Afghan troops who were trained in Uruzgan until 2013 by Australian soldiers are now reportedly confined to barracks. More for their own safety than the protection of the province, it seems, because the Taliban have waited them out and are progressively taking back control of Uruzgan, just as contending forces have done in Afghanistan for centuries. After 41 Australian deaths and many more of Afghans, Australian military figures are casting about to make their loss seem worthwhile. Former General Peter Leahy, now at ANU, says if Australia had been able to rebuild Uruzgan that would have lent legitimacy to the Afghan government. http://ab.co/2ccmYA6 The Chief of Army, General Angus Campbell, on the other hand, says Australia’s contribution wasn’t just to Uruzgan, but to the coalition effort in the whole of Afghanistan. Either way, they assert, Australia’s losses were not in vain.
It would be surprising if they said anything else. It’s been an Australian tradition since before Federation to send troops to our allies’ wars with no clear explanation of what they are fighting for, what will constitute victory, or what will happen afterwards. So no war is ever admitted to be in vain, if only because Australians fought so bravely. A reminder of this tradition is provided by Henry Reynolds in Unnecessary Wars (2016) who traces it back to the Boer Wars, in which Australia lost more than 600 men. Soon afterwards, the Boers took over from the British, and they and their descendants ran South Africa for nearly a century. James Brown, who served in Afghanistan, in his critique of mindless military deployments (Quarterly Essay 62, Firing Line: Australia’s Path to War, 2016) says we are still doing the same thing.
But if the Taliban are back, was it worth the cost?
A new movie uses war as a metaphor for Australian life. A decade after the Cronulla riots, Abe Forsythe took his crew to Kurnell to shoot a film. Down Under (2016) has an all-Australian, mainly male, Lebanese and Anglo cast. It starts with footage of the 2005 Australia Day festivities, complete with flags, tatts, half-naked bodies, close-ups of yelling mouths, girls and guys pushing shoving and punching, mounted police, and arrests. Abe’s script begins on the next day, with two carloads of men, mostly young, bent on revenge. One lot wants to retaliate for insults to them and ‘their’ women, while those in the other car (no slouches at insulting their own women too) are defending their turf. ‘And so it’s about these two sort of contained environments of angry young men looking for some outlet for this aggression and inevitably they do meet’, Abe says in an ABC 7.30 interview.
As they prepare for the clash, the father of one of the Skips produces his grandfather’s Lee Enfield rifle, with a single bullet, which he solemnly hands to his son, saying it is the proudest day of his life. What follows is a lot of confusion, profanity, dope and blood, some broken bones, one death, two smashed-up cars, and in the end, some head-scratching perplexity about what all that was about.
Down Under is comical, and has some great lines. But its real life story – about xenophobic violence in Australia and elsewhere − is no laughing matter. ‘One of my Middle Eastern cast members, Michael Denkha, who plays Ibrahim, they were getting out of a car, being driven to set’, Abe recalls. ‘A car load of four Anglo people drove past and saw a Middle Eastern man with a beard and all shouted, ‘Aussie, Aussie, Aussie’ when they saw him’. Beating each other – especially the Other – up, it seems, is what some unenlisted Australian men want do in wartime, with no idea why. And this is indeed wartime: we were at war in 2005, and we still are. Abe could have made a similar film about the Australian troops in Egypt in 1915, the Brisbane riots in 1919, or any of the other episodes of xenophobia that adorn our war history.
Regrettably, Abe’s movie has disappeared without trace. Even though reviewers gave it four stars, it was shown at only one theatre in Sydney, and by the time the word got around, it was gone. It should be required viewing for politicians who order inquiries into everything that moves, except how Australia goes to war. When we get to read the forthcoming official history of our Middle East wars, we may still be fighting them. Australia has never run a cost-benefit analysis on any of our wars, and governments resist any change in the power of a prime minister to deploy troops at will. Now we are continuously at war, fighting ‘terror’, and the destruction of much of Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria as habitable places is one result. Another is the militarisation that is creeping into Australian government, academia, media, and society. Yet they worry about young Australian Muslims being ‘radicalised’. We can fight whoever we want to in your countries, they seem to be saying: you can’t.
Dr Alison Broinowski, an Australian former diplomat, is the author of Howard’s War (2003) and Allied and Addicted (2007). She is Vice President of Australians for War Powers Reform and Vice President of Honest Hisrory.