Leaked reports of clandestine operations by our elite special forces in Afghanistan have given us some insight of the way a protracted war affects all involved – soldiers and civilians. By keeping us in blissful ignorance of the cold hard facts about deaths and injuries in our military campaigns our government avoids the soul searching we should be going through.
By its nature war is brutally indiscriminate. Reports of secret defence force documents leaked to the ABC giving an unprecedented insight into the clandestine operations of Australia’s elite special forces in Afghanistan, including incidents of troops killing unarmed men and children, is only one part of the story. The other is the system that creates the situation that corrupts the individuals.
As Philip G Zimbardo, professor emeritus of psychology at Standford University said, “You always start with an ideology. All evil begins with a big ideology…once you have the big ideology then it’s going to justify all the action.” In our case – Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria – it’s an ideology of “righteous” warfare against a foe in common with our partners being necessary to protect Australia’s national security, national interest and beloved lifestyle.
Until now hidden under the catch cries of national security or national interest, the secret defence force documents reveal that some soldiers have substituted their own judgement for the laws of war, that it’s difficult to distinguish innocent civilians from enemy combatants which blurs the rules of engagement lines, that some perceive the kill count to be a criterion of success, that drop weapons are being used to avoid accountability, the development of a culture of “protectionism” and that the families of victims have no mechanism by which they can report what has occurred.
When we hear of civilian deaths at the hands of Australian soldiers we are told that civilian casualty incidents are unavoidable in war. Yet, for example, as the wars in Iraq and Syria roll on we’re expected initially to believe that our airstrikes have been carried out without civilian loss of life, and then when the fact of such “collateral damage” comes out, to be satisfied with the bare assertion that civilian deaths and injuries were taken into account. And where does honesty and common humanity come into play in the misleading garbage that the powers that be deign to release?
Australians have been deployed in Afghanistan since 2001. It is now Australia’s longest war. A war that has long been strategically lost, becomes more unwinnable and morally groundless as it continues and is nothing like what the political class spruik. Is it really surprising that after 16 years we see the dehumanisation of others, de-individuation of self, diffusion of personal responsibility, blind obedience to authority, uncritical conformity to group norms, passive intolerance of evil through inaction or indifference is creeping in.
Author and activist Arundhati Roy described the war in Kashmir in this way: ‘You know, what do you do when a people have lived under the most—under the densest military occupation in the world for 25 years? What does it do to the air? What does it do to the soldiers? What does it do to the army? What does it do to the collaborators? What does it do to the intelligence people? What does it do to people who don’t know when their children will come home? Now you see schoolgirls throwing stones at the army. You know, last year, they blinded people with pellet guns. And, crucially, what does it do to Indians, who are not protected from this war? They are fed these atrocities as—you know, with a soundtrack of applause, and we are supposed to swallow this absolute cruelty and keep it in our stomachs, much as you are expected to celebrate every time the U.S. government goes and destroys a country, you know, and you’re all supposed to stand up and applaud. But what does it do to us to hold that in our stomachs?’
The prevalence of post-traumatic stress disorder in military personnel makes it clear what our soldiers hold in their stomachs. And the same must be true, as Roy says, of other military personnel and of civilian victims of war. But an equally important question we must face is what our involvement in the Middle East has done to us. By keeping us in blissful ignorance of the cold hard facts about deaths and injuries our government substantially avoids this necessary soul searching, to its and our eternal shame.
Kellie Tranter is a lawyer and human rights activist. You can follow her on Twitter @KellieTranter