At fifteen, I thought I had a clear image of a soldier: a man cloaked in camouflage with shorn hair and battle-hardened skin; lace-up boots and thick vest; calloused fingers clutching a rifle and a voice lower than the depths of hell he was willing to fight in.
Obviously, my fifteen-year-old self hadn’t been introduced to the term ‘hegemonic masculinity’.
So when I saw the first image of Numan Haider, I didn’t recognise him as a soldier. He more closely resembled a civilian in his Adidas T-shirt, his beanie pulled low over his ears.
I was seated at a table in McDonald’s. Grease clung to my fingers and Dad’s arm pressed against mine as we curled around the open newspaper in front of us, our eyes absorbing the words with a speed that had them running together. The article that demanded such a reaction was an impressive display, stretching over five pages, full colour. Various images of the same young man accompanied the text, arranged to loosely resemble a timeline.
The first: an attractive young man with serious eyes sitting in the driver’s seat of a sedan, one hand gripping the top of the steering wheel.
The second: a bathroom selfie – the young man in a white button-up dress shirt and a thin tie, sleeves rolled to his elbows in a symbol of youthful resistance against formality.
The final: eyes peering through a balaclava, arms outstretched, holding a black flag inscribed with the Shahada, the image that had become synonymous with Islamic State.
Facts were fired in rapid succession. His name was Numan Haider. Age eighteen. Shot dead outside Endeavour Hills police station on 23rd September 2014. What I wanted to know was where he had kept the knife he pulled on the two cops. Maybe behind the smile that the photos didn’t show.
In the news segments and write-ups that followed, the media blamed his religion, blamed his mosque, blamed his breakup with his girlfriend. Each outlet branded him with a different title: misguided youth, quiet, fanatic, jokester. “From teenager to terrorist,” one article proclaimed, as though he couldn’t be both.
Overseas, Islamic State took his body, barely out of puberty, and displayed it as a symbol of martyrdom, held him up like a propaganda poster they forgot had once been alive. If you want to be a called a hero, it proclaimed, you have to fight like a man – die like one.
And all I could think was, Christ, look how young he is.
Why did he do it? Was he indoctrinated online – the latest frontier in the war between ideologies? Some scholars say that existential crises drive people to join terrorist organisations. Others argue that economics and food insecurity are the key forces. However, in the affluent west we inhabit, I find the latter hard to imagine. And I can’t speak for his view on the meaning of life. So the question persists: where did his ideas germinate? In an increasingly commercial world, perhaps the answer lies in marketing.
In their essay ‘Man-of-Action Heroes: The Pursuit of Heroic Masculinity in Everyday Life’, Douglas Holt and Craig Thompson, Professors of Marketing at the University of Oxford and Wisconsin, respectively, explored the pervasive idealisation of the ‘hero’ in western society. According to Holt and Thompson, this figure appears in multiple forms, ranging from entrepreneurs who founded empires, professional athletes who are lauded for their individual achievements, and renegades like Rambo and the Terminator. Within this culture, the man-of-action hero exists at the apex of the masculine hierarchy and is engaged in the “pursuit of self- and social reinvention in the never-ending quest towards perfection.” The hero is no passive bystander; he is the catalyst for revolution, both internal and external. It’s the same image we have seen countless times before: the lone rebel squaring off against the institution. Numan may have thought himself a soldier, but I’ll be damned if he didn’t die like a boy, soft flesh torn through by bullets.
Similar ideas of heroism—loyalty to a cause and triumph over staggering odds—are portrayed in the propaganda films released by Islamic State. The images of young men riding atop tanks or Toyotas, black flags thrashing in the wind, brothers in arms – everything screams victory. Islamic State is an expert at marketing the illusion that a perfect society can be forged through the actions of these young men.
The Australian Government, it could be argued, is no different in the way it promotes and markets the defence force. Cue the uplifting music and we’re-making-a-difference montage. Cut to the footage of the smiling young men and women helping each other through activities, developing invaluable skills and life-long friendships while making the globe a safer place.
Both communities are marketing their own brand of heroism that aids their differing causes: rise up against the existing structure or reinforce it. These versions of heroic masculinity are circulated through mass media and perpetuated in individuals through what Holt and Thompson refer to as “dramatic self-construction,” whereby consumers appropriate an ideal to use as building blocks in the creation of a new identity. The Australian Defence Force advertisements are one example of how governments who market war provide a model for which aspiring soldiers can try squeeze and stretch themselves into.
How is this any different from how Islamic State markets its ideology?
