Facing the all too predictable chaos left behind by yet another unnecessary Australian military adventure, the prime minister mouthed insulting platitudes about ‘freedom’ and sought propaganda value about no member of the military dying in vain. Such remarks display historical ignorance as well as insensitivity.
The Coalition Government should issue an immediate apology to the families of men and women who have been the victims of this ill-advised adventure. It should express sorrow that it exploited patriotic fervour to recruit young people. It should be sorry that it committed the military to war with dubious aims. It should be embarrassed that it sent people to Afghanistan inadequately prepared mentally. It should feel ashamed that debriefing and repatriation have failed totally.
The nonsense about fighting for freedom is straight from the handbook of the US military. Who can forget notions that destroying Vietnamese villages could save them from communism, the plans to save the ‘free’ world through nuclear destruction or that it is ethical to use extremism, torture and assassinations in defence of freedom? Not to mention the secrecy, spying on allies and suppression of domestic dissent. And over it all hangs the historical lie that freedom can survive these tactics.
When committing troops to Afghanistan the then government claimed that we had to be there because that was where the Bali bombers trained. This was a spurious claim. Setting aside the possibility that this argument would have led us to commit troops to Pakistan as well, this was not a war aim. If the Bali bombers training in Afghanistan twenty years ago meant that we had to be there, then this eternal belief means we should stay forever. The notion is silly and tragic.
This argument enabled the government to claim that Australia had its own reasons for the commitment. In the context of the war on terror and the horrific invasion of Iraq by the Anglophone triumvirate of Blair, Bush and Howard, it is much more likely that the open-ended commitment to Afghanistan sought to curry favour with the great and powerful ally. Yet US troops assembled for the Iraq invasion were ignorant about who was responsible for the terror attacks on US soil. Some suggested that it was a simple case of the Iraqis having to be dealt with after they bombed New York and Washington. The toadying mindset has not changed much. US troops are stationed in the north of Australia while they prepare for the next wasteful, unjustified, destructive war which they will expect us to support and justify. One of Coalition icon Tony Abbott’s favourite pieces of hyperbole was that terrorists hated us not because of what we did but because of who we are. We then seemed determined to correct the imbalance by giving good impressions of being anti-Islamic.
Australia is good at apologies. Unfortunately what apologies demonstrate is that we were led yet again into policies which were ill advised and soon shown to be deemed wrong. Apologies have been needed for children stolen from Indigenous families, children sent out of sight out of mind into the hands of religious organisations which abused them, people wrongly accused of welfare fraud and the list goes on. How compassionate we can be in retrospect. What a pity we cannot have the foresight to understand the harm we cause and to prevent it happening.
The prime minister’s remarks about ‘freedom’ and no needless deaths could be designed to anticipate and forestall demands for an apology to veterans. No doubt, the government will rely on its usual obfuscation: ‘No comment. There is a Royal Commission under way’. Meanwhile, glib use of “freedom” will sound hollow to supporters of Julian Assange, Witness K and Bernard Collaery, the Biloela family and refugee and asylum seeker advocates. Somewhere in the future, an ethical government will issue an apology and maybe compensate all the people we have locked away in detention centres without trial. With the likely influx of refugees created by our Afghanistan adventure, we have a good opportunity to abandon our petulant attitude to those people desperate enough to risk their lives on the sea in search of freedom here.
As the billions of dollars wasted in futile military gestures and in cruel treatment of asylum seekers could have been spent on social goods, future governments may well find themselves apologising to a range of people seeking justice. How well such resources might have been devoted to ensuring that the elderly do not die waiting for home care packages or in inadequately staffed nursing homes, that the disabled can live meaningful lives, that climate change is addressed and miners retrained, that teachers and nurses are better paid and that effective campaigns are mounted to ensure women are respected in homes and workplaces.
Daily, we see instances of this government refusing to admit the consequences of its policies. By failing to take responsibility it is creating a cynical electorate which sees little reason to take an interest in public affairs. In The Terror Dream: Fear and Fantasy in Post 9-11 America, a book for which she was heavily criticised in the USA, Susan Faludi showed how readily people are seduced by appeals to national myths. The war in Afghanistan was conceived as part of a drive to restore lost American virility. It was part of a retreat into ‘platitudes and compensatory fictions’. It is high time Australia came to its senses and faced reality. Like his claim that there has been no slavery in Australia, the prime minister’s assertion that no member of the military has died in vain is not so much wishful thinking as cynical propaganda.