At Christmas, there is a fine Scandinavian tradition of serving ginger biscuits (Pepperkaker) with either coffee or mulled wine. There are an assortment of suitable shapes that the ginger biscuits might resemble ranging from stars and reindeers to hearts and Father Christmas. Some of the biscuits are hung as decorations on the Christmas tree.
Last Christmas, the government of Norway did something rather unexpected with those eponymous biscuits. Images on its official Instagram account showed biscuits appearing to match the shape of F-35 fighter jets.
It wasn’t clear who thought this was a good idea but when in doubt apportion responsibility to a junior official, especially when the public reaction is not positive. Norwegian citizens took to social media to take their government to task for thinking that F-35 fighter jet biscuits were appropriate for the season of goodwill. What followed was a hasty apology from an official spokesperson, and a public recognition that the Instagram account itself was an innovation on the part of the Norwegian government. It suggests that those who were responsible for official social media messaging did not recognise the outrage capacity of online audiences.
By this stage, you might be wondering why anyone thought fighter jet ginger biscuits were an appropriate design. For the last decade, Norway has been in a partnership agreement with the United States to purchase and support an F-35 fleet. A replacement for the aging F-16s, in September 2015 the first F-35s were presented in Texas to officials from Norway and the US. It is expected that Norway will purchase more than 50 F-35s that have been specially fitted to cope with the Arctic conditions of the country.
“For many Norwegians, the country appears to have an enviable set of qualities. But it’s also worth remembering that Norway practices military conscription”
The Strategic Defence Review (2015), published in October, noted that Norway proposes a near ten per cent real term increase in defence budget spending for 2016. It is fair to conclude that growing Russian military and infrastructural investment in its Arctic region, and ongoing activities in Ukraine have driven this enhanced Norwegian military investment. While Norwegians are usually very careful not to voice their fears about the Russian military, the Ukrainian crisis has been unsettling.
The acquisition of the F-35 is a major element in Norwegian strategic thinking, not only driven by its own national defence assessments but also a desire to be seen to be supporting NATO. As a small country, with a population of five million, and with Russia as an immediate neighbour, it is quite clear that the NATO security alliance is highly valued.
Perhaps what the biscuit affair reveals is the awkward roles that military equipment and militarisation more generally play in Norwegian public life. For many Norwegians, the country appears to have an enviable set of qualities; a large sovereign wealth fund, plenty of renewable energy domestically and substantial reserves of oil and gas, high levels of social and economic equity, and a reputation for charitable and peace-keeping donations and missions. But it’s also worth remembering that Norway practices military conscription.
Did the biscuit design signal, however inadvertently, an ongoing situation where the US has asked the Norwegian government to support operations in Syria? As a NATO member, Norway was asked by France to assist in the military assault against ISIS post-Paris terror attacks in November. Four years earlier, Norway was a member of the NATO coalition that bombed Libya and its air force, containing F-16s and F-35s, along with Norwegian Special Forces could be enrolled in ongoing anti-ISIS operations in Syria and Iraq. Norway is already helping Kurdish forces. Perhaps the 2016 biscuits will show the F-35 armed with missiles and bombs rather than just the bare outline of the plane itself?
This article was published in the February 2016 edition of Geographical magazine.