A certain tone pervades the national conversation on the role of Australian troops in Afghanistan. We read it in the daily newspaper headlines: “Digger’s Mates Laud an Aussie Character”; “Digger’s Life was Noble”; “Afghanistan: The Untold Story of Australia’s Fight Against Evil”. We hear it when our politicians wax lyrical during parliamentary debates, such as this from Tony Abbott, quoting World War I historian Charles Bean: “What these men did nothing now can alter … Whatever glory it contains, nothing now can lessen. It rises, as it will always rise, above the mists of ages, a monument to great hearted men.” We see it in the tributes to our latest Victoria Cross winner, Corporal Ben Roberts-Smith, whose motto – “I will not fail my brothers” – is reportedly tattooed across his chest and who said it was “mateship” that made him brave a storm of gunfire to take out a Taliban machinegun post that was ﬁring on his squad. According to an editorial in the Australian: “Our serving men and women share the same instincts for daring, and the same selflessness and humanity that have distinguished our defence forces for generations.”
The tone, almost invariably, is one of awed and sentimental reverence, descending at times into jingoistic puffery. Without question, the Australians serving in Afghanistan deserve our admiration and respect. But gushing hyperbole only serves to distract and detract from what is needed most: a hard-headed, self-interested assessment of why our troops are there, what they are achieving and whether it’s worth it.
The problem is Australia’s romantic fixation with its military history, a product of a national ethos carved out on the battlefields of Gallipoli, the Somme and Kokoda. Wartime Prime Minister John Curtin called the Australian War Memorial “the sanctuary of Australia’s traditions”, as Julia Gillard reminded us in February when she re-opened the Hall of Valour Gallery, upgraded at a cost of $4.5 million to honour Australia’s 98 Victoria Cross winners. Their medals “deserve the veneration of our people”, the prime minister said. In March Gillard boosted the memorial’s annual budget by $8 million per year.
In Australians at War the historian Peter Cochrane wrote: “War gave Australians a national tradition, a set of stories about who we are, about an Australian character and the origins of our nationhood, what anthropologists might call a creation myth.” Anzac Day emerged “in the absence of any other commemorative moment with the power to draw forth deep emotions”. Where other nations divined their meaning in liberty, independence or democracy, Australians found it in how they acquitted themselves at war – not just in victory but in defeat. Despite the terrible losses, Australians “found in the Gallipoli venture not failure but moral triumph”. For many, “Anzac became a faith.”
There is a worrying corollary of this mandated reverence for all things that symbolise our military tradition. Implicit in it is that the role our soldiers play is so deeply and “quintessentially Australian” – in the words of the aforementioned editorial – that it is nothing less than un-Australian to criticise or challenge it. And in today’s political vernacular it seems there is no worse offence than to be branded ‘un-Australian’.
Thus platitudes and clichés are allowed to take the place of sound strategic assessment. “We will not abandon Afghanistan,” the prime minister declared in last October’s parliamentary debate. We must not “cut and run”, argued one Liberal MP. Australia should not be a “fair weather friend”, said Tony Abbott. Gillard recited solemnly the work of Australian poet James McAuley: “I never shrank with fear / But fought the monsters of the lower world,” while Abbott replied with Charles Bean’s paean to the soldiers of the First Australian Imperial Force, their glory rising above the mists of ages, “for their nation a possession forever”.
In this rose-coloured world view fighting a losing battle is a noble cause, regardless of the toll, the outcome and the political reality on the ground. Late last year, while visiting Australia, the Afghan democrat, women’s rights campaigner and former MP Malalai Joya urged Australia to withdraw its troops. At a function held by the Sydney Institute she said foreign forces were making Afghans’ fight for justice harder: “We now have three enemies – the Taliban, fundamentalist warlords and foreign troops. It’s easier to fight two enemies than three.”
Her plea was received coolly. “Your message is too negative,” one of the convenors told her. Another participant asked, with a hint of condescension, “Our troops are training your troops – how will you fight against the Taliban without troops?” The idea that our Diggers might not be welcome had apparently not occurred to them.
Gillard cites two reasons for keeping our soldiers in Afghanistan: to make sure the nation “never again becomes a safe haven for terrorists”, and “to stand firmly by our alliance commitments to the United States”. In the view of many analysts, the first reason is obsolete. Al Qaeda re-located its central operations a decade ago from Afghanistan to an even safer haven in Pakistan, and there are new strongholds in Yemen and Somalia. And the Afghan Taliban, keen to assert its political legitimacy, has declared bin Laden’s group no longer welcome in that country. If the first rationale is redundant, that leaves just one: standing by our alliance with the US. While this has some strategic merit, it is politically a wobbly leg to stand on. Australians might be less sanguine about the deaths of two dozen soldiers if we thought they had died not for Australia but for the US. Less still if we accept the view of defence strategist Hugh White who told Sky News last October: “After Australian troops leave, Afghanistan will look very much as it does today. The Australians who died there will to that extent have died in vain.”
More than anyone, the troops whose lives are at stake want an honest analysis of the risks and benefits, as one soldier noted in a post on the Lowy Institute’s Interpreter forum last year: “Australians are asking why their sons are dying in a foreign land for a cause that is little understood and with apparently scant prospect for victory … Accompanying any decision to fight, you would expect, is a detailed and publicly accessible policy underpinning the campaign and stating national objectives.” The anonymous soldier observed there is no such thing. Instead, “Australian policy for Afghanistan has been made by press conference and press release … [which] affirms a perception that all Australia is seeking in Afghanistan is to look good, not do good.”
The author’s father served in the 2/12 Australian Field Regiment in the Middle East and Pacific in World War II.
Sally Neighbour is a multiple award-winning journalist and author, best known for her work as a reporter with Four Corners, recognised by three Walkley Awards. She is the author of The Mother of Mohammed and In the Shadow of Swords.
A certain tone pervades the national conversation on the role of Australian troops in Afghanistan. We read it in the daily newspaper headlines: “Digger’s Mates Laud an Aussie Character”; “Digger’s Life was Noble”; “Afghanistan: The Untold Story of Australia’s Fight Against Evil”. We hear it when our politicians wax lyrical during parliamentary debates, such as this from Tony Abbott, quoting World War I historian Charles Bean: “What these men did nothing now can alter … Whatever glory it contains, nothing now can lessen. It rises, as it will always rise, above the mists of ages, a monument to great hearted men.” We see it in the tributes to our latest Victoria Cross winner, Corporal Ben Roberts-Smith, whose motto – “I will not fail my brothers” – is reportedly tattooed across his chest and who said it was “mateship” that made him brave a storm of gunfire to take out a Taliban...