It was ‘a bloody mess’. So said one Iraq veteran heavily involved on the logistics side of things and quoted in Dr Albert Palazzo’s recently declassified studies The Australian Army and the War in Iraq 2002-2010 (572 pages, 2011) and Deploy, Sustain, Return: Australian Logistics and the War in Iraq (156 pages, 2008). But note well that therein the term ‘bloody’ was meant metaphorically. In Australia’s Iraq, there was very little fighting.
In eight years, two Australians were killed. One, Warrant Officer David Nary, died as the result of a vehicle accident. Another fatal casualty was Private Jake Kovco, who accidentally shot himself in the head while playing with a 9mm Browning pistol. Later, the official reception of his coffin at Richmond Air Base near Sydney would become a significant episode in the official quest to disguise the most carefully guarded secret of the war: its virtual nature.
Palazzo does not pick up this episode. But I remember from the 2006 press reports how Kovco’s coffin got mixed up with that of a Bulgarian NGO worker and was lost for some time. When we got it back and flew it the 7,000 kilometres home to Richmond, Defence Minister Dr Brendon Nelson dramatically postponed a state visit to the US to attend its reception. The Chief of the Australian Defence Force (ADF) also met the coffin with a stiff salute; the Principal Chaplain made the sign of the cross. A band provided musical support for the company of soldiers that mounted the guard of honour. Prime Minister John Howard as well as the Chief of the ADF attended Kovco’s private funeral. Rarely, in the annals of Australia at war, could such a high-powered display of official sentiment have been showered on a single coffin.
Behold the wider perspective. The two accidental Australian fatalities (and some three wounded in action) compared with 4,719 US battle fatalities (and some 32,000 wounded). The two compared also with the 9,477 members of the Iraqi Security Force who were killed and, most important, with the still murky horrendous civilian death toll from violence, which the Iraq Body Count project calculated between 173,686 and 193,965 as of April 2017 – and which clearly constituted a great crime against humanity. At the lower end of the fatality scale, the UK led the last fifteen members of the Coalition of the Willing with 179 killed. Italy lost 33 and Poland 23. Australia came in below El Salvador with five and Latvia three and tied with Estonia, Thailand and The Netherlands, each with two.
Writing respectively for the ‘Directorate of Army Research & Analysis’ and the Army’s ‘Land Warfare Studies Centre’, Palazzo is unable in his two works to make direct criticism of the politics or morality of Howard’s desire to support the US war. Palazzo calls the US invasion a ‘folly’ and describes any ‘strategic success’ Australia gained from supporting it as ‘tainted’. But don’t expect him to say the war was ‘illegal’ or call it a ‘great crime’. Nonetheless, his critical evaluations of Prime Minister John Howard’s decision for war and, in the bulk of his writing, the ADF’s technical performance recount lucidly the workings of our virtual war. In particular, we learn how the logistics and administrative bungles that plagued the ADF were inseparable from the political frame for Howard’s support for it.
Palazzo shows that Howard saw the involvement as enhancement for the American alliance in the face of global Islamic terrorism, particularly from Indonesia, not long after the Bali bombing. Given Indonesian sensibilities and the widespread opposition to an American invasion of Iraq in Australia and across the world, however, Howard could not enunciate clearly his idea of the national interest. So in early 2002, when he first sent some ADF personnel to the US to plan for war in Iraq, he kept it from the Parliament, the ADF at large and the public.
Then, ‘by failing to make a timely announcement on the nation’s participation’, Palazzo stresses, ‘the Howard government succeeded in boxing itself into a corner, while at the same time abdicating [in the area of precious strategic air life capacity] one of its few strategic decision [making] opportunities to the United States’.
Consider three points, which boxed the ADF into a corner and which, for that reason, hardly suggest the campaign was a matter of national interest.
First, a number of problems related to the uncertainty were so serious that planners called them potential ‘war-stoppers’. These included the problem of obtaining timely acquisition of essential ‘basing rights’ in the region around Iraq. The vaccination program for ADF personnel was also a ‘war-stopper’. Because of the risk of exposure to biological weapons, it was an essential part of preparations for the deployment. So, it is important to note, the shortages of time, qualified people and appropriate vaccines and protocols to properly administer the program threatened to derail Howard’s war. As indicated, the problems surrounding the strategic air-lift capacity threatened to become another ‘real war-stopper’, as the RAAF’s ‘complete lack of strategic transport capability’ and the government’s ‘inability to provide the ADF with a clear indication of its intentions and a timetable for the commitment of the forces’ seriously impeded preparations.
Second, with no external enemy to disrupt the 7,000 kilometre-long lines of communications, Palazzo shows how they undermined themselves anyway. Difficulties were bound to emerge in the organisation and command structures of the ‘Joint Force’, whose geographically dispersed and, in any case, diverse sea, land and air components were embedded in US formations and had no ‘Joint Head Quarters’ between them in the Middle East and ‘National’ Headquarters in Sydney. The chaos on the logistics front chimed in. The medical plan was seriously deficient. There were initially no Australian cooks to dish up familiar food and inadequate postal services. Navy Clearance Diving Team 3 was largely left to its own devices, which was to say almost completely out of the Australian logistics loop. In the face of a very weak ‘rear-area’ enemy, the greatest problem for the Special Forces Component seems to have been the failure to issue cold weather clothing in Iraq’s western desert and nothing better than Second World War tents.
The third point really should have been the ‘war-stopper’. Indeed, Palazzo makes it all too clear that it would be a ‘mistake’ to assume the ADF had a mission in Iraq at all. One ‘mission statement’ updated another – especially in relation to the hunt for the Saddam regime’s store of ‘Weapons of Mass Destruction’, which was often touted as a primary reason for the war but which was never discovered. Either way, on a close reading of the mission statements, we find they ‘contained vague language that would defy precise definition or even challenge the determination of when the sought achievement actually eventuated.’ Above all, Palazzo writes, the ‘mission statements beg the question of a national goal’ (my emphasis). Since Australia couldn’t say what it intended to achieve by participating in the occupation of Iraq, there was no way of linking planned military tasks to national outcomes. ‘Instead, opacity and vagueness in setting the goal proved to be the organisation’s preferred option.’
Palazzo concludes that ‘the Iraq War was more a test for Australia’s logisticians than its combat arms’. Metaphorically, then, given the great difficulties the logisticians had developing lines of communications over great distances for a war with no clearly defined enemy or national goal in the face of official obfuscation, it is hard to see how Australia’s implication in the war in Iraq could have been anything other than a mountain of unforced errors, a ‘bloody mess’. We are persuaded that, as Palazzo puts it, ‘those who served in Iraq must have wondered why they were there’.
Obviously, the overriding message of Palazzo’s work is about the formulation of the national interest and the way Australia decides to go to war. Those issues are linked and require urgently a more meaningful and democratic decision-making process than the one, which the former Prime Minister, working in secret with one or two advisers, used to confect our virtual war on the back of the illegal US invasion of Iraq.
Greg Lockhart is a Vietnam veteran and historian. The only demo he has ever participated in was on 15 February 2003, when perhaps a quarter of a million people filled Sydney’s Hyde Park, as part of a coordinated day of world protests against the Iraq War – something social movement researchers have described as ‘the largest protest event in human history’. The only effect this seems to have had on the Howard government was to make Australia’s participation in the event more secretive and more virtual.