Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Parallel parking is war

There’s a great photo in today’s hardcopy Australian (unfortunately not online, AFAICT). Run alongside this article on page 5, it is captioned: “Taking no chances: an officer stands guard as evidence arrives at AFP headquarters”. It shows a man wearing a flak-jacket, helmet and goggles standing in (about 4 m out from the kerb) Latrobe Street in Melbourne’s CBD, apparently giving parking indications to an out-of-frame vehicle (an important car or truck, admittedly, by being itself, or containing, “evidence”). The man is not wearing a simple – and sensible in the circumstances, I would have thought – fluoro-vest, despite or because of all his other safety accoutrements.

This picture would make a suitable end-of-decade bookend to the usual 11 September 2001 images. Indeed, in 500 years time, when the latter images will be as forgotten as their counterpart money-shots of bombs exploding, etc, in World Wars 1 to n, this picture may well be as good a visual summary as anything of this decade’s (at least) Western-world lives and minds – the banality of body-armour, a philosopher in 2500 might sniff. “Paranoid drag” is what I would call it.

To understand the power and symbolism of this drag, measure it against the dress and personage the context, of parking helper, might ordinarily suggest: a fluoro-vest, worn by a lackey. That is, there’s a pointed inversion here – deliberate drag, rather than just a man in women’s clothes, as it were.

As it happens, this inversion is also quite concrete – simply juxtapose it again this fluoro-vest, worn by a lackey, image, and add a bit of background. The photo, of the entrance guardhouse at Sydney’s Holsworthy army base – of course, the principal ostensible target of the latest round-up of alleged terrorists – lacks both visual and human interest, so it is helpful to know that the fluoro-vest guy is an unarmed, civilian security guard, presumably employed by a multinational company that has the contract to run the entrance guardhouse at the base, and pays its staff much less than the ADF pays its soldiers. A soft target, indeed:

“Opposition defence, science and personnel spokesman Bob Baldwin said yesterday that if the alleged plot had been carried out, it was likely civilian guards at Holsworthy would have been killed in cold blood. ‘Unarmed civilian guards would have been slaughtered, absolutely slaughtered,’ Mr Baldwin said. ‘Now is the time to be proactive. Events overnight have shown that now is the time to introduce armed defence personnel to guard our bases,’ he said.” (same URL)

Au contraire, the Australian Defence Association’s Neil James – showing all the mettle of a brewery shop-steward in the week before Christmas, circa 1976 – says that, while a case could be made for arming civilian guards at major bases such as Holsworthy, the ADA opposed the use of soldiers as sentries:

“I would think about arming some of the private security guards. But a soldier’s job is soldiering - training for war - and not acting as security guards on the base front gate”. (same URL)

What James is really saying, I think, is that his union members, if they answered Bob Baldwin’s call for entrance-guardhouse duties, would simply have nothing to wear. Fluoro-vests are obviously out of the question, while flak-jackets would be too comically theatrical.

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