Courting controversy, Danish army style

by Tim Anderson (

Recently a number of advertisements for the Danish army have quietly appeared all over Copenhagen. They show a young, normal-looking man below the caption, ’there’s war in the world’. On the flip side is the same young man in a tank - he has obviously decided to join the army and fight the (good) fight. A few days after these ads appeared, I noticed that the street artists had not allowed this one to slip by them. ‘Kill4Maersk’ and ‘Kill4Bush’ stickers were quickly being pasted onto some of these ads. To gratuitously slip in a bit of pop-culture, we may not have started the fire, but we sure know how to keep it burning.

To the questions: should the army be recruiting in this manner? And is a response in the manner of the ad-hackers constructive in any way to the wider discussion?

All of this has proven to be a provocative subject for discussion amongst my friends, people who position themselves politically slightly left-of-centre, some less slight than others. Nonetheless, a couple of them have been surprised to discover that in spite of being self-labelled left-wingers, they found themselves arguing from the right to a greater extent than they would have believed themselves capable of or interested in doing.

Let me declare my position straight away. To me the army ads are not only highly visible, they are clearly one-dimensional and intentionally provocative. Imagery blatantly employed to call upon the Danish participation in the ongoing Iraq war is bound to be just that. Consequently, a reaction from those incensed that creating ads that effectively ignore the various controversies stemming from Denmark’s decision to join the Americans (and all that has occurred as a result) is not only to be expected, it is justifiable. Attempts to coax people towards a position without any discussion – as the army’s ads do - challenge my neutral instincts. These ads are advertisements for fighting, a crude recruitment tactic for the Danish army to take. The ad-hackers message is equally crude and unreasoned, but at least each and every person walking by the ads gets a short blast from both sides, rather than only one. I accept that most people probably don’t really care to think especially hard on the issue, so the ad-hackers tactics may not change anything. Ad-hacking should certainly not be the only means of reacting - more intelligent discussion is also clearly required.

To begin with let’s first consider the ads themselves placed by the Danish army. As a Canadian, I’ve have been brought up - some might claim indoctrinated - in a ‘peace-keeping’ culture. This is what Canadians pride themselves on when they speak of their global military role. The Canadian military, often under the guise of blue UN helmets, has for better or for worse offered its services in this way for decades to various hotspots around the world. The Danish army’s ads are not about peacekeeping. There is nothing wrong with this since not all countries use their armies precisely in the manner Canada does. But in its place I would expect some reference to the greater good that will come from joining the army. Peace and harmony - those things one perhaps idealistically hopes will spring from the aftermath of fighting are not at all the point in this ad. This disturbs me. I have a sense that the Danish army has far a far greater purpose and responsibility in recruiting than this ad suggests, but this ad could lead one to believe the army has all but abandoned that idea. I know it is only a single recruitment ad, but is this why people should want to join the army? Does Denmark really want an army full of those attracted by the chance to fight? I hope not.

Yet the ad-hackers message is equally controversial. I’m uncertain how many in Denmark would be overly offended by the ‘Kill4Bush’ suggestion, especially those like me still in disbelief that the Americans could pass up the chance to elect a thoughtful and dignified leader precisely when they needed one the most. It is debatable just how much ‘killing for Bush’ the Danish army has in fact done in Iraq, but their is a certain guilt by association that Denmark must be accepted in going along with the Americans – in particular that right wing 51.5% who voted for Bush again. The Danish army is ultimately subject to the whims of the Americans forces – the same force that has killed an awful lot of innocent Iraqi civilians (though the Americans have opted not to keep an official count of the numbers). So, I accept the ‘Kill4Bush’ signs. But ‘Kill4Maersk’? Bringing Maesk into the picture is something else. What does Maersk have to do with any of this? Should they shoulder any of the blame?

Well, perhaps.

Maersk was contracted by the American Department of Defence before the start of the current hostilities in Iraq to provide transportation and logistics for the troops, supplies, weapons and ammunitions. This is serious business, indeed. As arguably the most economically significant company in Denmark, Maersk’s influence is felt in many ways - just look at the not-exactly-inconspicuous Maesk-funded opera house in the Copenhagen harbour. Even if Carlsberg had managed to land a contract to supply almost every liquid substance in the desert, and Danfoss had quietly convinced the Americans that only fools would dare cross the hot sands of Iraq without a mountain of radiator dials for the liberated to regulate their heating systems, no Danish company stood to benefit from the war in Iraq from the outset more than Maersk. Is it possible that the Danish Prime Minister might have the loud and persistent whispering in his ear shortly before he opted to join the coalition of the willing? In any event could he have been influenced, or like Tony Blair, was his mind already made-up?

