28 April 2013

Iraq: a war widow’s view

On Saturday 27 April The Canberra Times published an opinion piece by Kellie Merritt, an Iraq war widow, social worker and mother. Her husband Flight Lieutenant Paul Pardoel was an Australian navigator who served with the RAAF for 15 years, before transferring to the RAF in 2002. Paul was killed with nine other British service members when their Hercules was shot down in Iraq on January 30, 2005.

It is a powerful and thoughtful piece with some important reflections on the responsibilities of governments contemplating deploying their armed forces into international armed conflict.

What price humanitarian war?

Justification for war in Iraq was tenuous in 2003. A decade later it is even more so, writes war widow KELLIE MERRITT.
I did what I did. It's all on the public record and I feel very good about it … If I had to do it over again, I'd do it in a minute.
- Dick Cheney

If we hadn't removed Saddam from power just think, what would be happening if these Arab revolutions were continuing now … Think of the consequences of leaving that regime in power.
- Tony Blair

That was the thing about the Howard government: we stood for something. And one of the things we stood for was freedom.
- Alexander Downer

Perhaps it is a little unfair to quote out of context, but these quotes illuminate the thinking of three men who dodged and re-shaped the principles, rules and norms that limit and define the justifications for waging war. Although their reflections mark the 10-year anniversary of the war they began, their reasoning seems more elusive than ever.

The fluid narrative of justification, liberation and self-congratulation is so removed from the reasons they gave 10 years ago and so oblivious to the consequences 10 years on, that it trivialises war. They ask us to consider the case for war on a humanitarian platform, but on scaffolding underpinned by only half of the human story. They use the misery of the Iraqi people under Saddam Hussein as a framework but refuse to balance the platform by acknowledging the Iraqis' suffering during and after the war; the result is a precarious structure.

Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis have been killed. In 2006, one survey (The Lancet) estimated 654,965 deaths had resulted from the war; millions more have been injured. Close to 1.8 million Iraqis have fled their country since the war began.

Another 1.6 million make up the internally displaced. These ''humanitarian'' warriors view Iraq through such a narrow lens that the image portrayed is self-serving and deceptive. What about an authentic reflection on the reasons, both public and private, for the war and the human cost? Is it unfair to ask?

I watched, listened and read about the "shock and awe" campaign as it unfolded. I would do it in private, mostly at night while my three children were in bed. They missed their dad but they did not yet fear for his life. Paul had already been coming and going from Afghanistan. He was now in Iraq, a country he would ultimately not return alive from.

The experience of my husband serving in two distinct wars was about to become both a blur and a routine. On the home front, I buffered our children from unthinkable possibilities, while it seemed that our political leaders were doing their own form of buffering to all of us on the domestic and international fronts.

I was anxious, but my anxiety was tempered by my conscience - my home was not being bombed, my children were safe and my husband was a voluntary member of the military. Who was I to feel afraid or complain? Now, as a military war widow, a public conscience kicks in - what do I have to fear or complain about? The ceremonial acknowledgments of sacrifice and remembrance are not new to a war widow and not something to take for granted. However, I do wonder if I would sit more comfortably or graciously in these settings had Paul been killed in Afghanistan rather than Iraq?

Perhaps it is this discomfort that fuels my reflections on the Iraq war and the leaders who still do not seem to entertain any doubt about their decisions. I get that the military-political relationship is a central element of a functioning Western democracy. I know that the protection and promotion of democracy and effective use of the military falls to our elected politicians.

We have all seen governments call on their military to kill and be killed for political, ideological and moral reasons. The context of most wars is complex but the institutions and processes which transform disapproval into sanctions, sanctions into conflict and conflict into invasion seem all too malleable.

Even so, I still can't understand how the case for a unilateral pre-emptive war on Iraq was sustainable at the time, let alone with the benefit of hindsight. As ''meaningful'' factors - in the case of Iraq - such as, a UN Security Council resolution, continuing UN weapons inspections, evidence of al-Qaeda links to Saddam Hussein and weapons of mass destruction fell by the wayside, a vacuum was created. That vacuum was filled by political rhetoric and an artificial notion of urgency - and so the war proceeded. If my powers of comprehension were tested by the reasons for going to war, the deeply flawed and chaotic post-invasion nation-building strategy didn't help.

As my children and I have been forced to restructure our lives without Paul, I have watched the restructured Iraq still in turmoil and its wounded people still mired in confusion and dispossession. Free of the Saddam regime's brutality, certainly - but not of their own making - and by no means free of further conflict, bloodshed and uncertainty.

That this debacle could be one of the catalysts for the re-election of Howard, Bush and Blair was exasperating. It illustrated to me how pervasive a non-critical view of war could become when a nation's electorate is not - by and large - affected by its ravages; I finally got that I was naive.

In 2004, I started to reflect - in the context of Iraq - on the fairness of the military-political relationship. I began to struggle with the concept and implications of military service, balanced with the toll it took on our young family. Was it worth it … worth Paul's life? I talked with Paul about resigning - which he did - the resignation process would take 12 months. Paul died - with nine of his military friends - on his last deployment to Iraq on January 30, 2005. That day marked the first ''free'' election day in Iraq, a day of liberation, or so the politicians said in their condolence letters.

