He then went on to deliver his “Mission Accomplished” speech which takes on a fable like status when thinking about the dangers of overly politicised troop visits (the aircraft carrier wasn’t actually in a warzone at that time either, it was off the coast of California).
Late last year former British PM Gordon Brown stayed the night with the troops in Afghanistan. The fact that he was the first Prime Minister since Churchill to spend a night with the troops in a warzone and slept in a “sheet metal concrete building” was pathetically trumpeted by his hacks in what was the dying months of his leadership.
But the point about Churchill is instructive on one level. That is, as seductive as it is to argue that our leaders desire to visit troops is some irrelevant politicised of the “modern media age” it is not. It’s always happened and they alway made hay out of it.
A few examples of modern political leaders visiting battlefields include:
- Abraham Lincoln’s visit to the Valley of Antietam in the American Civil War in 1862. He showed up a couple of weeks after a victorious battle in the area, but also in an attempt to give the commander of the Potomac Army Gen. George B. McClellan a push on to pursue to the Confederate army.
- A former solider and sailor Churchill loved hanging out with and visiting soldiers in war zones. He did so in the Middle East and North Africa in World War II on a couple of occasions.
- Dwight Eisenhower made a surprise visit to Korea as President elect in 1952 for three days, staying with soldiers, eating in mess tents and even flew a reconnaissance mission.
- Australian Prime Minister Billy Hughes visited Australian troops on the front in 1916, incredibly on the eve of the bloody battles at Fromelles and Pozires
Where these trips any more or less genuine or politicised than those of today? Probably not. But they were rarer and a lot harder to pull off, meaning they couldn’t be conveniently inserted into the political and media cycle.
Although our leaders do have a genuine desire to meet and thank the people whose lives they are risking, war zone visits by politicians unashamedly attempt to associate the popular support for Australian troops with their own.
Politicians have always tried to use war to get a boost - it’s just now they can do it and still be at APEC by dinner time.
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