As one left-wing friend of mine rather indignantly argued, if war is inevitable and some will profit as a result – an old story - what does it matter if it happens to be Maersk getting some of the cash? A professional company like Maersk can presumably help the situation in Iraq, not hinder it, so their presence is probably a good thing. If Maersk wasn’t involved, somebody else would surely have taken their place. Nothing changes with or without Maersk.

Well, maybe, maybe not. Maersk has taken on a significant level of moral and ethical responsibility by participating directly or indirectly in the war. If a weapon they have shipped kills somebody, as was the case when they were supplying Nazi’s with weapons during the second world war (recently chronicled in a series of articles run in Berlinske Tidende), the company must accept their actions played some role in the killing – which is not to say that the killing may not have otherwise occurred. But where does their responsibility begin and end? And who are the people in Maersk specifically tagged with this responsibility? Is an open discussion about such sensitive matters not a necessity if there is any hope that conflicts of interest are avoided? The open question remains: are companies particularly well-suited for making sound moral and ethical judgements? What evidence exists to suggest they can be entrusted with issues that wider society in itself struggles to handle? Are governments any better? After years of business studies, culminating in a Masters Degree in Economics and Business Administration, the answers are not at all clear to me.

Clearly not all companies are evil, or destined to become so, but assessing this issue is a fuzzy matter. Google’s recent declaration in their shareholders prospectus that the company will strive to ‘not be evil’ does not prove if they are or not. Neither does it foreshadow an inevitable future lapse, nor guarantees the long-term saintliness of the company. It does acknowledge the issue, which is a start. Recent documentaries like ‘The Corporation’ conclude companies may even be psychopathic by nature. This is only one side of the issue. The Economist, in arguing that companies are not necessary doomed to spread evil, has consistently, convincingly and intelligently argued over the years that those governments who have set the strictest limits on private-business are also the ones who have most consistently ignored and violated their own citizens basic human rights. But The Economist is also cautious to sound a note of warning at any suggestion that private business should be handed the only set of keys to the car.

The moral implications of choices are most likely be considered by companies when they could have an obvious negative effect on short-term profitability. Just think of Nike taking fast action to improve the pathetic standards of many of its third-world sweatshops a few years back when the issue was a hot media topic. Yet today when buying an unbranded pair of shoes to avoid the ubiquitous Nike swoosh-thing, one is still left with no way of knowing what conditions those who made the shoes were under. But do we trust that Nike will in future not use its influence to argue against further regulation regarding their behaviour in the third-world countries in which they do so much business? How do we know that Maersk has behaved responsibly in the lead-up to the Iraq war when the issue of whether the Danish government should participate at all was still officially undecided? Did they quietly try to influence the government? It may have lead to an lot of uncomfortable questions if the largest company in a company formally against the war was making so much money from it. What has been Maersk’s role since? What assurance should their be that the delicate moral and ethical issues that surround a companies actions, tactics and influence are being appropriately considered and addressed? So we come to the heart of the issue.

Are we just to turn a blind eye to Maersk’s habit of wartime profiteering because they are (in this war) on the side of the 'good' guys? Is it too late to ask such questions? The silence from Maersk on such matters is hardly reassuring.

So we are back to the ad-hacking dragging Maersk into a criticism of the Danish army’s recruiting tactics. Are these constructive attacks to be making? Well, why not? Maersk is involved in the war, and the company is big and rich enough to take criticisms. There surely should be means for holding companies accountable for all their actions, and somebody might as well start somewhere. Not everybody can get the mainstream media to broadcast their questions and opinions and it’s not exactly easy to ring up to old Maersk himself to get his thoughts, as interesting as this might be.

In any event, I hardly expect to hear a reaction for Maersk the person or A.P. Moller the company on the matter. But if a few people see the ads and the ad-hacking, and think for a couple seconds about the moral and ethical implications of the actions of private business in wartime, that would be a good start. In the meantime, I sure hope those army ads disappear.

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