The Politics    Tuesday, June 6, 2023

War on woke

By Rachel Withers

VC examines a portrait of himself at the Australian War Memorial, 2014. Alan Porritt / AAP Images

VC examines a portrait of himself at the Australian War Memorial, 2014. © Alan Porritt / AAP Images

The conservative media is choosing to defend a war criminal in order to win a culture war

“Going woke risks destroying the ADF as a real fighting force”. So reads the ludicrous headline on today’s column from The Australian’s Greg Sheridan, in which he argues the army is “now subject to a bewildering range of woke requirements”. This, apparently, is his takeaway from the “defamation court findings against Victoria Cross winner Ben Roberts-Smith” (it found him to be a war criminal, which Sheridan fails to mention), adding that we shouldn’t go “crazy” in response. Sheridan wasn’t directly defending Roberts-Smith; just the “warrior” culture that enabled him, as he rubbished “politically correct nonsense” such as rainbow morning teas. Sheridan’s stablemates, however, have gone much further. “Whatever else he may have done, his courage under fire can never, ever be disputed,” said Sky News host Cory Bernardi, arguing it was the army’s fault if the man was broken (quick, someone tell Sheridan). “While the vindicated journalists were happy to call the VC recipient a liar, a murderer, a war criminal, to the public he was still a brave soldier,” added Peta Credlin. The Daily Telegraph, meanwhile, published an editorial arguing “whatever happened” (war crimes) “happened in a white-hot time of war” (and who are we to judge?). It seems culture warriors are willing to defend a literal war criminal when waging their war on woke.

Conservatives have been bafflingly eager to keep defending Roberts-Smith, whom a judge last week found to have committed heinous war crimes (as I noted, the crimes were so heinous that the judge found that an unproven domestic violence allegation had not further harmed his reputation). Many were quick to argue that Roberts-Smith hadn’t been found guilty by a criminal court, that civilians didn’t understand the heat of war (it was his fellow soldiers who testified against him), and that those feeling schadenfreude at the fact a war criminal’s defamation attempt had backfired have questionable motives. It’s staggering that this is still going, considering the release of Justice Anthony Besanko’s scathing judgement, which found that Roberts-Smith was “not an honest and reliable witness”; lied, colluded, and tampered with evidence; sent threatening letters; and lied about his crimes for financial gain. As Age senior writer Michael Bachelard writes of the judgment, “where Besanko does make a call, it is firmly underpinned by the evidence,” something that should be a blow to those arguing “this is ‘just’ a civil case”. “Those people, including some writing in the News Corp papers who have backed him to the hilt, should spend some time reading this judgement,” Bachelard added.

It’s little surprise the Murdoch media doesn’t care for this judgement. After all, the judge also found that The Australian ran false stories, created by Roberts-Smith in order to intimidate witnesses and discredit the story. In any case, it doesn’t matter to the culture warriors what’s in it; all that matters is that the left is wrong, that Roberts-Smith is a hero, and that woke morning teas are destroying the ADF. Over the years, conservatives have been willing to take all sorts of morally questionable stances in order to wage their war on “woke”, whether that’s fiercely defending those accused of child sexual abuse (or who, at the very least, were aware of it and did little) or those accused of raping a colleague (or who, at the very least, had stories full of holes, and were willing to talk to Channel 7 but not to take the witness stand). At the end of the day, everything is about “wokeness”, whether that’s climate science, fried chicken, hot cross buns, the war in Ukraine, or the PwC tax leak scandal, which as Nick Cater wrote yesterday, is simply “a manifestation of the global crisis in woke capitalism”.

The right’s stubborn, illogical, anti–free media defence of Roberts-Smith, and the contortions they are willing to make to excuse the fact a judge found that he did kick an unarmed, handcuffed civilian off a cliff, is the logical conclusion of this anti-woke brigade. For years, Roberts-Smith has been untouchable; as now Liberal deputy Sussan Ley said back in 2012, when Ten host Yumi Stynes was being publicly eviscerated for daring to suggest he might be a dud root: “How dare you losers denigrate not just Cpl Roberts-Smith but everyone who wears the uniform of the ADF.” “You make me sick”, Ley added. We haven’t heard any such comments from her about the findings of Justice Besanko. The need to venerate our veterans at all costs, and to tear down the “woke”, has led many of the right to lose touch with reality, to the point that they are now suggesting that those horrified by war crimes are engaged in “fits of moral indignation”. “Of course, even in war, our soldiers are expected to act honourably, and it’s never right to harm prisoners,” wrote Credlin on Saturday. “On the other hand, we have to accept that terrible things happen in war.”

As the conservative media keeps telling us, terrible things do happen in “a white-hot time of war”: moral boundaries are crossed, civilians get killed, prosthetic legs of unarmed men – shot dead with a machine gun after being manhandled to the ground – are taken as trophies. And there is no moral boundary the culture warriors will not cross in their bid to win the war on woke.

Rachel Withers

Rachel Withers is the contributing editor of The Politics.


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