The sanitised conflict

When the final contingent of the RAAF strike force returned home after its mission in Syria and Iraq, the images presented were of emotional scenes as families embraced their loved ones on the tarmac at the Amberley base.  Rightly so. But left unsaid is the legality and morality of the conflict we were involved in, the irreparable damage done to innocent civilians who will remain strangers to us and the carnage left behind.

Prime Minister Turnbull was a picture of happiness when he thanked defence personnel for their service and reminded them – in case there were any personal doubts – that “Australia is proud of you”

His speech made no mention of the people of Iraq and Syria.  Granted it was not the appropriate time to discuss the killings and displacement of civilians or the razing of entire neighbourhoods, but when will it be an appropriate time for our leaders to publicly reflect and acknowledge the dark, dirty side of our military incursions?

Australia dropped more than 2400 ‘precision-guided bombs’ in the past three years, including in highly populated areas where ISIS used civilians as human shields.  Yet a one page document titled ‘Air Task Group (ATG)-Civilian Casualty Reports’ dated 30 September 2017 is the only recorded official recognition of the deaths of civilians caused by Australian strike aircraft or ADF members being involved in the target approval process.

No public announcements have been made by our Government about compensation for wrongful civilian deaths and injuries or ex gratia payments for other civilian harm. At least some of those outcomes are documented: according to an administrative response to an FOI request, it was formally notified on 31 March 2017 that seven civilians were killed or injured in an airstrike on 30 March 2017 that involved an ADF member in the target approval process and formally advised on 15 September 2017 that Australian strike aircraft were involved in the death of one civilian on 7 June 2017.

After questions were raised in March 2017 about the ADF’s tracking of suspected civilian casualties,  in May 2017 the ADF commenced releasing information relating to its airstrikes in Syria and Iraq. The ADF’s fortnightly reports provided evidence of its involvement in ‘recapturing’ Mosul from ISIS, with a focus on West Mosul. Mosul was Iraq’s second biggest city.  Drone footage captured by photojournalist Gabriel Chaim of West Mosul in the throes of war in May 2017,  AP drone footage published in April 2017 and drone footage published by Radio Free Europe reflect the unsanitised reality of ‘liberation’ and the implausibility of Australia’s official statistics of civilians deaths.

It’s hard to believe that over three years, with 2400 bombs, we allegedly took the lives of only 8 people (including two children) and devastated their immediate family and friends. It is worth noting the report published by NPR on 19 December 2017 that ‘figures obtained by NPR from the Mosul morgue put the number of civilians killed [by the coalition, Iraqi forces or ISIS] at over 5,000. That is likely more than the number of ISIS fighters believed to have been in Mosul and presumed dead’ . The report noted that ‘Months of vicious fighting — the battle started in October 2016 and ended in July 2017 — left destruction so extensive that U.S. commanders compare it to the World War II battle for Stalingrad.’

If our Government is to take our country to war surely it has an obligation to its citizens to tell them the truth about the reasons for and consequences of our involvement?  But it doesn’t do anything of the sort.   We are sitting complacently on the other side of the globe being given limited information and fed spin rather than truthful information.  The little official information that can only be extracted after much effort doesn’t truly describe what our country is doing by participating in these wars: it comes in meaningless political generalisations,   in “military speak” and in incomplete, anonymous statistics rather than in straightforward factual accounts and human stories.

While this situation continues we have no hope of knowing or understanding what Australia is doing in its involvement in these wars, or the legitimacy or the desirability of that involvement given the devastation wars cause, including to our own service personnel. But that no doubt is what the warmongers would prefer.

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