We might call it The Gallipoli Syndrome. It is the belief, or the half-belief, that a massive defeat is a victory. 9/11 is like this; the killing of Martin Luther King; the killing of John F Kennedy; the executions that followed the Easter Rising; the First Battle of the Somme.
It is a foolish delusion of course, connected sometimes to the pride of nations. It was what called the Surge and the subsequent pull-out a victory, of sorts, in Iraq. It is what now, in the scramble to avoid further Green On Blue ‘incidents’ (midnight murders, parade ground mutinies, uniformed suicide bombings) in Afghanistan, is called ‘sticking to our mission’ or ‘leaving the Afghan Government with a good chance of achieving its goals’.
We are told Afghanistan is worth it. That our ‘mission’ there, to kill as many Taliban as we can before we ask them into a coalition and leave, is a good mission, and it somehow improves the lives of the children it does not kill; or cause, in a few years, the killing of, and their mothers, and fathers, and uncles, and the blowing up of their villages by a new wave of history.
But it is a logical absurdity, and of it John Cantwell, a traumatised major-general, his face a map of pain, spoke well on Lateline last night with Emma Alberici.
Alberici: Major John Cantwell, on Afghanistan you write of being haunted by the lives lost there. The Government for its part says though there’ve been many achievements in Afghanistan – life expectancy up by five years to forty-eight, many more children in schools, the people generally enjoying greater freedoms than they did in 2001 — but, in your view, have those gains at all been worth the painful losses for Australia?
Cantwell: Well, I don’t think so, Emma, to be absolutely honest. I acknowledge all of those things and it’s absolutely true that the extraordinary efforts and courage and endurance of our servicemen and women have produced some very good improvements – from a very low base. Sure, the Afghan life expectancy might have improved; it’s still amongst the worst in the world. Sure, the education’s better; it’s still amongst the worst in the world. Women and girls are still deeply disadvantaged, health is appalling, governance is broken. Let’s not delude ourselves we’ve created a Garden of Eden in Afghanistan. It’s never going to happen. But what I would contend is while acknowledging all of those advances that we’ve made, and they have been made at terrible cost, I would just put the view that for someone like me, who isn’t a politician, who isn’t required to strut the world stage, but was indeed required to look in the eye soldiers who were out on patrol, who were doing the job that they’d been sent to do despite its dangers every day, willingly, bravely, remarkably well, look them in the eye and then perhaps see them, as I did, unfortunately, on a slab in a morgue. And that’s when I asked myself, “Is that life worth it?” And I am of the view that the life of every one of those soldiers and the ten in particular that I was responsible for is so valuable, you can’t just say, “Oh, and by the way we’ve improved schooling in Uruzgan.” I don’t buy that. The lives are worth more than that. And despite our best efforts, I don’t think it’s justified.
Alberici: One of the most troubling recollections in your book was when you talk about the first of the ten soldiers you lost in 2010, the first two when you asked the doctor in the morgue not to zip the bag because you wanted to have a last goodbye. Was that part of your healing process, that ritual that you then continued?
Cantwell: I don’t think it was part of a healing process and I didn’t think about it that way. Perhaps it was indeed an addition to the sadness that I felt. But I did feel compelled to say goodbye. I felt responsible. I felt accountable. And that is a notion which is a bit slippery in our current society: the notion that it’s someone’s fault. Eventually someone has to be accounted. And I felt that I was the one who had to be called to account and I felt at the very least that I could say goodbye personally, make sure that those fallen soldiers were treated with deep dignity and respect and say goodbye. And that was something that I wanted to do, I felt strongly about and a number of the families who I’ve kept in touch with have thanked me for that because in some cases, because of the nature of the wounds, they couldn’t say goodbye themselves. And at least someone said goodbye to their loved one. And I feel that that was a positive in a very bad situation.
… Anyone who sees this utterance and this good man’s face will be moved by it. For it speaks not just of a syndrome — Survivor’s Guilt – – common in any war, or earthquake, or road accident, or nuclear meltdown, or tsunami. It speaks of being in the wrong war, in unwinnable terrain, against a host of differing tribes with different priorities and different moral emphases we cannot hope to ‘re-educate’ in the two years we have left. It cannot be done, any more.
We should get out soon.
We will feel so much better when we do.
And whatever major political party suggests it will win in a walk.