Another Australian soldier dies in Afghanistan, and his death is overshadowed by fierce rhetoric. There are the usual obituaries, but a soldier’s death seems to be more a pretext for a foreign policy debate than a time for mourning. In our morally relativist public sphere, where all killing is murder and one death is equated to another, there is an ironic double standard when it comes to human dignity.
A convicted terrorist becomes a household name and is given a standing ovation, but we can’t even remember the name of the Australian commando who was killed last month or how he died. There is horror and outrage when we learn that the cattle we export are beaten, kicked, and whipped prior to slaughter, but we conveniently ignore the gruesome injuries resulting from improvised explosive devices (IEDs) that are the everyday reality of a soldier’s life in Afghanistan. Even when we do have a feature article on a serving member of our armed forces, it’s almost always posthumous.
I don’t think this is deliberate – at least, not for most of us – but when we spend more time and effort saving cattle from unnecessary pain and suffering than supporting the men and women who suffer horrific injuries and sometimes death, fighting in dreadful conditions for our sake, it suggests something is seriously out of kilter in our society. Soldiers are not automatons. They are humans too.
Our observance of Anzac Day shows that we do care, and we keenly feel the debt we owe to those who sacrifice their lives for us. However, we often refuse to acknowledge a simple truth: the dead we mourn not only died as combatants, they lived as combatants. Soldier X wasn’t just a good husband and father. He was also a good soldier who killed to defend the defenceless. He carried a genuine humanity with him into war, a defiant humanity that sought to protect innocent civilians from the slaughter and persecution of despotic regimes. He chose to fight at the peril of his life, and he didn’t die so that his death could be used as a catalyst for a troop withdrawal.
If there is one thing we owe to those who have been killed fighting in recent wars, it is the truth of their lives as combatants. Not only do we pay scant attention to the vocation they pursue at great personal cost, but as Bing West pointed out in his thought-provoking Wall Street Journal article “Meanwhile, in the War in Afghanistan…”, “Hollywood’s recent war movies tend to feature psychotics instead of heroes”. Back home in the United States, a Marine explains, “a bad day for a guy on his way to the office is a flat tire”. A bad day in Afghanistan is a “double amputee. The public pays attention to Charlie Sheen. No one’s heard of Sgt. Abate.”
Whether we like it or not, the public laps up the portrayal of soldiers as trigger-happy killers, especially if they happen to be American. But as gung-ho as our American cousins may or may not be, it is a cruel caricature. They do not lose sight of the gravity of their job. As one instructor screamed at Donovan Campbell during his officer training, “…the currency in which we trade is human lives. Do you think you can handle that responsibility?” (1) The weight of that responsibility is illustrated admirably in Toby Harnden’s masterful account of the Welsh Guards in Afghanistan, Dead Men Risen. It is a gripping testimony to the individuality of soldiers and the humanity that pervades their work, perhaps summed up in the words of Captain Terry Harman:
“The shell that is the human being is fragile. It’s a bit fractured. We crossed the line of humanity. It’s difficult to fire a round knowing you’ll kill somebody. It’s also difficult to have to sit there and take incoming rounds.” (2)
Occasionally we are reminded that our armed forces personnel do so much more than engage in combat – indeed, some don’t engage in combat at all. We read about women like Capt. Laura Holmes whose work as a vet is much the same as at home except it is done in body armour and forty degree heat with a guard of soldiers, or Capt. Lisa Head who was killed defusing a daisy chain of IEDs, or agricultural projects that encourage farmers to grow food crops instead of poppies.
But all this underscores our reluctance to confront the core reality that they wouldn’t be there if our country were not involved in a major armed conflict. Perhaps we don’t want to be confronted with the uncomfortable realities for which we are indirectly responsible, but it could be as simple as the fact that seen “through civilian eyes the Afghanistan mission seems daunting, uninspiring, thankless.”
However, soldiers “see it differently.” One sergeant in the Paras admitted that he wouldn’t exactly be “happy” to go back, but “I feel it is my duty to go back. Quite simply… I believe it makes a difference to the safety of everyone, my family included” (3). As Major Sean Birchall of the Welsh Guards (killed in 2009 when an IED exploded underneath his vehicle) so succinctly put it, “Either we do it there or we do it on the streets of England” (4).