Paul's Hercules was shot down over the Tigris River, somewhere between Baghdad and Balad. Clearly, the virtues of democracy delivered by an occupying force were not worth celebrating for the Sunni Iraqis who pulled the trigger.

If I had responded to the condolence letters sent by various politicians I would have thanked them for their letters. I would have said that my family honoured the expectations and obligations that are implicit between military families and their governments; that we put the needs of country and defence before our own.

I would have said that, in turn, governments owe a duty of care to military families that was undermined in the pursuit of a pre-emptive war. I would have asked them why they didn't reaffirm the reasons they gave to invade Iraq.

I would have said that while I shared their noble hope that Iraq would be free and liberated, their post-invasion nation-building strategy was palpably inconsistent with this commitment. I would have said that the condolence that Paul died bringing peace and freedom to the Iraqi people would have been reassuring if it wasn't so misleading, but that my pride in Paul was unshakable.

We need to learn about what happened in Iraq and the reasoning behind it, because the reflections of Cheney, Blair and Downer (and Howard's reflections during his address at Lowy Institute more recently) 10 years on suggest that they have forgotten. It is no longer appropriate for these men to continue to shape and dominate the political and rhetorical landscape - on Iraq - as they did 10 years ago.

Their thoughts and recollections - 10 years on - only seem like attempts to shape their jealously guarded historical legacies. I think we deserve better than that.

The decision to wage war requires a nation's attention, (not just from its political elite). It is time now for the Australian people and their government to hold a transparent and frank inquiry into the Iraq War and to give that inquiry the attention it deserves.

Perhaps my imaginary letter back to government would also have included my hope for such an inquiry to be held; my hope that this inquiry leads to Australians reconsidering their acquiescence in this tragic war and my hope that such an inquiry bears witness to the war's human cost and brings some small redemption for those killed and injured in Iraq.

For the original article as published in the online version of The Canberra Times see What price humanitarian war?

27 April 2013

Vale Ted Pocock AO, 1934-2013

Yesterday’s edition of The Sydney Morning Herald carries an obituary of my late friend and former colleague Ted Pocock, who died during the night of 28-29 March after a short illness.

Ted had a very distinguished diplomatic career, being posted successively as Australian Ambassador to the Republic of Korea, the Soviet Union, France & UNESCO, Pakistan and the European Union. His wife Meg, a University of New England graduate, has been a friend since university days; I first got to know Ted when he was Minister in the Australian Mission to the OECD, and I was one of the Australian delegates to the series of meetings convened in Paris by Henry Kissinger in 1976 to “bust OPEC” – the so-called Conference on International Economic Co-operation.

For the second of those meetings I was accompanied by my family and we enjoyed the generous hospitality of the Pococks as their house-guests in their apartment in the Rue du Boccador. In the course of that visit we spent a delightful weekend with them at Memillon, between Bonneval and Chateaudun, where I took this photo of Ted and his son Tig.

One permanent memorial to Ted is to be found on the school building at the iconic (to Australians) village of Villers-Bretonneux, where on Anzac Day 1988 Ted and French Defence Minister André Giraud unveiled a plaque to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the recapture of the village by Australian soldiers.

For the SMH obituary, written by Tim McDonald, see Diplomat reached out to dissidents. Ted was a consummate professional, and this obituary captures him nicely. He will be sadly missed by his many friends.

26 April 2013

Lessons from history not learned by politicians

Today’s edition of The Australian carried a piece by defence writer Brendan Nicholson summarising the views of distinguished military historian Robert O’Neill AO, Chair of the International Academic Advisory Committee at the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, as presented in a chapter he contributed to Gallipoli: A Ridge Too Far, edited by Ashley Ekins of the Australian War Memorial.

The text follows:

Lessons from history not learned by politicians

Brendan Nicholson

THE confused thinking behind the disastrous Gallipoli campaign persists a century later and was evident in the military interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Robert O'Neill, one of Australia's most respected historians, describes in a new book on Gallipoli how "blindness and miscomprehension" about Turkey's ability to defend itself was repeated in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan.

In Gallipoli A Ridge Too Far, edited by Ashley Ekins of the Australian War Memorial, Dr O'Neill says lessons that should have been learned in the Gallipoli campaign still bedevil current conflicts.

Under Winston Churchill's direction, the Allied nations sent a potent force to take on what they considered to be an unsophisticated enemy, but they miscalculated badly.

"Once again, clever people in national capitals had failed utterly to learn how other armies might be able to defend their own territory and compensate for their lack of firepower and communications by the bravery and determination of individual troops, their NCOs and officers," Dr O'Neill writes.

And so the troops were ground down by the superior strength of the Turks, the weather, lack of water and dysentery.

"How strange it is that Winston Churchill, a voracious student of military history, thought that a force of some 60,000 men, backed by the Royal Navy, would rapidly induce a Turkish collapse leading to the seizure and occupation of Constantinople," Dr O'Neill says.

