The Greens attempt to challenge Australia’s Afghan war policy in parliament last year has by and large sunk without trace. In spite of recent polls showing overwhelming public opposition, Australia’s Afghan commitment rolls on, with the recent deaths of more Australian soldiers. And the war continues to claim the lives of Afghan civilians.
For the major “war” parties, and the military, political and media elites who support Australia’s war culture, it has been “as you were” since the parliamentary debate. For the Greens the debate reached an inevitable dead-end, based as it was around the limited argument that only parliament should approve foreign troop deployments. With the major parties supporting the Afghan commitment such a vote would make no difference to the current situation. While the recent military deaths has seen the Greens national parliamentary leadership renew calls for Australian troop withdrawals, a new, more assertive, strategy is called for.
Prime Minister Julia Gillard in her 2010 Christmas message remembered those Australian troops killed during 2010, - “they died for us” - and this sentiment has been re-enforced through the passing of another ANZAC Day, and the positive spin it places on the notion of “sacrifice”. But as playwright Alan Bennett put it in The History Boys, memorialising war is about forgetting its truths: “it's not lest we forget, it's lest we remember”. So what are the Greens to do in the face of the national amnesia underpinning Australia’s war culture?
Firstly they need to overcome their own timidity, reflected in an Afghan war debate in which no criticism was made of the Australia-US alliance, a crucial part of the war culture, and in which some Green MPs, in spite of their criticisms of the war, felt the need to fall in and march to an unqualified “we support out troops” cadence. This begs the question, support the troops doing what? The answer to this requires a little more historical depth and political courage. The Greens need to confront the war culture head on.
A starting point is to challenge Prime Minister Gillard’s assertion that troops killed in Afghanistan “died for us” and point out that in reality they have been sacrificed in the “national interest” of keeping the US on side in the US-Australia alliance, and that their names have been added to the more than 100,000 Australians killed in war in the past century, overwhelmingly lives thrown away in the interests of our British and American “great and powerful friends”. It is difficult to say this in the face of the grief felt by families of recently killed Australian troops but it has to be said. The sacrifice of tens of thousands of Australians in wars has not been noble. It has not been for “freedom” or for “us”. It has been a tragic waste. It is a sad reflection on Australia’s war culture that old soldiers from the great wars of the twentieth century, in their final years, have often lamented the futility of war, while young thrill-seekers continued to line up at the barracks gate.
While soldiers may have fought bravely and committed heroic deeds, fighting for their lives and looking out for each other, their deaths, and the, physical and psychological maiming of thousands more, has not been heroic but tragic. And we should particularly remember the lives lost in countries in which the Australian military forces have fought – the hundreds of thousands who have died in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. Their deaths remain unmourned, and the responsibility that Australian governments, military leaders, and ordinary soldiers, must to one degree or another bear for the role they have played in their deaths, has gone unacknowledged.
Even the Second World War, often seen as the “good war” because of its confrontation with fascism and the (only) direct threat to, and attacks, on Australia, had bad origins. These lay in the unfinished business of a disastrous post-World War One “Peace” Treaty; and the rivalry in the Pacific between the new empires of Japan and the US and the decaying colonial powers, Britain, France and the Netherlands. Australians were justifiably fighting to defend their country and oppose Japanese imperialism, as well as participate in the wider struggle against fascism. But their sacrifices were soon betrayed, as old empires were re-installed in Asia, laying the foundation for new wars, and a new waste of lives.
Australian historians debate the contested meanings of the ANZAC legends, and the recent upsurge in commemoration and remembrance at Gallipoli, the Western Front, and on the Kokoda track. It is by no means certain that young people in particular come away from these events uncritically supporting Australia’s participation in the wars of empire. But there is no doubt that the War Party: the pro-war leaderships of Australia’s two major governing party blocs and their attendant war machine, seeks to use these public commemorations to reinforce a positive view of Australia’s war culture, linked in to a populist “Aussie, Aussie, Aussie, Oi, Oi, Oi” nationalism, and overlaid with hypocritical and mawkish official expressions of sorrow for the lives of the fallen.
For the Greens, taking on this war culture will not be easy. Green policy already lays the foundation for this with its support for “the right of ADF personnel to conscientiously object to particular military actions”. But this needs to be more than a clause slumbering away on the Greens national policy manifesto. Federal Green MPs need to start publicly asserting this as both the right, and duty, of Australian military personnel. For example the Greens could encourage Australian troops to stay in their bases (defend themselves if they have to) and refuse to go out on patrols or other activities until the government brings them home. This goes to the heart of opposing the war culture of uncritical service to military alliances, challenging Australian soldiers in Afghanistan and elsewhere to accept a degree of moral responsibility for choosing to fight or not.
This is a complex question. Australian soldiers serve in the armed forces under threat of draconian disciplinary punishments. Equally complex are the reasons why young people choose to sign up to be part of the military, ranging from patriotism and military careerism through to naïve adventurism and economic conscription. So Greens need to be understanding of the pressures placed upon serving personnel. Responsibility for Australia’s war policy and culture ultimately lies with those at the top – the political and military leaderships. Nonetheless soldiers need to reflect on their own situation. This particularly applies to those serving in the special forces units, the aggressive arm of the military that is most implicated in civilian deaths and potentially in war crimes and human rights abuses. Let’s face it; you don’t get to be in the special forces unless you really want to be there.
Thus the statement that we must “support the troops” needs to be qualified. Yes support them in the circumstances where they find they have little choice but to obey their superiors. Yes support them if they suffer injury, physical or mental, as a result of their war service. Yes support them by demanding that they be brought home to their loved ones, and yes support them, most particularly, if they choose to conscientiously object to their war service. But we also need to make clear that this is not support for the war in which they fight, not for any re-writing of history to justify a sacrifice in lives as part of a disastrous war culture, and in the service of empire, and not for actions by soldiers that put Afghan civilians at risk and violate human rights.