Late last year I was in Afghanistan at the time of the second ‘green on blue’ attack, when three Australians were killed and others wounded. Because I am a journalist, I wasn’t informed at first; although it didn’t take long to work out what had happened, particularly when I saw soldiers carrying loaded weapons and wearing body armour in the mess. Nevertheless, I respected the army’s desire and didn’t report what had occurred, even though this meant that when the news was initially released back in Australia I’d been comprehensively ‘scooped’.
That was irrelevant. The needs of the families to be informed first far outweighed the requirement to be ‘first’ with the news. It was just a matter of keeping things in perspective. Unfortunately, such perspective appears to increasingly be missing when it comes to dealing with casualties—which are an inevitable cost of the decision to go to war.
This week, Prime Minister Julia Gillard had the awful task of announcing an Afghan National Army soldier had killed three more diggers (although the spin-masters insisted it was a person ‘wearing an ANA uniform’, as if he had infiltrated from the outside). It was quite understandable she held a press conference to convey her sincere regret. Her sober comments were utterly irreproachable. But then she abruptly cancelled her attendance at the Pacific Islands Forum and immediately returned home … and to do what, exactly?
Defence Minister Stephen Smith and the Chief of the Defence Force General Hurley were in Vietnam conducting important bilateral meetings, but they too flew home at once. The killings were both tragic and unexpected, and the dead soldiers deserve the utmost respect. This doesn’t mean, however, that nothing can be done until they are ‘laid to rest’.
A casual assumption has been made that our broader strategic interests in the Pacific are less important, politically, than the PM’s presence in Canberra. It would be quite different if she could actually do something, but she can’t. Nobody can, unless it’s taking a decision to either reinforce the current deployment or, like the Dutch before us, withdraw. Instead the political class stands vacillating, unable to do either one thing or the other. The demand to show respect for the dead has paralysed the politicians.
Ten months ago the overall force commander gave the soldiers a day without operations so they could recover their equilibrium and cope in their own way with the tragedy. Then he added another day—but inaction was exactly what the troops didn’t need. They wanted to work. They knew that nothing good would come of standing around and moping, no matter how close they’d been to the dead soldiers. Instead they were to lose another day in the barracks, pacing back and forth like a tiger in a cage.
Nobody doubts the need to mark the sacrifice of the dead soldiers. But neither their interests, nor the interests of their families, are being served if we suddenly halt everything. If the PM cannot bear the deaths, the answer is simple: withdraw the forces. If she chooses not to, she needs to understand that tragic, sudden deaths are what war is all about.
Nic Stuart is a columnist with the Canberra Times. Image courtesy of Department of Defence.