There's an increasing divide between the war and the words surrounding what's actually happening.
This column displays two instances of the divergence . . .
AGAIN, IN THE WAKE OF THE TRAGIC LOSS OF ANOTHER BRAVE AUSTRALIAN SOLDIER IN AFGHANISTAN . . .
“Our nation”, Julia Gillard began, “once again has to absorb the news of a loss in Afghanistan . . . another brave Australian soldier . . . a dreadful blow for our nation”. A few sentiments recurred in her short statement. “Tragic” (four times), “loss” (separately, four times), “family” (four times), “mission” (three times), “blow” (twice), and “condolences” (twice). Gillard felt sure that people “will stop, will reflect and will mark with respect the loss of this brave (again) soldier and will honour his service and his sacrifice”.
Finally, the Prime Minister then reiterated why she thinks we’re there. “To make sure that Afghanistan would not continue to be a safe-haven for terrorists”, she insists, “a mission with a defined purpose and a defined time-line”. Gillard paused. Perhaps she’d run out of platitudes. “I’ll have the Minister for Defence make some statements now.”
Every death is, indeed, terrible. The loss of a soldier is no less so simply because he is a battle fatality. And the death of SAS Sergeant Blaine Diddams, husband and father of two young children, carries with it an appalling personal cost for those left behind. That is why we do not choose, casually, to go to war. But all too often this natural grief and mourning is used as a cover: an excuse to prevent deeper analysis and examination of the rhetoric that’s quickly brought out to wrap-over uncomfortable details.
Firstly, take the valley where Diddams was killed. We’ve been fighting in the Chora since 2007. When I was in this same district last year I was taken to the first patrol base the Diggers handed over to full Afghan National Army (ANA) control. The previous day there’d been a full, company-level battle less than five kilometres away. Travel anywhere required an armoured escort. In March a suicide bomber seriously wounded AusAID’s David Savage in this same area. And it appears that today the Taliban can still infiltrate through this area at will, on their way to and from Kabul. Because that’s how Diddams died. His SAS team came under fire after they’d been flown to the area by helicopter – they were apparently trying to stop (kill) a ‘high-value target’ on his way to the capital. Defence won’t say they succeeded in stopping the Talibs, leading one to suspect they didn’t. When we leave in a year’s time there will be no helicopters left to interdict the insurgents. There’s some evidence of strategic progress . . . but not nearly enough to suggest that we’re ‘winning’.
If Gillard’s definition of the mission is correct; then lets admit the truth. We’ve lost. The only part of the designated objective we’re meeting is the ‘time-line’ part. The soldiers will be withdrawn in accordance with the schedule already laid down, for political reasons, by Canberra. Unfortunately we’re so busy using jargon to obscure what’s really happening that we’ve begun to space-shift. We no longer inhabit the real world, because that one is becoming far too confronting. Instead we’re creating our own fantasy to live in and this is the second aspect of what’s happening in Afghanistan. And nobody understands this better than those responsible for our deployment, such as the commanders of the Mentoring Task Force’s that have been working with the ANA.
This week the War Studies Department of Kings College, London, got hold of one part of a classified post-tour report from one of these Lieutenant Colonels. It was reprinted on the Kings of War blog to acclaim in cyberspace. It’s not difficult to see why. The CO dealt, thoughtfully and intelligently, with cultural issues that politicians and diplomats have learnt to avoid. The CO’s Observations don’t make easy reading for anyone who still believes our soldiers are, somehow and effortlessly, the ‘best in the world’; natural inheritors of the ANZAC tradition. He relentlessly makes the point that our national culture is not merely becoming divorced from achieving the objective: it’s positively militating against accomplishing the mission.
His sub-headings are unyielding. They all bespeak a society that’s increasingly loosing its way. Discipline isn’t breaking down under hardship, or the strain of battle, but rather through “sloth and inactivity”. (Is this really a military document using as it does the beautiful word Old English word sloth, originating in the twelfth century, with its Biblical echo of sinfulness?) Soldiers possessed a “distorted and fanciful perception” of their job, questioning orders and even discarding indispensable field-craft techniques as “unnecessary rules”. He relates how careless attitudes to weapons handling almost led to a serious and tragic accident on Christmas Day, describing the “fine line between relaxed expectations of appearance, plain carelessness, and just being a slob.”
Perhaps the CO’s most serious criticism is the way the hype, generated by the empty phrases and meaningless banality of the stock phrases (such as those expressed by Julia Gillard) are affecting our forces. “The hyperbole surrounding the contribution of Australian soldiers in Afghanistan makes the soldiers feel entitled to be treated almost as Roman gladiators. They give the impression that they expect everyone, including their superiors, to lavish them with attention and unregulated time when between tasks. They seem to expect a blind eye to be turned toward their petty indiscretions between tasks too.”
The critical point about this indictment is not simply that it represents some ‘old fogey’ lamenting slipping standards. These are the vital thoughts of a commander who wants to win. He’s an officer who follows ideas through to their logical conclusions and only too often he discovers cultural ‘norms’ have become obstacles getting in the way of the task. In Vietnam, Australian soldiers used to live alongside our allies, sharing their dangers. In Orüzgan, “short-sighted expedience” has resulted in a “gross and careless disparity in living conditions. [We] accept a flagrant display of superiority and inequality.”
His words forcefully compress my own feelings after staying in the sprawling, air-conditioned, Australian base. “The multi‐million dollar hardened accommodation block at Tarin Khot will stand as a permanent monument to this recent and abhorrent phenomenon [the double standard for diggers]. Behind this tendency is an almost un‐Australian acceptance of the overt inequality with an unhealthy attitude of, ‘well too bad.’ In essence, institutional tendencies are reinforcing characteristics such as arrogance, carelessness and self‐indulgence.”
There’s more, much more, and none of it’s pretty reading that will buttress the pretty assurances from our politicians. That’s why these reports are kept classified. Everyone knows that if information, real information, is released it will prick ugly holes in the soft yarn that’s being spun about sacrifice and tragedy.
It also explains why Defence still has one corps that won’t need to worry about cuts from the razor gang. Her Majesty’s Own Royal Section of PR Spinners will remain untouched, because we’ll always need someone to reassure us we’ve won – whatever the reality.