Paying tribute without creating war narratives


Operation Slipper posterThe emotional parades welcoming troops home from the end of 'Operation Slipper' in Afghanistan leave us contemplating the horrific effects of war on veterans and their families.

It is absolutely right, indeed imperative, that we grieve with them and count the costs  – the deaths, the injuries (both physical and psychological) and the effects of fighting on both the troops and the families who must live with the consequences of the war. At the rising and at the going down of the sun, we should remember them.

In doing so, however, we should beware the danger of selective empathy. If we identify with the sufferings of some – but not others – the point of empathy is lost and our viewpoint becomes partial and incomplete.

This is, unfortunately, the very goal of much spin and propaganda. We rightly hold public parades to honour those who fought in Afghanistan and Iraq and to remember the dead and their families but ignore the plight of those who fled our enemies – on whose behalf our troops were supposedly there. Many of the children in detention whose plight was highlighted in the report of the Human Rights Commission, The Forgotten Children, were doubly victimised – once at the hands of our enemies the Taliban and again when they fled to us for safety.

It should also be remembered that war has its victims on both sides. Whatever we think of the Taliban and their ethics, they suffer and bleed as we do. Afghan mothers will miss their sons and Afghan lovers be torn apart by lives tragically cut short in just the same way as American and Australian ones.

Our enemies are not the only ones to have killed and wounded civilians. In 2013, Adnan Rasheed, a senior member of the Taliban in Pakistan, wrote an open letter to Malala Yousufzai, the brave young campaigner for women’s education in Afghanistan and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, seeking to exculpate his organisation for the attempt on her life. It is anti-Semitic, rambling and self-serving and does not make edifying reading. Nevertheless, one passage in particular should jolt the conscience:

I ask you and be honest in reply, if you were shot but [by] Americans in a drone attack, would world have ever heard updates on your medical status? Would you be called ‘daughter of the nation?... would the world media be constantly reporting on you? Would you were called to UN? Would a Malala day be announced? More than 300 innocent women and children have been killed in drones attacks but who cares …?

In fairness, we know the answer to this. Even as the Australian Government – quite rightly – 'stands for mercy' and pleads for the lives of its citizens in Indonesia, it was, at best, a silent and unprotesting witness when its own citizens were killed by the US Government in a drone strike in Yemen in November 2013, off the battlefield and without even the pretence of a trial.

To call all of this hypocrisy would be unfair and too easy. The fact is that it is easier to identify with those we know and love and far harder to put ourselves in the shoes of those whose faith, thinking or other characteristics make them strangers to us.

Unfortunately, this very fact also makes it very easy for us to be manipulated into what a very wise Jesuit who has spent many years thinking through this issue in relation to the divided society of Vietnam calls a 'war narrative', a state of mind which broods on the actual or imagined wrongs which 'we' have suffered and writes 'them' out of the story completely – except as the enemy who is to be fought. As a result, such a narrative allows each side to endlessly perpetuate the cycle of horror. The alternative is not easy, especially for those who have suffered themselves, but it is probably the only way to escape. For if we love only those who love us, what reward do we have?

Justin GlynJustin Glyn SJ is studying for the priesthood. He has previously practised law in South Africa and New Zealand and has a PhD in administrative and international law.


Topic tags: Justin Glyn, war, remebrance, Taliban, Tony Abbott, Malala Yousufzai



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Existing comments

'To call all of this hypocrisy would be unfair and too easy.' Why?

Ginger Meggs | 23 March 2015  

Thank you Justin for giving words to thoughts that have been churning in my mind. This is such a complex issue to bring in to open discussion. I tussle also with the thought that what you and your fellow "wise Jesuit" name as war narrative might play a part in the decision young men and women make to leave Australia and fight in Syria. Anna C

Anna C | 24 March 2015  

"a state of mind which broods on the actual or imagined wrongs which 'we' have suffered and writes 'them' out of the story completely". The key is the ‘us and them’ relationship, which is an extension of the selfishness or self-centred attitude found in tribalism, nationalism, and is present to some degree in most religions. When ’MY way’ becomes ’OUR way’ it is reinforced by the encouragement and pressure from like-minded people, and becomes much more forceful and despotic, suppressing individual conscience and sweeping away ethical considerations.

