A recent spike in the statistics has seen the number of suicides by Australia’s Afghanistan veterans pass 500. This is an appalling toll which raises many deep questions for all of us.
I have a photograph which shows me busking surrounded by young Labradors. The dogs are trained in a local corrective institution as companion dogs for veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder. This is a meaningful program for prison inmates and the familiarisation tours are an excellent way to remind the community of an otherwise hidden cost of the way Australia projects itself internationally. This enjoyable but sobering group photograph is the closest contact I have had with our campaign in Afghanistan even though the commitment is supposedly undertaken on my behalf.
The then Defence Minister put the government’s case for commitment in terms that seemed reasonable. He said that Australia needed to be there because that is where the Bali terrorists had been trained and equipped. The bombings of Bali nightclubs killed some 80 Australians directly and maimed and traumatised many more. While those figures are horrible, they put the 500 suicides into stark perspective.
It is one thing to sit in Australia and debate the aims of the Afghanistan commitment. As the true stories behind previous military adventures emerge, we find continually that governments embellish the facts and twist the truth to suit their own agendas. They lie about requests for assistance from host countries and from great and powerful allies. The reason they do this is plain enough: because we accept the Anzac myth so unquestioningly, governments believe they can play this card at any time by sending troops overseas. It then becomes unpatriotic to question foreign policy because it might sow doubts in the minds of our brave troops. This is a nasty, cynical and deadly use of propaganda by desperate politicians.
It is not likely that an outsider can adequately understand the current military paradigm, so there is no point in attempting to criticise the way that personnel are treated. Perhaps soldiers and others are not well prepared for their roles in Afghanistan. It is also possible that the debriefing they receive on their return is inadequate. But focussing solely on such issues lets the politicians off the hook. There can be no adequate preparation for war other than to tell soldiers they are being sent out to kill and there can be no adequate debriefing following that experience. It would be more honest to present them with the suicide statistics at recruitment.
This is where the Anzac myth defies reality. The legend emphasises sacrifice, courage and mateship. It implies nobility, awareness and choice. Pulling the trigger or pushing the button on a weapon involves none of these admirable qualities. Perhaps the awareness strikes home rather too deeply and too late. Promises about a land fit for heroes ring hollow when people realise they are not heroes at all and that they should not expect the community to treat them as such.
There is little merit in debating the pros and cons of Australia’s commitment in strategic terms while we are blinded by the Anzac myth. At the very least we need to acknowledge that when we commit troops to wars, or even urge allies on as we did in the case of Iraq, we are sending them to kill and by implication, to kill on our behalf.
Talk of ‘just wars’ and of ‘defence’ is meaningless to the man or woman in the front line. It is better that they be told the truth and that truth must include the political realities: the government is most likely exploiting you for its own purposes, there is doubt about what your mission can achieve and if the Australian people seem to support you, this is only passively, partially and in principle, not actively, unanimously or on a well informed basis.
Australia sometimes needs to arm itself. It is difficult to criticise the generation that fought for survival in the wars of 1939 to 1945. Occasionally Australia must contribute to United Nations peacekeeping efforts such as the one in East Timor. For most of the time however, the use of the military and spending on defence are mired in the desire for political power.
The Bali bombings occurred a generation ago. It will still be true in a century’s time that the terrorists were trained in Afghanistan. An entire generation of Australians has been affected negatively by this war, just as a generation was traumatised by the commitment to the Vietnam War. These impacts will continue until we stop glorying in the myth that we Australians do war in some clean fashion and then only when we are forced by aggressors to take up arms. In the meantime we need to acknowledge the needs of veterans and to repatriate and rehabilitate with care and compassion. If we want anyone to blame it should not be the victims of the lies but those who told the lies and we who allow them to get away with it.