Thursday, 14 October 2010

I Talk to the Wind

I'm on the outside looking inside
What do I see
Much confusion
All around me.
I Talk to the Wind, King Crimson


Afghanistan is back in the news. No, the question of whether Australian soldiers should be there or not isn’t finally on our agenda. What we do have is a mix of Liberals asking to bolster Aussie military presence at Afghanistan (here), Australian soldiers being put on trial for allegedly not being too nice to the locals (here), and the latest – Tony Abbott not being particularly happy with the way his visit to Afghanistan was covered by the media. Tough luck, Tony.
I am of the opinion that the first two items are directly linked. The more soldiers you will have in Afghanistan, the more friction their presence there would cause with the locals. However, the question that is on the agenda at the moment is whether soldiers should be put on trial in the first place. As someone with a record of serving in an occupying army myself, I would like to discuss the matter from the point of view of a person who has seen it all during four years at the West Bank.

The similarities between Israel’s conflicts and Australia’s involvement in Afghanistan have been discussed before in my review for the Israeli film Beaufort. This time around, though, I want to discuss the specific issues of morality at hand.
I have had the pleasure (note the heavy sarcasm) of serving in the Israeli army during the days of the first Intifada. Back then the Palestinians didn’t have guns; stones were the main threat. On the other hand, the Israeli army took pride in its self awarded title of being “the most moral army in the world”; officially, we weren't allowed to shoot back at stone throwers.
Now, you could just sit back and relax when you read that stones are the biggest threat we’ve faced, but you’d be wrong: stones can kill, stones can maim. Granted, guns do it much more efficiently, but think of this: think of scenarios where a big block hits your car’s windshield as you’re driving at 70km/h, and think what the result could be. Or think about being surrounded by hundreds of people throwing stones at you: each of the individual stones is relatively harmless, but combine them all and you’re in for a pretty scary experience.
How can someone placed under such circumstances react? My experience indicates they can react along several paths. One can simply avoid conflict and run away, perhaps even migrate to another country on the other side of the world. Another can turn the other chick and respond with kindness; I have been privileged to witness a few such occurrences myself. The third, and by far the most popular course of action, was to respond by being harsher. Sadly, when one side tends to look at the other through the barrel of a gun, you can take it for granted that gun would eventually be put to use. Indeed, that third course of action is the one responsible for the bigger impressions left on me from my army days (probably one of the main reasons I chose to flee).
Harshness can manifest itself in various ways. It can materialize as shooting tear gas or rubber bullets at innocent bystanders and it can materialize as beating people with sticks without much justification. It also comes in subtler ways, which can even be crueller because of their very subtlety: holding people up in security barriers for no particular reason, even though the people you’re holding have a life of their own to live with its own issues and troubles. Or the phenomenon that was most popular during my days in the army, waking families up in the middle of the night to force them to climb ladders and remove Palestinian flags placed in all sorts of hard to reach places.
Should those extra harsh soldiers be put to trial? Aren’t they just doing what their country sent them out to do?
If you ask me I would tell you that of course they should. Despite the best of army training, these rigorous subjections that are meant to make one into a fighting animal that obeys commands and forgets its capacity to think, each soldier is an autonomous unit capable of independent rational thinking. If those units are unable to use their own brains to figure out the immorality of their actions then they should pay the price for making others suffer for it. This is not the case of someone driving to work in the morning and happening to hit a child on the way; with these cases of soldiers' harshness, whether they were in life threatening situations or not, there was undeniable intent on behalf of the soldiers to cause harm.
That said, I agree that extreme situations can get the better of anyone. You can’t expect a soldier getting hit with stones on a daily basis not to lose it after a while. Abu Ghraib was hosted by people who were probably nice up until circumstances drove them into an Apocalypse Now like state.
Yes, the soldiers are to blame. If you ask me, though, the true criminal is not the soldier; the true criminal is the one who put the soldier in this impossible scenario in the first place. The true criminal is the politician sending the soldier to the hot zone.

Why shoot the messenger? The ones that should be put on trial are our distinguished leaders. The people who, in the name of making their political fortunes, are willing to send thousands of people like you and I into hellish conditions - and then put us on trial when we misfire, and misfire we will because we are only humans. The Tony Blairs, the George Bushes, the John Howards: they are the ones that need to stand in front of a judge and jury and justify sending thousands, perhaps millions, to slaughter.
If we narrow our focus on Australia and ask ourselves exactly why John Howard & Co sent our troops to Iraq and Afghanistan, and exactly why Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard have avoided doing anything to change that status quo, and why almost everyone else around them is making sure the question of our troops being there is kept well off our agenda, the answer is fairly obvious:
  • Our troops are there because American troops are there.
  • America is Australia's only feasible defense in case major aggressors (say, China) decide to have a feel.
  • If Australia wants to have a hope of enjoying such a defensive envelope, Australia needs to kiss up. That is, send troops.
That's all there is to it.
Now, I'm not trying to question the logic behind this defense strategy that all Australian major party politicians seems to blindly follow (even though I personally think it's ridiculous). All I'm trying to say here is that we, as in the Australian society, should put our cards on the table and openly state the way things are. We should call a spade a spade.
In our case, we should say that soldiers dying in Afghanistan, the billions we spend there, the civilian casualties we cause, and the soldiers we are now putting on trial - these are all a part of Australia's real defense budget. Only when we acknowledge this fact do we have a hope of ever sorting ourselves out.

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