Robert Liddy | 24 March 2015  

Historians will always record war from the point of view of the winners. Those who suffer defeat mourn in silence. It is not hypocritical to favour one event over another when reporting events in western media - it is a fact of life that those who access that media want to hear/read something that reflects their own thinking.

Pat | 24 March 2015  

A very wise, mature and well crafted reflection, Justin.

Edward Fido | 24 March 2015  

An excellent piece of 'detached empathy' with two excellent points relating to two related but quite different realities. I believe a disservice is done to both. We do need to say 'thank you' to ADF personnel sent on our behalf to protect the vulnerable. Many of those returning face a lifelong journey of trauma. Only those from ADF families truly understand that reality. To use the march event, prefaced with 'It is absolutely right, indeed imperative, that we grieve with them and count the costs 'as the launching introduction to the hypocrisy of our actions or lack of actions to the vulnerable causes one to pause and ask,"What is the sincerity behind the 'absolutely right...?" The ADF personnel, as people, need the emotional response of the parade. I agree the nation also need to be constantly reminded on the total casualties of conflicts and our lack of empathy to the victims. The reality for me is that this article diminishes the parades by using them as the springboard to the second topic.

Kevin P | 24 March 2015  

I am a veteran of the Vietnam war and like many of those who served in that conflict suffer PTSD. I was a "medic" and we treated a number of the "enemy" while I was there. I quickly realised they were "like us" and gave them the same care and attention as was given to our own. The late Malcolm Frazer was prepared to allow the refugees from the Vietnam conflict settle in Australia, sadly the present government and its predecessor have banged the refugees of Iraq and Afghanistan in detention camps . As I have always said; "unless you were there you will cannot understand." Lest we forget.

Gavin O'Brien | 24 March 2015  

I absolutely agree with the point made by Kevin P that “this article diminishes the parades by using them as the springboard to the second topic.” There was no military history in my family beyond WW II service that was never spoken about, my father serving overseas and ex-father-in-law serving in administration on Australian soil. So it was a shock when my son, who never met either of his grandfathers, announced out of the blue that he was about to join the ADF. In response to my horror he kept emphasising, “Mum, it's the Australian DEFENCE Force”. Shortly after, troops were sent to Iraq for the first time and we know the history since. My son has done the then routine posting to Timor Leste and later two deployments to Afghanistan. Do you have any idea what it's like for your child to hand you his will for safe keeping? My son has the same name as a soldier who was killed in Iraq soon after he (my son) enlisted. Let's call him Joe Blow. My son's email address is JoeBlow2@.... I think of that dead soldier every time I write to my son and pray that his fate won't be the same. So yes, we do think of our own and I make no apology for that. The place to think of others is when we criticise (as we should) our government's use of our defence personnel and the damage, to our own 'and' others, that their decisions cause. The obscenity of our politicians first hit me when a photo appeared in the paper of then Army Minister Phillip Lynch visiting troops in the hell of Vietnam, Lynch in crisp white shirt. His pristine attire was so offensive in that environment. I have despised every politician since when they use our troops for photo ops, especially but not limited to John Howard's 70th birthday trip to Timor Leste. What we think and feel about or defence personnel “must” be divorced from their use as political porns. Write two articles. Don't conflate the issues.

Anon | 25 March 2015  

I was at the Canberra Welcome Home parade, to honour those involved in yet another Australian attempt to improve lives. But it's not "mission accomplished" in Afghanistan. There's another article due, on Afghanistan after ISAF, not just when our troops have come home. Australia's long-term aid to Afghanistan has been cut. Reducing Australia's aid by 10 per cent, from $149 million to $134 million in 2014-15 is not the follow-up commitment needed now our military forces have been withdrawn. In 2013, Afghanistan's median income per person was US$690 ($880). Australia's $15 million makes a difference to the average Afghan. For Afghanistan's civilians, our aid is a hand up, not a hand out.

Peter Graves | 27 March 2015  

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