Push to Ban Weapons Advertising at Canberra Airport - op'ed by Dr Sue Wareham

Monday 25 July 2016 : Opinion Piece – Canberra Times

Push to Ban Weapons Advertising at Canberra Airport

Have you been to Canberra Airport lately?  If not, you would not yet have seen the very welcome images promoting our city – specifically our 100 per cent renewable energy target and our leading educational institutions – that have replaced some of the advertisements depicting Australia's readiness to go to war. A much better welcome home or welcome to visitors.

The airport must be congratulated, but unfortunately not yet in the "full marks" category. Significant weapons promotions remain, inside and outside the terminal, and with them the question: just who are advertisements for fighter jets, armed drones and submarines aimed at? Most travellers are not really in the market for any of them.

Some argue that the ads are targeted at the defence bureaucracy, to help them choose the best equipment to keep our troops and our nation safe. However, the notion that a glossy advertisement at an airport, placed by a company that wants tens of billions of our dollars, will help deliver us the best security is absurd. It raises serious questions about the decision-making process by which our military purchases are made.

Setting aside for a moment the issue of who these weapons ads are really targeted at, one is also struck by their "misleading and deceptive" nature. The purpose for which weapons are built – to kill or aid in killing – is hidden behind the slick sophistication that epitomises modern advertising. When weapons are used, however, there is no glamour or prestige; it is simply messy and ruthless. The results are invariably brutal for someone, and that someone is generally a civilian. 

Over the course of the 20th century, the major impacts of warfare shifted. Unlike the situation in World War I, where a majority of those killed were combatants, most victims of conflict today are civilians. Millions of individual lives are destroyed, communities are shattered and environments polluted.

In the "war on terror", we do not know how many civilians have died; they are ignored in official statistics. However, the total death toll (including civilians) from the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan was estimated in the 2015 report Body Count, by International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War affiliates, to be about 1.3 million people. Destruction of this magnitude instantly makes weapons radically different from normal commodities being advertised to consumers.  

And yet while the airport, to its credit, declines to advertise activities such as gambling because of the enormous social harm it causes, the promotion of large weapons systems remains. It would also be unthinkable to advertise small arms in the same way. As a society, and particularly since the 1996 Port Arthur massacre, we have decided that guns must not become part of our culture as it is so disastrously in the US; we are much the better for it.

Why then would we want to normalise, by advertising in public places, weapons systems that are associated with death and destruction on a far larger scale? Why would we want to allow images of fighter pilots portrayed as cute little children, as BAE Systems have displayed at the airport, or Northrop-Grumman's armed drones that enable illegal killings in countries with whom Australia is not at war?

To return to the key question: Just who is being persuaded to buy big-ticket military items? As the vast majority of us are guaranteed not in that market, the message appears to be that spending huge amounts of our taxes on weapons is good for us; they deter war and provide "security". But do they? Did all those Dreadnoughts before World War I bring peace and security, or simply help fuel a global conflagration?

This is not to argue against the place of weapons in defending Australia against invasion – a prospect that this year's Defence White Paper rated as "no more than remote". It is to argue against the normalisation, by inappropriate advertising at a major gateway to our national capital, of a world awash in weapons.  

Australia has been constantly at war since 2001. While Australians pay deep respect to those killed in battle, for many people there is a profound sense of grief that we forget the lessons from one war to the next, even as we solemnly utter "Lest we forget". Lest we forget who really profits from wars and from endless preparations for them.  

Many Canberrans know that the Snow Foundation, co-founded by the airport's executive director, Terry Snow, provides valuable funding for a range of important health, social welfare, educational and other community initiatives. Unfortunately, there is a huge disconnect between these good works and the destruction of whole communities wrought by the weapons industry whose advertising the airport still accepts. 

 Dr Sue Wareham is convenor of No Airport Arms Ads and Branch Coordinator of MAPW Canberra