Kamikaze insects dived at overhead lights. My shirt pressed against my back, thick with humidity and mosquito repellent. The flimsy plastic chair underneath my thighs was identical to the dozen others positioned in a loose circle in the centre of the backyard. The speakers resting on the ping-pong table blasted the Top 40, while the bottle in my hand continued to sweat.
It was two minutes to midnight on Australia Day, two years after Numan Haider died on the footpath in a quiet suburb of Melbourne. In typical teenage celebratory fashion, we were drunk.
Alex sat across from me, an Australian flag wrapped around his shoulders. It was of the tacky variety, bought for a gold coin at the nearest souvenir shop. Unlike Numan, Alex looked like a modern-day warrior. He had that broad-shouldered confidence and fixed gaze of someone bound for the infantry. For the last few minutes, the conversation had centred on him. More importantly, what he was doing now that we had all finished high school.
“Watcha gonna do in the army, mate?” Jayden asked.
Alex stood, swaying to the right before he corrected himself. A hand ensured that the flag didn’t slip. The other landed on his chest. “I will singlehandedly destroy ISIS!”
One too many drinks past retaining manners, I scoffed derisively. “And how the hell are you going to do that?”
“Easy.” His hands turned into guns. “Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang!”
A few people laughed at his antics. I was caught somewhere between joining them and fighting frustration because the last thing the world needed was another young man willing to take up arms and play soldier.
Before I could respond, the music cut off. I craned my neck to find Connor fiddling with the speakers, his fringe flopping over his eyes as he ducked his head. “Happy Australia Day!” he boomed moments before the familiar anthem reached our ears. I shook my head, grinning.
Alex moved to stand beside Connor and, together, they held the flag while they belted out a drunken rendition of ‘Advance Australia Fair’. It was hard to decide whether their obnoxiously loud voices improved or bastardised the national anthem, but I joined in regardless.
But a thought niggled at me.
He looked like Numan had in the photograph in the newspaper, holding the Islamic State flag in an unapologetic display of belief. Alex looked youthful, as well, like a young man on the cusp of adventure, preparing to be deployed to a foreign nation, to slaughter the villain and save the day – along with everything else our culture markets as necessary to the archetypal masculine coming-of-age process.
I could see society shouting at them: “Grow up, boys!”
“Pick up a gun and fight for the right to be called a man.”
Looking at Alex, I hoped he stayed this young, didn’t let the light drain from his features as he chased the dream of becoming Holt and Thompson’s man-of-action hero. But staying eternally young meant dying young and I didn’t want him to die. “Stay safe,” balanced on the edge of my tongue, but I kept the words from falling, because saying, “Stay safe” to a boy who would be dropped into a warzone was as useful as telling a dead man to pray for his life.
“Why are you enlisting?” I asked Alex, months later. I was sitting on the grass in a park with my phone pressed against my ear, trying to find the information I needed for the essay I wanted to write about young men and culturally imbedded notions of heroes.
He told me that he wanted to serve his country, protect the people he loved. “It’s an exciting job,” he added. “Plus, it’s my calling in life, where I’ve always been headed.”
It sounded like he was recycling the lines used by an incalculable number of men and women that had served their country before him. Besides, how could he know? After being raised in a society that told boys that they could become men through war, was his idea of self anything other than himself holding a mirror against his chest, reflecting every notion of masculinity that had been shoved at him for the last eighteen years?
“I’m joining the infantry because it’s the direct role.” He wanted to be where the action was, I realised. Like some kind of Australian Rambo, Holt and Thompson’s man-of-action, the only figure with the “sufficient potency to vanish whatever villain is threatening the social order.”
Throughout school, Alex had been my academic rival, the person I considered to be my equal. Suddenly, I wanted to scream, “Why are you being so stupid? You’re smarter than this!”
In my sheltered version of war, friends didn’t fight and die. Other people bore the cost of war. Faceless soldiers whose names I didn’t know died. People of different nationalities died.
Don’t let him die.
But I didn’t say any of this. Instead, I thanked him for his time, wished him all the best, and hung up.
If Alex pursues this career, he will undoubtedly meet a young man like Numan on a battlefield somewhere. In an ideal world, I image them staring at each other, recognising that they are nothing more than twin sides of the same coin used by organisations to fund terror. But this is not an ideal world, and when they meet, it will not be to make peace. It will be to kill each other.
Alyssa Moohin is currently studying a Bachelor of Arts at the University of Melbourne. She writes about human connection and wider social themes relating to young adults.