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Letter to a tank commander


I remember our first meeting. We were preparing presentations for international aid workers. Your topic was ‘civil/military cooperation’. Mine was ‘working with refugees’. Although you were casually dressed, your whole being exuded a military air: the physique, the short-cropped hair, the tan and demeanour.

I wondered as we began that week-long course, how a peace activist like myself who had denounced so many military atrocities, could end up working with a tank commander.

Our first conversation was challenging. I explained that, had we met 10 years ago, I would not have been able to speak to you. I was then so angry at the military for what they had done in Latin America, and for all the US funding and weaponry which was used against the people and communities I had worked with in El Salvador. You replied instantly: if I chose to be angry with the military so be it, but so that other Australians and I had the democratic right of choice, you were prepare to die.

Later, you appeared in military uniform. 'Dressed to kill,' I remarked, but then caught my breath—that green camouflaged garb triggered memories of military madness. You listened; suggested we go somewhere for a chat. Never once did you seek to disengage.

You even told me about your work: looking after those in your command and following orders. And if the enemy falls? That’s the fault or weakness of their commander. And you added, or at least this is what I thought I heard you say, 'And I have to live with that.'

How do you live with that? How does anyone? I realised that down to your last drop of blood, you would look after those men and women under your command – an admirable quality.

I learnt a lot about the military during the civil war in El Salvador. The safety and security of my friends and colleagues in that country depended on me not engaging with the military. I learnt how to avoid them, how to project my eyes down when an encounter was unavoidable, how to keep quiet, and when the lives of the people I loved were under direct military threat, how to pick the moment to speak up. (Was I now expected to capitulate?)


'Even as the likelihood of war increases, I continue to believe alternative solutions are possible. As you said, that is my right. After all the refugee camps, the bombed communities, and the devastated people I have seen trying to rebuild their shattered lives years after war finishes, I consider it my responsibility.'


Unlike you, I was not trained for war. I didn’t know the first thing about grenades, bombs or bullets when I first landed in El Salvador. There are, however, some things that don’t take long to learn.

At DM4, the infamous Salvadoran military base located at the foot of the mountains, a camouflage wall is painted with the huge black letters, in Spanish:  'No Mission Impossible'. Even then, I knew the haunting truth of that message. In 1996, 15 years after the El Mozote massacre, the New York Times reported that as many as one thousand unarmed peasants were killed. That mission was launched from DM4. I worked with the one female survivor – Rufina Amaya.

Until the day I stepped into that military headquarters at DM4, I had supposed that evil existed but I had never actually felt it. Yet at that moment, in that place, I knew, right down in my bones, that was precisely what I was experiencing.

Life for me since then has never been the same. Perhaps as a tank commander, there were times, decisive moments, which changed you forever too.

One of our finer moments of engagement occurred on the dance floor. Who would ever imagine that an Australian tank commander could dance salsa as well as any respectable Latin American? Somewhere between the twirling, the Latin American rhythms and the perspiration, we were just two people enjoying the music and dancing.

Later you talked to me of good military and bad military. Australians in your schema were naturally good. You spoke of their peace-keeping roles. But weren’t we the ones who trained the Indonesian Special Forces before the systematic devastation of East Timor? And what about the US military, training elite Latin American forces including perpetrators of the El Mozote civilian massacre. Who is responsible?

As the days passed, I began to glimpse the man behind the uniform. Yet, a little inner voice kept reminding me, 'He’s military'. I began to disengage. From your perspective, my disengagement resulted from my lack of having any clear objectives. But I could not bring myself to debate tactics.

I hadn’t slept all week. My past was keeping me company, surrounding me.

The last day of the course was a relief. I knew I was in need of touching home base. In the final hours, during a scheduled feedback session, you and I sat down and faced each other.

The tank commander and the peace activist finally get down to tin tacks. There is a lot they admire in each other.

