We human beings should be aware that life ebbs and flows. Rhythms of life need to be acknowledged and attended to. We are conscious that we can be extended in one direction for a while but we need to adjust back and find balance. This is the journey of life. Being pushed to an extreme position mentally, physically, or emotionally for an extended period can sometimes make the way back very difficult. On occasions even a very short but acute experience can be so severe that the way back to balance is fraught. Such is the experience of those suffering PTSD.
I have just read Maj. Gen. John Cantwell’s Exit Wounds (Melb. Uni. Press 2012). What an extraordinary book, so well written, so devastatingly honest, so revealing both of the unseen suffering inflicted by war on the combatants, but also of the futility of the war itself. It is one of the most important books I have read this year. The courage, leadership and tenacity of John Cantwell, through two Gulf Wars and then Afghanistan leaves one speechless, but I will leave you to read his story and vicariously the story of other servicemen and women with PTSD, men and women to whom the nation owes a great deal, but largely ignores. I have been left with a huge admiration for members of the armed forces, their courage, their skill and their loyalty to comrades and country.
I want however to reflect on war itself and Australia’s extraordinary addiction to joining any scrap without a clear understanding of why. Ignorance of the complexities in which we have meddled for political reasons is obvious: therefore the consequences of our actions, especially in Iraq, can rightly be described as wilful.
The Middle East is in a terrible mess. Did it need to be so? Has the military involvement of the West helped or hindered this mess?
Let us go back a century. At the beginning of the 20th century the Middle East was part of the Ottoman Empire; various Arab tribes were its willing or unwilling subjects. Their lives could almost certainly be improved, but who had the right to decide how this improvement should be delivered?
To win WW1 the allies had to defeat the German/Ottoman alliance and in particular to keep open the supply lines through Suez. A ready supply of oil was also necessary to meet transport needs that were quickly embracing diesel fuel technology. With the promise of autonomy following the war, Britain was able to encourage an Arab uprising against the Ottomans. The allies, together with the Arabs, pushed the Ottomans out of the Middle East and ultimately the last Islamic caliphate collapsed. (The battle of Beersheba, whose centenary falls in October, was part of this strategy). Following the war Britain and France carved up the Middle East on its terms with little reference to Arab hopes or needs. Palestine, Jordan and Iraq were forged with national identities under British oversight, Syria and Lebanon under French. The Arab tribes now lived within ‘national’ boundaries, boundaries that had been drawn up by European powers. It was probably not the ‘autonomy’ the Arabs had in mind. Within these national boundaries power struggles emerged that pitted neighbours against each other. In particular, Shia, Sunni and Kurds needed to work at governmental and administrative arrangements that had never been necessary before.
Britain appointed an Iraqi monarch – King Faisal, his successor was overthrown by Saddam Hussein who with his Sunni dominated Bar’th party ruled with some brutality over both the Kurds and the Shia population. The gassing of the Kurdish civilian population was a terrible example of the brutality. The long and brutal war between Iran and Iraq was essentially a battle between Sunni and Shia, a battle in which the West took the side of Iraq. The battle was very expensive and when it concluded in a stalemate Hussein owed creditors a lot of money. His invasion of Kuwait was an attempt to address this issue.
Pushing Hussein out of Kuwait (1st Gulf war) was brutally quick and could be argued as necessary to restore a status quo. The second Gulf War was a different matter all together. We know the excuse was ‘weapons of mass destruction’, but what was it that Australia thought it was achieving and for which its service men and women paid a terrible price?
Hussein and Sunni control of Iraq came to a bloody end. In its place the US enabled the appointment of a Shia government. Civil war erupted. Shia militia wreaked revenge on Sunni civilians, their neighbourhoods and suburbs. Sunni militia retaliated. Death and destruction occurred on a massive scale. The Iraqi government turned a blind eye to atrocities against the Sunni population, even protecting Shia war lords; while the Sunni population maintained a brutal attack on Shia populations, particularly in Baghdad. The balances, however imperfect, that had existed and enabled a reasonable level of co-existence were now gone.
Instead of PTSD being an infliction suffered in private by individual servicemen and women who have seen and experienced more than human beings can reasonably endure; a shared ethnic/religious/national ‘PTSD’ emerged with suffering and violence rolling into suffering and violence, without the capacity of any to stop it – least of all the US led forces. The normality of coexistence had been replaced with a new normality of reciprocal acts of death and destruction.
The latest and most horrific manifestations of this phenomenon has been ISIS an extreme ideological expression of Sunni religion, apparently with foundations in Wahibism; Islamic puritanism with roots in Saudi Arabia. Did the West create ISIS? - No. Did the West upturn a prevailing power balance creating a hiatus within which ISIS has emerged? – Yes, absolutely. Has the West’s repeated interference in the affairs of those who live in the Middle East brought about a loss of the balance which enabled Shia and Sunni, Christian and Alawites to live side by side for centuries – tragically, yes. With John Cantwell, we might well ask “what the f... are we doing here” and why have we caused so many lives to be lost – for what?
Rhythm and balance lie at the heart of the created order. Eco-systems, species, individuals and the globe as a whole depend upon this reality. A shock that disturbs the balance can take years or in the case of the meteor that destroyed the dinosaurs, millennia to correct. In the case of some forms of abuse, the individual simply never recovers.
Scientists are giving more than enough warnings that progressively, like a frog in a pot of boiling water, we are upsetting the ecological and environmental balances that have enabled the flourishing of (human) life over the period known as the Holocene.
What is it about us as a species that despite the capacity to understand these things, a desire for revenge, or advantage, or wealth or simple bloody mindedness drives us into actions which are so destructive? John Cantwell is of the view that what has been achieved in Afghanistan has not been worth the cost of human lives lost there. This is clearly the case in Iraq.
It is not in Australia’s interest to enter battles simply because the US does. To enter a battle is to lose, no matter the outcome. It is in Australia’s interest to understand the balances that enable life to flourish in many different and complex environments and to invest in supporting them. This requires a vastly different foreign policy to the one we have been used to with its often hypocritical alliances and it requires us to see foreign aid as a far more productive strategy for harmony peace and security than defence expenditure.