Years ago, when I was involved in much less activism than I am today, I used to play footy with a number of guys who were in the Australian army. One of these guys missed a chunk of the season when he had to go to Afghanistan on service. When he got back, I asked him what it had been like over there. He told me he didn’t want to talk about it.
I instantly realised what a stupid question it was. Of course he didn’t want to talk about it! I was genuinely interested in what the situation was like in Afghanistan, but I had asked him as if he was getting back from a holiday, completely ignorant of the trauma and mental struggle that a soldier in a warzone has to deal with.
I still cringe when I recall that moment, but I also think that in that environment I can’t completely take the blame. In fact, while the first and second world wars virtually shut down societies around the world (even to the point where the Olympics and all other sporting competitions stopped running); while the defining images of the 60’s and 70’s are of mass resistance to the Vietnam war; if history tries to record how our society was affected by the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, it will have to note that it was overwhelmingly the war we didn’t notice.
Several years later, I was arrested protesting the still ongoing war. As I was taken into the station, a policeman there asked what I was there for. When he was told it was an anti-war protest, he responded by making a joke that went something like: “What? There’s a war going on outside? Why didn’t anyone tell me?”
I didn’t know what to say. I couldn’t have explained why I was doing the protest better if I had tried. Of course there was a war going on outside. It’s just that it wasn’t our towns that bombs were being dropped on, wasn’t our family who were being killed because they happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. But it was our taxes that were paying for the bombs and guns.
Of course, many people will remember that the beginning of the Iraq war was met with millions of people taking part in protest marches around the world – possibly the biggest mass protests in history. But they were ignored by governments, and the protests didn’t last. Before too long it was possible to forget that the war was even happening.
And that’s pretty much the way it remained, despite huge death tolls, despite the sheer length (the Afghanistan war was longer than the first and second world wars combined, and even that stat is assuming that it actually ever finished), despite the legacy of PTSD and radiation poisoning from depleted uranium weapons, the war was the furthest thing from most of our minds as we went about our daily lives.
Now it should definitely not be claimed that this is just the result of people’s apathy. There were powerful forces who did their best to make sure we didn’t hear too much about what was happening – a military that kept a tight hold on what information could be made publicly available, and a mass media that rarely showed much interest in trying to dig deeper.
For the world to actually find out what was happening in Iraq required brave whistleblowers like Chelsea Manning risking life in prison to leak classified information to the public. When she leaked those files, Chelsea said she hoped they would bring “worldwide discussion, debates, and reforms… I want people to see the truth, regardless of who they are… because without information, you cannot make informed decisions as a public.”
I think that these leaks were phenomenally important for showing us both what was happening in the war and what lengths our governments and military would go to ensure information remained secret. But unfortunately, Chelsea Manning is now serving 35 years in a US military prison, and it’s hard to argue that those things she hoped for have come to pass.
I thought about all this last week. As the media was entranced by stories of the first world war and the ‘centenary of ANZAC’, the Australian government announced that we would be sending infantry troops back to Iraq, that place we had supposedly left triumphantly having turned an evil dictatorship into a healthy democracy.
Given the respective media coverage of these two deployments of Australian troops to the Middle East, you could be forgiven for mistaking which one happened last week and which one happened 100 years ago. I guess with the passage of time it’s easier to make a good story about Gallipoli, one based on virtues of courage and sacrifice, where a military defeat can be viewed as an act of heroic bravery.
Of course, there are things we forget in our stories of Gallipoli too – while it might be mentioned that the ANZACs were sent to the slaughter by foolish British generals, rarely is the question asked what we were doing invading Turkey anyway. Nor is there much mention made of dissent to the war at home, despite the fact that two separate referendums to introduce military conscription were defeated (they learned their lesson for Vietnam and just skipped the referendum). And rarely do we try to draw links between that war and the one we are still fighting a century later, despite the fact that the nation of Iraq only came into existence in the post-war carve up of the Middle East by the colonial powers who emerged from World War One victorious.
Not paying close attention to the wars we are involved in means we can avoid tricky questions about our involvement – the reasons why we’re there and what the consequences might be. It means we can look at things like terrorist attacks or refugees and think that they are completely isolated issues in which only other people are responsible, not us. It means we don’t have to empathise with those who are on the other side of the conflict, that we can keep the morality black and white.
But unfortunately it means hiding from the truth. It means not seeing the part ourselves and our lifestyles play in the story. And it leaves us no closer to avoiding the next war, one where we possibly won’t have the luxury of being able to forget it’s happening.
These days I don’t claim to know everything about the wars that Australia and our allies are fighting. I don’t claim to hold a perfect moral position. But one thing I try to do is to not be ignorant or inactive about what our military is doing and what my role is in it.
Unfortunately this has at times meant that I’ve offended people, or been seen as starting conflicts with others (probably including some of my old footy mates, though I don’t see them much any more). But there’s still a war going on after all, and I don’t want to just forget about it. I want to play a role that I can be proud of, both today and in the future. Because not doing anything about it doesn’t mean you’re not involved in the war.