In April 2019 the head of the Australian military, army general Angus Campbell, who was a career infantry and special operations officer, ordered that members of the Australian military halt the use of “aggressive” symbols like Spartans (ancient Greek soldiers) or fictional characters like the Phantom or Punisher (and more to come given the proliferation of violent video games out there) as well as the grim reaper, skull and crossbones, and similar symbols that were not in line with Australian army values and the ethical armed forces Australia sought to build and sustain. The announcement generated some revealing reactions.
While few of these symbols are used for official insignia by combat units, many are used unofficially for banners, clothing and for large bombs and missiles used in combat. This order was met with incredulousness and unprintable comments by Australian combat troops, especially combat veterans of the many wars and peacekeeping operations Australia has been involved in.
The veterans, military historians and medical professionals (who treat those suffering from combat stress) could have (and many already have) explained to the general that these symbols are part of the psychological conditioning used to prepare troops, especially infantry, for the stresses of combat and its aftermath. After all, infantry training is often referred to (by the students and instructors) as schools where the students learn how to “break things and kill people.” The combat stress suffered by troops who see sustained combat over months or longer is recognized as a debilitating condition and a number of odd (to civilians and even many non-combat troops) practices were found useful in dealing with the problem. This was particularly true as many American troops saw sustained and very stressful combat after 2001.
For example between September 11, 2001 and 2009, nearly 5,000 troops were evacuated (as medical cases) from Iraq and Afghanistan for mental disorders. Only 16 percent of those were confirmed PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) cases, the rest were for more familiar things like severe depression. This was because most of the troops in Iraq and Afghanistan were not involved in combat. Yes, they were living in a combat zone, but aside from an occasional mortar shell or rocket (which usually causes no injuries), most troops tended to have air conditioned sleeping quarters, gyms, Internet access, video games, good food and excellent medical care. It's unclear how many troops actually have PTSD, although many who are in combat, definitely are stressed out and in need of help. One useful therapy for combat troops, while in the combat zone and later as a treatment for PTSD, was playing violent video games. This seemed illogical but it worked.
PTSD (also known as shell shock or combat fatigue) was first noted after the American Civil War (1861-5). That war was one of the first to expose large numbers of troops to extended periods of combat stress. The symptoms, as reported in the contemporary press were not much different from what you hear today. In the mid to late 19th century affected veterans were diagnosed as suffering from "Irritable Heart" or "Nostalgia." Symptoms noted included fatigue, shortness of breath, palpitations, headache, excessive sweating, dizziness, disturbed sleep, fainting and flashbacks to traumatic combat situations. Many of these symptoms were noted while troops were still in uniform. During the 20th century, the condition was called “shell shock” during World War I and “combat fatigue” during and after World War II and came to be known as PTSD by the end of the century.
The use of the now banned (in the Australian military) symbols arose spontaneously among troops in heavy combat (including peacekeeping or counter-terrorism operations) where the troops faced danger on a regular and sustained basis. Combat commanders (NCOs and junior officers) also getting shot at tended to allow the symbols to be used. Motivating combat troops and maintaining morale (and sanity) is very much a school of “whatever works.” But the further up the chain of command you go the less influence combat psychology has and the more concern is shown for what the politicians and voters are concerned about. At the most senior levels of command, which some troops refer to as “echelons beyond belief” it is expected (by combat troops) that decisions will be made that make life more dangerous and unpleasant for those doing the fighting. Thus if the Australian ban stands, other practices will be discouraged (or already are in some countries) like putting impolite messages on bombs and shells. What it comes down to is a clash of cultures. Those getting shot at and trying to cope with the prospect of getting killed develop a different outlook than most of those back home reading about it or seeing video of troops and their symbols.
Bans like this are part of a trend that began in the late 20th century with bans on aircraft “nose art”. For example in 2013, following the example of the U.S. Air Force, the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps ordered the removal of racy photos, pinups, and the like from all workplaces. Follow-up inspections were to be held annually after the initial inspection. This particular ban began efforts to get racy pictures of women off aircraft, along with less sexual (but often more threatening) symbols.
