Who would have imagined that in 2020 we’d be sitting quietly in our homes waiting for the public release of the an inquiry into alleged war crimes by Australian military personnel serving in Afghanistan. And not just military personnel, but the elite of the elite, our special forces.
This is a topic that no-one happily puts pen to paper over because we understand that not only are our military traditions of great pride to Australians, but, I believe, that in a very real sense they are part of our public DNA – that if the worst comes to the worst, as it did in February 1942, they are our last – perhaps, only – line of defence.
Many of us have relatives who died or were wounded in conflicts in which they believed in their bones they were protecting hearth and home, at all costs. Indeed, a close friend’s uncle was killed on the north coast of New Guinea in August 1945 after the Japanese surrender. Was that a breakdown in communication or a war crime, I wonder?
We have gone 75 years since Australian shores were seriously at risk of being invaded, yet we have strangely been involved in eight major military operations abroad, many involving either tyrants or tyrannical ideologies. Why? Because we no longer feel as safe as we once did – reports of a knife attack on Westminster Bridge, London, generate as much anxiety as if it had happened on the Sydney Harbour Bridge. And, to me, that’s the problem.
I’ve never been a jingoist. Even when I was an ordinary kid growing up in middle-class Sydney suburbia that kind of aggressive military policy struck me as sort of mindlessly stupid, like blindly walking into a nest of vipers because it’s your right to do so and you’re bigger than they are, anyway.
But this issue of Afghanistan war crimes impinges on an existential problem of what it means to be civilised in an uncivilised world, especially when your opponents (enemies?) are especially uncivilised. Where do you draw the line when you know that if any Australian soldier were to be captured in action, they face the very real possibility of an appalling captivity for years on end, and possibly, a public beheading whose intricate details will stay with their loved ones long after the rest of us had swept them under the carpet of amnesia?
So, as the nation-state slides towards redundancy and the inevitable conflict between human beings becomes more universal, more ideological, less clear-cut, so, it seems to me, small wars have become far more murky. And in that sense, we must rely on the professionalism among our generals and admirals, subject to calm politicians, to rein in the possibilities of a dangerous, controversial conflict becoming a myriad of tiny little conflicts.
Of war lords and factions and gangs and vigilantes all allowing their own grievances to fester before rising above the reasonable rules which, we can only hope, allow us to participate in these quagmires with some semblance of a humanity which we deny to the fanatics who oppose us. Personally, if our various leaders had shown a little more judgement, instead of behaving like cowboys themselves, the mess in Afghanistan would not have become the worse mess that it did, and, God forbid, Iraq and Syria might even be in one piece still.
Remember the Domino Theory that bull-dozed us into Vietnam against our better judgement? Think of all the possible dominoes that have fallen (including refugees drowning in the Mediterranean Sea) that may owe their fate to that unbelievably stupid decision to invade Iraq in 2003. Mission accomplished? Sure.
But that’s being much wiser after the event, and doesn’t really help much when we respond to the grotesque news that the best of our best are believed to have behaved like a bunch of Rambos on the loose, in what was supposed to be a commitment to bring stability and civilisation to a part of the world that armed thugs had been walking all over for nearly two hundred years.
Normally, I am not a friend of the mandarins of Canberra – their assumptions of omniscience are, to me, an offence against the egalitarian spirit that imbues the best of Australia. But in this case, when our leaders decide, for a whole range of geo-political reasons, that we should be militarily involved, then we have no option but to trust them.
We have to trust them to develop what are called rules of engagement so that our forces are in no doubt as to what they can do and what they can’t. And I have no doubt that the responsible senior officers on the ground have enough professionalism to realise that if the enemy use tactics that had not been foreseen, then they would seek guidance from headquarters, as to whether those rules of engagement should be amended.
It’s not for the soldiers on the ground to devise their own rules of engagement because, in the heat of battle, they are not representing themselves, they are representing their country, hard though that may be to swallow.
Let us not forget, either, that war crimes may have been committed by Australians in the past but, I assume, it was not politic to draw attention to them in the after-glow of victory. As a teenager, I read vast reams of war reminiscences from WWII, and I was astonished at what some diggers admitted to have done in the cold heat of battle.
One, I remember well, concerned the exploits of infantrymen in the filthy backwater that was Bougainville in the last year of the war. They would lie in wait for Japanese stretcher bearers and, contrary to the Geneva convention, silently bludgeon them to death with coshes made of grenades stuffed in army socks. No-one was brought to book for that.
So, I guess I am saying that if the generals said that what happened in Afghanistan breached the agreed rules of engagement and fellow serving soldiers observed this breach of the rules of engagement and were outraged by it, then the only question at issue is the evidence, real or circumstantial, as to whether they did in fact breach those rules.
Any attempt to whitewash those breaches by muddying the waters with stuff about the ‘fog of war’ risks putting us in the same basket as the Taliban, ISIS and al-Qaeda. What would the Anzacs say about that?
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