Another Australian soldier dies in
Afghanistan, and his death is overshadowed by fierce rhetoric. There are the usual
obituaries, but a soldier’s death seems to be more a pretext for a foreign policy
debate than a time for mourning. In our morally relativist public sphere, where
all killing is murder and one death is equated to another, there is an ironic double
standard when it comes to human dignity.
A convicted terrorist becomes a household
name and is given a standing ovation, but we can’t even remember the name of the
Australian commando who was killed last month or how he died. There is horror and
outrage when we learn that the cattle we export are beaten, kicked, and whipped
prior to slaughter, but we conveniently ignore the gruesome injuries resulting from
improvised explosive devices (IEDs) that are the everyday reality of a soldier’s
life in Afghanistan. Even when we do have a feature article on a serving member
of our armed forces, it’s almost always posthumous.
I don’t think this is deliberate –
at least, not for most of us – but when we spend more time and effort saving cattle
from unnecessary pain and suffering than supporting the men and women who suffer
horrific injuries and sometimes death, fighting in dreadful conditions for our sake,
it suggests something is seriously out of kilter in our society. Soldiers are not
automatons. They are humans too.
Our observance of Anzac Day shows that
we do care, and we keenly feel the debt we owe to those who sacrifice their lives
for us. However, we often refuse to acknowledge a simple truth: the dead we mourn
not only died as combatants, they lived as combatants. Soldier X wasn’t just a good
husband and father. He was also a good soldier who killed to defend the defenceless.
He carried a genuine humanity with him into war, a defiant humanity that sought
to protect innocent civilians from the slaughter and persecution of despotic regimes.
He chose to fight at the peril of his life, and he didn’t die so that his death
could be used as a catalyst for a troop withdrawal.
If there is one thing we owe to those
who have been killed fighting in recent wars, it is the truth of their lives as
combatants. Not only do we pay scant attention to the vocation they pursue at great
personal cost, but as Bing West pointed out in his thought-provoking Wall Street Journal article “Meanwhile,
in the War in Afghanistan…”, “Hollywood’s recent war movies tend to feature
psychotics instead of heroes”. Back home in the United States, a Marine explains,
“a bad day for a guy on his way to the office is a flat tire”. A bad day in Afghanistan
is a “double amputee. The public pays attention to Charlie Sheen. No one’s heard
of Sgt. Abate.”
Whether we like it or
not, the public laps up the portrayal of soldiers as trigger-happy killers, especially
if they happen to be American. But as gung-ho as our American cousins may or may
not be, it is a cruel caricature. They do not lose sight of the gravity of their
job. As one instructor screamed at Donovan Campbell during his officer training,
“…the currency in which we trade is human lives. Do you think you can handle that
responsibility?” (1) The weight of that responsibility is illustrated admirably
in Toby Harnden’s masterful account of the Welsh Guards in Afghanistan, Dead Men Risen. It is a gripping testimony
to the individuality of soldiers and the humanity that pervades their work, perhaps
summed up in the words of Captain Terry Harman:
shell that is the human being is fragile. It’s a bit fractured. We crossed the line
of humanity. It’s difficult to fire a round knowing you’ll kill somebody. It’s also
difficult to have to sit there and take incoming rounds.” (2)
Occasionally we are reminded that our
armed forces personnel do so much more than engage in combat – indeed, some don’t
engage in combat at all. We read about women like Capt. Laura
Holmes whose work as a vet is much the same as at home except it is done in
body armour and forty degree heat with a guard of soldiers, or Capt.
Lisa Head who was killed defusing a daisy chain of IEDs, or agricultural
projects that encourage farmers to grow food crops instead of poppies.
But all this underscores our reluctance
to confront the core reality that they wouldn’t be there if our country were not
involved in a major armed conflict. Perhaps we don’t want to be confronted with
the uncomfortable realities for which we are indirectly responsible, but it could
be as simple as the fact that seen “through civilian eyes the Afghanistan mission
seems daunting, uninspiring, thankless.”
However, soldiers “see it differently.”
One sergeant in the Paras admitted that he wouldn’t exactly be “happy” to go back,
but “I feel it is my duty to go back. Quite simply… I believe it makes a difference
to the safety of everyone, my family included” (3). As Major Sean Birchall of the
Welsh Guards (killed in 2009 when an IED exploded underneath his vehicle) so succinctly
put it, “Either we do it there or we do it on the streets of England” (4).