In late 2012 officers and senior NCOs searched all offices, workshops, and other work spaces in the air force and removed any images or material that demeaned or insulted women. Mainly, this meant pinups, but some inspectors erred on the side of career security and removed anything that hinted of a bad attitude towards women. Many airmen feared this would also include pictures of wives or girlfriends in revealing beachwear but there was little of this. No protests were tolerated and the decisions of the inspectors was final. This was all meant to reduce the number of assaults on or other mistreatment of women. Previous efforts to eliminate this bad behavior have not been completely successful, so the extensive hunt for offending images was ordered. The air force did agree to spare the racy examples of nose art on air force combat aircraft in its museums.
The 2012 crackdown continued a U.S. Air Force tradition of cleaning up their image that began after World War II. In the last few decades the navy has been trying to catch up. Not all members of the air force go along with this effort. For example, in 2011 Google supplied satellite photos revealing something the American military uses to help morale but that they would rather keep secret. In this case it was a Batman style bat symbol painted on the roof of a hanger in a U.S. airbase (Kadena Air Force Base in Japan). There are actually a lot of these roof paintings, usually representing the squadron (the Batman symbol was for a fighter squadron known as the vampire bats). Once pictures like this became widely known some commanders ordered the symbols painted over. Wiser commanders tended to let them stay. But the trend is towards playing it straight and humorless. Even the navy and marines have got with the program and the army reluctantly followed suit.
All this use of morale building symbols has had a hard time in the last few decades, as commanders ordered them removed because they were often not politically correct. For example, in 2007, the British Ministry of Defense found out that Harrier pilots and ground crews in Afghanistan had painted racy images ("nose art") on their aircraft. The brass ordered the troops to cease and desist. In addition to the possibility of women in the Royal Air Force complaining (none ever did), there was the risk that some Afghans would be offended. No Afghans have complained either and Afghan men who had seen the nose art usually studied it intently.
The concept of nose art was first seen during World War I and flourished during World War II because of enthusiastic efforts by American pilots and ground crews. The practice was quickly adopted by their British counterparts. From World War II through the 1950s, U.S. combat aircraft often had customized, and unofficial, cartoons or insignia painted on the front portion of their aircraft. The illustrations were usually created by someone on the ground crew and personalized the aircraft for the crew. It boosted morale. During World War II the practice was also adapted for some combat vehicles and small ships in many countries.
The practice largely disappeared after World War II. In the mid-1950s, U.S. Air Force commanders decreed that the nose art was "unprofessional," and by the 1970s, most of it was gone. It managed to survive in some reserve units but was forbidden for active duty aircraft. The air force says the official reason for the policy has to do with security and "sanitation." Basically, it's become part of the air force traditions not to have nose art.
In 2006 two retired air force sergeants, and some commercial artists, began campaigning to bring back nose art. Some senior air force commanders were favorably disposed towards this and the air force was keen to boost morale, as the air force was then going through a period of personnel retrenchment (cutting 40,000 people) and tight budgets. Allowing nose art would not cost anything, as it would be voluntary and up to units to find artists and materials for creating it. So it was allowed to return. Sort of. Like bureaucracies everywhere, changing something like this was difficult. Many air force bureaucrats resisted but the nose art began to reappear. No scantily dressed women were allowed on the new nose art and the practice continues to encounter resistance from senior commanders.
Actually, the nose art never completely disappeared. This was particularly the case with the Air National Guard (a reserve operation, with units controlled by state governments when not called up for federal service). The state politicians were more inclined to look the other way, especially since some of those politicians served in Air Guard units. Regular air force units are increasingly sporting nose art and hoping that their roof art will also be spared the wrath of the politically correct. Pinups in the hanger or warships are another matter and are, for the moment, banned just about everywhere in the American military.
The latest Australian ban may, or may not, extend to troops wearing the forbidden symbols off-duty or on T-shirts worn under their combat uniforms. Then again if there is another period of major combat and more civilians are turned into soldiers the symbols will quietly return and become, for the duration of the national danger, politically correct.