By Adele Horin (Sydney Morning Herald, March 29 2003)
John Howard has appealed to Australians to support our troops in Iraq regardless of our views on the Government policies that sent them there. And as Australians have watched the television images of the young, sometimes bewildered, soldiers in the battle zone, opinion appears to have shifted.
The latest Newspoll revealed 50 per cent of Australians were in favour of "Australian troops being involved in military action against Iraq". The question this time failed to include the words "without UN support", which had been asked in previous Newspolls. Their inclusion may have altered the result. Even so, it is clear that opposition to our involvement in the war is softening as Australians rally behind "our team".
That we have seen precious few images of the Australian troops in action - the shadowy SAS is far from the cameras - matters not. The sense that it may be disloyal, even traitorous, to maintain vociferous protest when Australian soldiers are facing death could muffle dissent, derail the critics. To go softly now would send the wrong message.
The Howard Government has played on people's natural sympathies for the troops to harness support for a war Australians never wanted. Back in February, only 6 per cent of Australians were in favour of war without UN backing. It is important to maintain the protest to keep the Government honest. The concern shown by the Australian, US and British Governments to minimise civilian casualties is a product, at least partly, of the knowledge that support for this war is paper-thin around the world. It could evaporate overnight if the corpses mount and the "liberators" bring unnecessary death and destruction to the Iraqi people.
The tens of thousands of mums and dads, senior citizens and suburbanites who took to the streets in unprecedented numbers in mid-February have put governments on notice to take care. In the Kosovo and Afghanistan actions, where bombs exacted a terrible toll, there were no such scruples because there were relatively few objectors in the West. Governments need to know they are being scrutinised, that they don't have free rein.
The Australian Government's emphasis on troops respecting the rules of engagement is also strengthened by the protests. If the Government believes for one minute it has the home population unequivocally behind it, who knows what could be unleashed to help secure a victory at all costs? Even though we are at war, protest and expressed opposition is vitally important. It can act to restrain war's excesses. If we succumb wholly to barracking for "our team", as if we were watching another round in the World Cup, we will forget the broader context of this war.
No matter how scared and vulnerable our troops may be, their anxiety is nothing compared with the suffering of the Iraqi people terrorised by the bombing and shelling. The allied soldiers, though obliged to follow orders, have joined the military of their own free will, and are well paid and fed. Our SAS men are highly efficient professionals, doing what they joined up to do.
On the other hand, five-year-old Doha Suheil was at home with her family in the suburbs of Baghdad when a cruise missile exploded nearby, blasting shrapnel into her legs and spine and leaving her partly paralysed. One day, someone will explain to her that she paid the price for ridding Iraq of weapons of mass destruction (wherever they may be). Basra's residents, who had nothing to do with September 11, have been left with no clean water, little food and staring into disaster. They are being punished for the sins of their dictator and the ambitions of George Bush.
Even in a careful, tightly targeted war, civilians die, conscript soldiers are slaughtered, wives lose husbands to "friendly fire" and children lose fathers to equipment failures. And Australia is playing its part in these deaths in order to keep the US grateful and on side. This is the context to keep in mind when the instinct to barrack for our team seems overwhelming. When some US general praises the SAS's achievements and pride swells the national breast, it is important to remember this is an illegal war in the view of many scholars.
It will marginalise the UN, unleash a new era of insecurity and free other nations to launch pre-emptive wars. It will be more likely to inflame rather than quell terrorism. And many military men, including General Peter Gration, who was chief of the Australian Defence Force during the last Gulf War, consider it unnecessary, given that policies of containment and deterrence had already weakened the Iraqi regime. It is only natural to wish our soldiers well, and to hope the war is over quickly. But this conflict is no cricket match. One-eyed support is impossible. Protest is not disloyalty to the troops. It will keep the Government on a leash. In the end, Iraqis and Australian soldiers may be grateful for the restraint.
Copyright ©2003. The Sydney Morning Herald.
By Armando Iannucci (March 29 2003)
"Now that the war's started it's important we back our forces 100 per cent."
No, that argument will not do. To be expected to leap from outright opposition to this war to a sudden but total backing for what our boys and girls are doing in Iraq defies all the laws of logic.
Ordering them into battle doesn't resolve all previous arguments; it simply ignores them. Otherwise, one might as well have argued that it was every American's duty to back the Vietnam War 100 per cent once it started, or that, indeed, it's the honourable thing for every Iraqi to swing behind their Government now that they face an invading force.
And, of course, we would have to demand total approval from Israelis for the actions of Ariel Sharon and 100 per cent backing from the Palestinians for their suicide bombers.Now that's just silly, you might say; the point is, opinion polls now show the majority has shifted in support of the war, so isn't it now time you, too, fell into line?
No, not unless you want my support to be the support of someone prepared to let his moral viewpoint be dictated by public opinion. That support would be worthless, so I'm staying where I am, and I simply think most of you are now wrong. You are wrong, even if we win, even if we "liberate" Iraq, and even if we find chemical weapons.
Because, in opposing this war, I'm not suggesting, as you might like to think I am, that Saddam is a good man, that he has nothing to hide, or that Iraqis do not suffer under his rule. All I'm saying is that we haven't fully exhausted the possibilities of resolving all this by other means.
So, if chemical weapons are found, and this is trumpeted by the coalition governments as justification for the war, remember that the whole point of the weapons inspectors was to go in and search for these weapons in the first place.
While the inspectors were in Iraq, and while the world stared at Iraq's every move, such weapons, if they existed, could never have posed a serious threat. This argument hasn't yet been disproved.
In case you get me wrong, I wish our forces well. It's just I'd rather they didn't die.
Those who do die, die tragically, because such a death is a true waste of life, a life extinguished as a result of a hunch, a political whim in the face of firmer, less violent alternatives.
Our soldiers are sent into danger on a throw of a die, which is why it is important that, as they get killed or injured, this criminal and casual waste is emphasised, rather than forgotten in the excitement of war.
Armando Iannucci is a columnist with The Daily Telegraph, London.