Some may view this as misplaced idealism
and call it a waste of human life, but labelling it a waste undermines soldiers
and their work. It smacks of ingratitude and disrespect, because it suggests they
died for nothing, and it is at the very least ungracious. It’s like saying to someone
who’s bought you a gift, “I really don’t want your present, you’ve wasted your money”
– except the gift isn’t just some trifle, it’s a human life. Captain Andrew Tiernan of the Grenadier Guards, while on leave from service
in Afghanistan in 2009, expressed the annoyance so many soldiers feel:
“We often hear
people saying, yes, we support the soldiers but we don’t support the cause. Well,
the soldiers support the cause so if you really want to support the soldiers then the public should support the cause in Afghanistan.”
Soldiering in Afghanistan certainly
isn’t comfortable. In summer, the temperature reaches above 50 degrees Celsius during
the day, making a short walk with more than 55 kilograms of kit physically challenging
even for the fittest and strongest. At patrol bases and checkpoints, there is usually
no heat, running water, or electricity. Few soldiers escape a dose of dysentery
at some point during their deployment. Then there is the constant threat of IEDs, indiscriminate and
unpredictable low metal content bombs. If you’re British, your government may not
even provide life-saving equipment, such as a sufficiently-armoured tank or helicopter
for transport, or hand-held detectors with ground-penetrating radar for foot patrols.
Money is no incentive either. American
Marines only receive an extra $100 per month for the “hardship” of conditions in
Afghanistan, and if you’re a British Paratrooper, earning as little as £12,000
a year after tax, you may even return to a pay
cut of up to 10 percent. To add insult to injury,
if you’re American, your
President will spend his Memorial Day afternoon playing a round of golf instead
of meeting with veterans and families of the fallen.
The significance of these details isn’t
just that it’s a hard life. It’s evidence of the dedication and selflessness that
predominates in a dangerous profession that has cost well over two thousand lives
in Afghanistan alone. Too often the headlines
are dominated by ‘mistakes’ our forces have made, civilian casualties on the wrong
end of our ordnance. Quite apart from the inaccuracy of reporting, we hear little
of the good they do or the challenges they face. Soldiers do not want to be pitied
as victims of war, even if it is true that many return maimed or psychologically
scarred. They merely wish to be respected. So, unless we acquaint ourselves with
the human side of soldiering, the individuality of each person is subsumed.
While we may sit at home
and think about the war in simplistic terms, envisaging two sides lined up against
each other in a shoot-out, the reality is much more complicated and heartbreaking.
Telling the difference between an enemy fighter and a civilian can be problematical,
and even when our troops risk their own lives in a policy of ‘courageous restraint’,
civilians still die, and the trauma is something our troops must live with for the
rest of their lives.
Sometimes, even the instinct
for self-preservation is disregarded. Donovan Campbell recounts delaying the withdrawal
of his platoon to help children on the receiving end of an Iraqi rocket-propelled
grenade. One Marine said that, as they tried to help the wounded children, “all
he could think of was his own daughter. She was the same age as the shredded thing
that he now held so tenderly”.(6) The consequence was, however, that one Marine
ended up dead after having his legs severed at the knees. They had gone beyond the
call of duty, into the realm of human compassion:
“I know that we
saved a few of the kids, and I can only hope that some of the children survived
who otherwise wouldn’t have, because God knows we paid a terrible enough price for
We cannot afford to be
selective in our respect for human dignity. Soldiers know there will be casualties
and accept that their profession is one that involves death and dying, but in reconciling
themselves to the proximity of death they do not cast aside their humanity. It is
not enough that we carve the names of the dead on war memorials. We must remember
them while they yet live.
Mishka Gora is a freelance writer and photographer living in Tasmania.
She worked in the former Yugoslavia as a humanitarian aid worker during the 1991-1995
(1) Donovan Campbell, Joker One, Random House, New York, 2009, p. 9
(2) Toby Harnden, Dead Men Risen: The Welsh
Guards and the Real Story of Britain’s War in Afghanistan, Quercus, London, 2011, p. 512.
(3) Patrick Bishop, Ground Truth, Harper Press, London, 2009, p. 303.
(4) Dead Men
(5) Dead Men
Risen, p. 228.
(6) Joker One, p. 223.
(7) Joker One, p. 228.