Afghanistan: drawing the curtains on the final act

Apr 28, 2021

The past month or two has brought back some imagery that’s haunted me for some time. Images that were part of footage taken by insurgents of my husbands smouldering crash site. It featured on news channels being watched in lounge rooms across the world well before any military official had the chance to even get to my front door.

The conventional ‘door knocking’ training manual, how to inform next of kin of the death of their loved one,  was obsolete. So the first conversation in which I was told Paul was missing and presumed dead, I was also asked to be prepared for further propaganda and recruitment footage, which may feature body parts as souvenirs and other desecration activity. I was then told, securing the site and retrieving the bodies was the highest priority. I was quite aware at how profoundly painful delivering this news must have been and how sensitively it was delivered.

Months later, while in a military chat room, following up some issues of the inquiry, I came across a link to the original and unedited footage being sold on eBay. Go figure? It disturbed and distressed me. Does anything go in modern warfare? It’s not a stretch to then feel nothing less than shame and sadness to learn that Australian special forces have allegedly murdered, desecrated and collected human trophies of civilian Afghans.

As far as theatres of war go the ‘war on terror’ genre has been perplexing, persistent and painful to stage and execute. Like most long running productions, there have been plenty of challenges. Maintaining the actors’ endurance and the audience’s appetite has been difficult. The tale of contemporary war fighting almost always seems to have a flawed, shifting and lazy political storyline. None of the 6 directors – Howard, Rudd, Gillard, Abbott, Turnbull and Morrison-  overseeing this sad saga, have bothered with good script writing, proofreading or editing. Costs in marketing have seen sentimentality rocket and truth plummet. So as the curtain falls on the twenty year war in Afghanistan, we should suspend our rush for patriotic applause and red carpet victory parades. What our frontline ADF and veterans need more than any encore, is respite and quiet respect.

For far too long we have been bludging on the blindside of this far too long war. Enthusiastically shoe horning, another feel good war narrative into our personalised digger boots. The modern narrative of the individualistic warrior, alongside the traditional narrative of freedom and mateship, was meant to bring a renewed skip to our stride. But for all the  ‘feel good’ rhetoric, something doesn’t feel quite right. The individual warrior narrative with all its bravado still makes me feel a little limp.  I think the expectation of admiring our veterans has become an expectation that we adore them. We fall short of expecting standards, of ourselves, our politicians and our military. Has the act of commemoration become a bit too big for its boots? Roy Slaven and HG Nelson would be calling for a stadium sized mirror room.

Making cultural sense of evolving war themes across time from Peter Weir’s Gallipoli, Tom Hanks, Band of Brothers, to Zack Snyder 300, to present something uniquely modern Australia, of the ‘now’ has been tasked to omnipresent publicist Kerry Stokes. Stokes was really impressed by the visual and physical intensity of 300, didn’t connect with the quality of friendships in Band of Brothers and unconvinced by the tension of innocence and futile brutality of Gallipoli. He has come up with a kind of Mate vs Mate state of origin for soldiers. Where the reputation of one warrior against many heroes and the values of their units, battle for truth, courage and honour,  is acted out directly inside the war memorial.

The award winning ANZAC hall will be torn down, in a luxury indulgence of cheap patriotism and replaced with a glorious glassed in amphitheatre. This is where the ‘new now’ show really kicks off. Narrated by a self-named Spartan, of the land, air and sea waves, Alan Jones. Jones is unlikely to ask, how did the avant garde style of soldiering, the perpetual rotation of small elites, become the political go-to solution for all things in Afghanistan. Was it legitimate to normalise and over extend this skill set?  Did this decision marginalise other conventional forces and diplomatic options?

Not many political leaders have taken on the challenge of telling a tale that is nuanced, complex and different to our American allies. The original plot line of Afghanistan was undermining the Taliban’s grip on power and ability to provide safety for Al-Qaeda was achieved early. Then compromised as military resources and political rhetoric shifted to the war in Iraq. Maybe we do live in a safer world. Nation building and the rights of women and  girls are noble causes, but at what cost? 175,000 Afghans have been killed and the country has been ravaged by years of war and occupation. 41 Australian troops have died and countless continue to suffer from post-traumatic stress injury. And when Afghan people seek asylum what story will we remember, the victims of an oppressive regime or terrorists wanting to do us harm? All we have to show is an unstable puppet regime in Kabul, with the rest of the country still mostly controlled by the Taliban.

In Biden’s presidential address announcing the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan he said “Rather than return to war with the Taliban, we have to focus on the challenges that are in front of us. We have to shore up American competitiveness to face the stiff competition from an increasingly assured China.”

It’s likely that the US will want Australia again to follow along with them as they engage in the next war, this time maybe with China. So before you lift out your Anzac Day TV week gold Logie special edition, consider what the history channel has on offer. There is so much we need to learn from Afghanistan, the war on terror, what we want soldiering to look like in the 21st century and how political passivity paves the way for disastrous outcomes in foreign theatres of war.

In the words of Roy and HG “It’s time to bump, it’s time to thump, it’s time to dump and pack down for some serious midfield mayhem,” it’s up to all of us to off load the sensational but simple story and look behind the curtain at who really benefits from our foreign policy and engagement in war.

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