‘Defence’ as an Australian paradox: explaining veteran suicides

Feb 23, 2023
Human brain shaped made of white jigsaw puzzles inside your head.

It is absolutely essential that society inquiries into the fate of Australia’s war veterans. There are many reasons for our failure to rehabilitate veterans successfully, but unless we confront the nature of military activity, such investigations will remain superficial.

There are several problems about repatriation and rehabilitation of military personnel. The first is that Australia has always – with the exception of the defence of the country during the Pacific War of 1941-1945 – had the relative luxury of fighting wars elsewhere. This means that rehabilitation has always involved repatriation.

It also means that politicians have been able to conveniently confuse defence and offence. The image they offer is of military personnel being engaged in defence, whereas they have always been engaged in offence. This resort to loose language means that our military history has become the stuff of legends. Consequently, the Anzacs are mythical figures risking and sacrificing their lives on our behalf, rather than agents of British and American imperialism killing to achieve their political aims.

So when ‘we’ send people to wars and conflicts, opposition is immediately stifled. Objection is presented as disloyal and unpatriotic. Opponents of war tend to moderate our criticisms so that we do not increase the burdens under which military personnel operate. After all, we argue, soldiers are victims too.

It is however, important to remember that when we speak of our responsibility to rehabilitate veterans, the reality is that they were not sent in our name, if by ‘our’ we mean by all of us. This alters the way in which we think of rehabilitation. We should not think for a second that anyone is so heartless as to suggest refusing adequate processes of debriefing and treatment of PTSD. After all, military personnel were likely recruited thinking that the propaganda making enlistment attractive was factual and approved by us all. The heroic Anzac legend with its ideals of mateship and proud defence of Australia is a ready source of brainwashing. It is high time that recruits were made aware of some of the truths about military activity.

One undeniable truth about military activity is that its essence is to kill. Foreign policy, diplomacy and international aid programs try to prevent war by improving relations. Militarism breeds suspicion and makes war more likely. According to some military strategists, aggressors can be deterred if we arm ourselves to the teeth. But this doctrine supposes that potential invaders believe that we are prepared to use deadly force. In other words, they must believe that we have trained personnel who are willing and able to kill. This threat lies behind all our postures.

The problem for the mental health of military personnel is that they are forced eventually to confront this reality. Their chief function is to take human life. It is unlikely that they are told this when enlisting. If they were then perhaps some – by no means all – would expect to encounter this reality and not be traumatised by the war experience. On the other hand, it is likely that this realisation dawns on them as they encounter an enemy for the first time.

How many feel betrayed because they have been placed in a situation form which they cannot escape? Either they obey orders or they will be court martialled. They carry on or they let down their mates. They kill to prevent themselves being killed. The ‘defence delusion’ is a poor basis for military ethics.

It is possible that rehabilitation can succeed in the face of these terrible facts. It is understandable should no recovery be possible. Our refusal to acknowledge the facts about the role of the military places not just veterans but all military personnel on a terrible slippery slope. While we must do what we can for today’s veterans, we ought to be thinking about preventing further catastrophes for future generations. This can only be done by speaking truthfully about what military action does and why convenient myths should be abandoned. We need a new military ethos.

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