"He saw the Ottoman Empire as moribund. Unfortunately the Ottoman Empire in 1914 had plenty of fight left in it."

Dr O'Neill says the Allied decision making process was dominated by Churchill and he quotes Charles Bean's observation on how through "the fatal power of a young enthusiasm to convince older and slower brains, the tragedy of Gallipoli was born".

Sadly, he says, this tendency on the part of forceful and determined political leaders such as Richard Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, is still with us.

That was manifest in the US-led "shock and awe" campaign against Saddam Hussein.

Dr O'Neill also notes that at Gallipoli the British built a significant part of the Turkish defences that destroyed several massive allied warships. That mistake was repeated when Western nations helped Saddam Hussein in Iraq wage war against Iran.

"Like Churchill in 1915, our governments need to think harder about the possible consequences when they give military assistance to foreign countries," he says.

"More recently we have learned through painful experience in Vietnam and Iraq, and now in Afghanistan, that such blindness and miscomprehension is still to be encountered regularly in our own governments and their agencies.

"The lessons from history's pages are obvious but do we have politicians who are prepared to take the time necessary, and do the hard studying, to develop real expertise in the management of international security policy?

"The experience of the past decade suggests that we are as far from that goal as were the national leaders of 1914-15."

24 April 2013

The right to choose an assisted death: time for legislation?

What: Launch of the Australia21 report: The Right to Choose an Assisted Death: Time for Legislation?
Who: Launched by Emeritus Professor The Hon Peter Baume AC
Where: Room 2S3, Parliament House Canberra
When: 10.30am Friday 26 April 2013.

A report on assisted dying prepared by Australia21 will be launched by Emeritus Professor The Hon Peter Baume AC at Parliament House, Canberra at 10:30am on Friday 26 April.

The report follows a high-level roundtable held in Brisbane in January on the question “How should Australia regulate voluntary euthanasia and assisted suicide?” The roundtable brought together a group of former politicians, doctors, lawyers, palliative care workers, students and opponents and supporters of assisted dying following their review of a discussion paper on assisted dying prepared by two senior Queensland legal academics, Professors Ben White and Lindy Wilmott of the Health Law Research Centre, Faculty of Law, Queensland University of Technology..

The lead author of the report and convenor of the roundtable, Emeritus Prof Bob Douglas AO said:

World views on assisted dying are changing rapidly. In recent years a number of jurisdictions around the world have decriminalized assisted suicide and voluntary euthanasia with generally satisfactory outcomes. National polls make it clear that Australians want to have this possibility available to them as they approach the end of their lives. The issue has been extensively debated in the past in both state and federal parliaments, but has been heavily opposed by a small but highly influential segment of the Australian population  Our report presents both sides of the argument and concludes in favour of legislative action to protect doctors and patients alike who wish to choose assisted dying.

Co-author of the report, legal academic Professor Ben White said:

The current law on voluntary euthanasia and assisted suicide is flawed. The law lacks coherence and there is a body of evidence that shows it is not being followed. Reform is needed.

Professor Baume has been a practising clinician, public health academic, Senator, Federal Health Minister and Chancellor of the Australian National University. He undertook published research into the attitudes and practices of Australian doctors to euthanasia during the 1990s. He also participated in the Australia21 roundtable discussion which prompted this report.

Contact:      Emeritus Professor Bob Douglas   0409 233 138
  Professor Ben White                             0422 538 895

15 April 2013

CIWI crowd-sourcing its public affairs campaign

Campaign for an Iraq War Inquiry (ABRN 162 022 979) is seeking donations from the general public to support the implementation of its media strategy in pursuit of the following objectives:
1.  To campaign for an inquiry into the steps which led to Australia participating in the invasion of Iraq, for the purposes of identifying the lessons to be learned and of developing better procedures for the future.
2.  To promote public awareness of the procedures required by current law for the deployment of the Australian Defence Force into international armed conflicts, and of the risks involved in the current arrangements.
3.  To campaign for the involvement of the Commonwealth Parliament in any future deployment of the Australian Defence Force into international armed conflict.

Please consider donating an amount you are comfortable with to help greater integrity to the most important decision our national government ever makes – the decision to deploy the Australian Defence Force into international armed conflict.

You can do this in one of two ways:

1.   By cheque payable to: ‘Campaign for an Iraq War Inquiry’, and forwarded to the Hon Treasurer (Andrew Farran), c/- PO Box 7389, Beaumaris, Vic. 3193; or
2.  Direct deposit or electronic transfer to the Campaign for an Iraq War Inquiry bank account at NAB’s 300 Collins Street Branch:
BSB 083-054
A/c No: 14-992-1270.

If you contribute funds by direct deposit or electronic transfer, please send an email to info@iraqwarinquiry.org.au giving your name, address and amount credited so that we may send you a receipt.

Your donation will be very much appreciated. It goes without saying that we receive no assistance from government for this important campaign and the scale of the effort we can mount is entirely dependent upon the support we receive from the general public.