I was impressed by your strategic abilities and your communication skills. You, as I recall, noted my zest for life, and sense of humanity. Then came the tricky part. You knew I did not have a clue who you really were; that in six days I had not managed to get beyond the military surface. What’s more, you had been subjected to so much of my past as I relived it that week, and I found your strategic approach devastating. I was left to ponder if the only reason we engaged at all was so that you could meet your military objectives – what is referred to as 'commander’s intent'.

But still we listened to each other intently. Something seemed to shift. The real dialogue of two human beings who live in different worlds could now begin. 

Later that afternoon, you took me to visit a military base in Brisbane. You wanted me to see that not all military bases were like DM4 in El Salvador. Walking around were regular Australians who could be neighbours or family. The next day, as we said our farewells, you reminded me that I now had a friend in the military.

When I returned home, I emailed colleagues in El Salvador. One, Ana, was a young girl when the Salvadoran military rolled tanks into the Parish of San Antonio Abad in the capital of San Salvador, splattering everything in their wake: the fence, the garden, and the priest, Father Octavio Ortiz – Ana’s brother. That was before the war officially began. During the war Ana’s four other brothers were killed and the mountains where she was born were bombed – extensively and persistently.

After my encounter with you, it was Ana’s counsel I sought. (Perhaps I wrote out of guilt, having fraternised with the enemy.) She replied within days. Ana could just imagine me twirling the night away. In fact, she couldn’t help but laugh – Michele being spun around by the military. She added, if that’s what it takes to fix my injured back, then why stop?

But somewhere in that message, Ana was encouraging me to leave the past behind. Not to forget, but to move on. Had I been caught in the past while my Salvadoran friends and colleagues embraced reconciliation?

Even as the likelihood of war increases, I continue to believe alternative solutions are possible. As you said, that is my right. After all the refugee camps, the bombed communities, and the devastated people I have seen trying to rebuild their shattered lives years after war finishes, I consider it my responsibility.

Thirteen years ago, issues of war and peace seemed so black and white. But it’s not that simple, is it? There are so many areas of grey. That’s where I stand now, up to my neck in grey as I search for a degree of humanity in social responses, and in each human being I encounter. I just never expected to find that humanness behind the uniform of a man who commands military manoeuvres from inside an army tank.


'Letter to a tank commander' originally appeared in Eureka Street, January, 2002. 


Michele Gierck is a freelance writer and a specialist memoir writer.

Main image: Toy tank against pink background. (Getty Images)

Topic tags: Michele Gierck, Tank, Commander, Peace, Activist, Humanity, War, El Salvador



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Existing comments

Dear Michele, Yours, for ever, Pam

Pam | 13 July 2023  

Perhaps the optimism in this article is caused by the cinematic trope which it contains, that of Beauty discovering a tenderness inside the Beast. But, twenty one years on, the recent balance of probabilities judicial finding against Ben Roberts-Smith suggests that sometimes, the Beast is just a beast.

That the beast was just a beast seems to be the story of the real beast behind this story, Roberto D'Aubuisson



who died young of cancer. Perhaps we can find comfort in the trope popularised from a speech by Martin Luther King, that the arc of the universe, although long, bends towards justice, and, in D'Aubuisson's case, the arc was short and sharp terminating in early death caused by a painful cancer.

Or perhaps a trope is just a trope, that sometimes a beast is just a beast, and a trope is just a misleading abbreviation of a nuanced truth: https://www.huffpost.com/entry/opinion-smith-obama-king_n_5a5903e0e4b04f3c55a252a4

Is there something like an iron law of irony, that irony happens when it wants to, to whomever it chooses? Here's Craig Pyes, investigating the deadly D'Aubuisson, being no less deadly, out of dilemma no doubt, in setting Julia Preston up to be a "canary in the mine".

s martin | 16 July 2023  

I have the greatest regard for the Society of Friends, who take Christian pacifism literally, but who have often served with great bravery during conflict in the Quaker Ambulance Brigades. I have always regarded Weary Dunlop and Vivian Bullwinkel as amongst our finest and bravest war heroes and they saved lives, rather than took them. I think much military PTSD is due to the horror ex-service people have witnessed. This can lead to lifelong mental illness, even suicide.

Edward Fido | 02 August 2023