Some may view this as misplaced idealism and call it a waste of human life, but labelling it a waste undermines soldiers and their work. It smacks of ingratitude and disrespect, because it suggests they died for nothing, and it is at the very least ungracious. It’s like saying to someone who’s bought you a gift, “I really don’t want your present, you’ve wasted your money” – except the gift isn’t just some trifle, it’s a human life. Captain Andrew Tiernan of the Grenadier Guards, while on leave from service in Afghanistan in 2009, expressed the annoyance so many soldiers feel:
“We often hear people saying, yes, we support the soldiers but we don’t support the cause. Well, the soldiers support the cause so if you really want to support the soldiers then the public should support the cause in Afghanistan.”
Soldiering in Afghanistan certainly isn’t comfortable. In summer, the temperature reaches above 50 degrees Celsius during the day, making a short walk with more than 55 kilograms of kit physically challenging even for the fittest and strongest. At patrol bases and checkpoints, there is usually no heat, running water, or electricity. Few soldiers escape a dose of dysentery at some point during their deployment. Then there is the constant threat of IEDs, indiscriminate and unpredictable low metal content bombs. If you’re British, your government may not even provide life-saving equipment, such as a sufficiently-armoured tank or helicopter for transport, or hand-held detectors with ground-penetrating radar for foot patrols. (5)
Money is no incentive either. American Marines only receive an extra $100 per month for the “hardship” of conditions in Afghanistan, and if you’re a British Paratrooper, earning as little as £12,000 a year after tax, you may even return to a pay cut of up to 10 percent. To add insult to injury, if you’re American, your President will spend his Memorial Day afternoon playing a round of golf instead of meeting with veterans and families of the fallen.
The significance of these details isn’t just that it’s a hard life. It’s evidence of the dedication and selflessness that predominates in a dangerous profession that has cost well over two thousand lives in Afghanistan alone. Too often the headlines are dominated by ‘mistakes’ our forces have made, civilian casualties on the wrong end of our ordnance. Quite apart from the inaccuracy of reporting, we hear little of the good they do or the challenges they face. Soldiers do not want to be pitied as victims of war, even if it is true that many return maimed or psychologically scarred. They merely wish to be respected. So, unless we acquaint ourselves with the human side of soldiering, the individuality of each person is subsumed.
While we may sit at home and think about the war in simplistic terms, envisaging two sides lined up against each other in a shoot-out, the reality is much more complicated and heartbreaking. Telling the difference between an enemy fighter and a civilian can be problematical, and even when our troops risk their own lives in a policy of ‘courageous restraint’, civilians still die, and the trauma is something our troops must live with for the rest of their lives.
Sometimes, even the instinct for self-preservation is disregarded. Donovan Campbell recounts delaying the withdrawal of his platoon to help children on the receiving end of an Iraqi rocket-propelled grenade. One Marine said that, as they tried to help the wounded children, “all he could think of was his own daughter. She was the same age as the shredded thing that he now held so tenderly”.(6) The consequence was, however, that one Marine ended up dead after having his legs severed at the knees. They had gone beyond the call of duty, into the realm of human compassion:
“I know that we saved a few of the kids, and I can only hope that some of the children survived who otherwise wouldn’t have, because God knows we paid a terrible enough price for staying.”(7)
We cannot afford to be selective in our respect for human dignity. Soldiers know there will be casualties and accept that their profession is one that involves death and dying, but in reconciling themselves to the proximity of death they do not cast aside their humanity. It is not enough that we carve the names of the dead on war memorials. We must remember them while they yet live.
I originally published this article on MercatorNet.com on June 15, 2011, under a Creative Commons Licence. If you enjoyed this article, visit MercatorNet.com for more.
(1) Donovan Campbell, Joker One, Random House, New York, 2009, p. 9
(2) Toby Harnden, Dead Men Risen: The Welsh Guards and the Real Story of Britain’s War in Afghanistan, Quercus, London, 2011, p. 512.
(3) Patrick Bishop, Ground Truth, Harper Press, London, 2009, p. 303.
(4) Dead Men Risen, p.63.
(5) Dead Men Risen, p. 228.
(6) Joker One, p. 223.
(7) Joker One, p. 228.