The national ritual of observing the fallen war fighters for Australia passed in April, it is a time when the living gives thanks for the sacrifices of those who died in the servitude of nation during times of war. It is a period where most Australians and New Zealanders look to the historical events in time with teary eyes and imagine the courage and bravery of their ancestors as they cross battlefields on foreign soil. It is a time when the Australian flag salutes gently at half mask above the slouch hat slumped over a rifle upon too many graves. It is ANZAC day. It is no different to the many other days of observation across the World, where national governments lead the populace in the respectful mourning of the uniformed dead, where romantic myths and illusions tend to trump gruesome realities.
Australians are proud of their history, they are proud of what they know of their history. They like many who look back to those brave periods of time, romance the heroic deeds of their national fore fathers and mothers. Those who sacrificed and stood up to a supposed tyranny. They fought with a sometimes scrappy and other times rigid courage, iconized by the text books and class room sermons about those fallen, but not forgotten. This however is not about the myths and realities of such men and women. They will have many more pages written about them.
Beyond the glory of war lays the grim horrible truth, the under sold horror that it truly is. Film, song, video game and poem tell the stories of the uniformed braves of so many nations, the loyal patriots that did not simply serve government into too many bloodsheds but did so for the love of their country. They did so for an apparent freedom. Whether an ANZAC, Ottoman Turk a Soviet tanker or a Wehrmacht grenadier they all were told that they were fighting an evil, a violent enemy that would do terrible things if they were not stopped. Some believed it, others no doubt did not care. Whether an enslaved conscript or volunteer, memorials and iconography salutes them beyond their decades. Generations after look to them with respect, even the historically vanquished hold religious devotion to them, the Japanese tribute to its second world war dead are perhaps the most famous.
The civilians though, the victims, the women, children and elderly. The executed thousands, the bombed out millions, the raped, burned, bludgeoned and bayoneted who were not paid to fight, who were not uniformed agents of nation or the armed guerrillas, are those who lost everything. They are seldom honoured or even acknowledged, instead they are mere props in a wider play of history.
Many terrible atrocities, those great are mourned for the many dead. The museums of extermination from those in Europe in place where tyranny exterminated millions, or those beneath the foot print of once mighty towers of glass and steel where terror reached into the heart of an empire immortalize the victims as a group, remembered for tragedy. Millions more of the dead however remain rotting in unmarked graves, the mundane victims of so many obedient murderers who were for the most part simply doing their jobs.
War with all its pornographic glamour seems to ignore the unimportant dead, those who are not trained and supported by a network of logistics, who have a medical infrastructure, heavy artillery, air support, pensions and memorials. It is not about those who are steeled by ideology or zealotry, a hatred that seemingly can overcome hunger or pain, those insurgents who lack the support base of powerful national army yet manage to thwart them with tenacity and brutal audacity. They are enraged by cause and belief to kill. Nihilistic or Zealot, Professional or unpaid to the dead it does not matter.
The civilian is the one stuck in the middle, the victim that is used to justify much of the calamity. The civilian in their suffering are the example by which to condemn the other side with, they are those who are supposedly there to be saved and yet are constantly punished. Whether it is with embargoes or long range bombing, market car bombings or random shootings, the civilian is caught in the deadly middle. They are the refugees, they lose their homes, their possessions, livelihood and after the war, they are left to rebuild among the graves and ruins.
In all modern conflict, more unarmed civilians are murdered in war than there are combatant casualties. Each side tends to mourn their own fighting dead but seldom is any importance placed on the murdered innocent. Fifty-Eight thousand and two hundred and twenty Americans killed, Five hundred and twenty-one Australians died while serving during the Vietnam war, yet how many South East Asians were murdered by all sides? Apparently, it does not really matter and yet the war was fought to save civilians from oppression. Wasn’t it?
The nearly three thousand killed during the attacks on the United States during September 2001 are eternally enshrined, they are the victims that helped to justify the modern war on terror. They are those being avenged, those being remembered. Yet, how many millions have died since. Perhaps they do not matter because they are non Americans, not Westerners. Millions of dead and suffering in places that had nothing to do with the attacks, millions dead who had no connection to the terrorists at all. But the wider theatre of history must go on and the flesh and bone of the props are insignificant to the glory of those fighting it.
The returning veterans are adored and honoured, at least in gestures. They tend to end up homeless, suicidal and burdened with mental and physical anguish. Those that claim to love them ignore them outside of the annual rituals. But the troops, the veterans at least in the abstract are loved. The civilians living in the places that they left behind, they are inferior elements of a distant battlefield. Inhuman hajis, gooks, skinnies or boche that simply put had their chances, as though the circumstances and war surrounding them, consuming them was any of their doing or was in some way inside their control.
The point is that not all lives really matter in the end, only government lives do. It is why a police officer’s death is more important than all the victims of a spree killer. It is why the numbers of those men and women in uniform who die in war over seas are sacredly enshrined in memories and tombs. The assumption of their bravery never questioned, the many civilians, their horrible and frightening last moments are insignificant moments to be ignored. The military are heroic national martyrs to be collectively sanctified, respected but misunderstood and in the end, disposed of.
RJ Rummel in his monumental work Death by Government sought to explore the democidal tendencies of selected governments over the last one hundred years, even in his research and the figure of hundreds of millions that he came to, many were absent in his calculations. The regimes that he sought to depict in his examples of State murder did not include the United States and its allies and it did not include the smaller players where millions were not killed but tens or hundreds at a time were. The United States in its many wars of the twentieth century alone from the Philippines up into Iraq did not surgically kill enemy soldiers and terrorists, despite the language of collateral damage. It also like those mentioned inside Rummel’s book raped and murdered its way through stranger’s homes. The historical good guys in practice are no different to the bad guys in the end. The innocent are dead and soiled, unimportant.
While the United States, the UK and the West did not set up death camps or hold the clunky rituals of firing squads in most of its recent wars it did mass bomb entire nations, destroy cities, lay waste to swathes of jungle and farmland. Napalm, defoliant, cluster bombs, atomic or phosphorous all and more were dropped with no regard to the civilians beneath. No death squads searched for intellectuals or agitators as was the case inside of Indonesia and Cambodia, though the US did employ assassins, it did target individuals for assassination and while My Lai and other such orgiastic murders were supposedly the exception and not the rule, they did occur unpunished. Yet Rummel did not include such democides in his book. Democracies are above genocide he concluded, the facts remain regardless of such academic theories.
Those genocides that did occur in the apparently anarchic darkness of distant lands, whether they be Sudan, Rwanda or Somalia happened by so many slashes of the machete or with the war lords Kalashnikovs though often, a foreign governments influence is found never to be far. Such proxy murderers are willing killers to a distant master, they do so with savage delight what other circumstances would have perhaps denied them. A murderer suddenly has the approval and context to obey their instincts and lusts. Whether they are a hammer armed thug as part of a vengeful mob or a concealed professional marksman, covering friendly forces pulling the trigger of distant death against whatever target that they in those moments deem as a threat, man, woman and child unarmed or not. All that matters is that he and his buddies go home, not the story and suffering of the violated dead.
If some special forces operatives die while conducting their dangerous mission, this is unfortunate and as always for the family tragic. At what stage however does the operator and their family not realize that this is part of the life style. At what point does an individual begin to question the legitimacy of what they are doing, are they so obedient and drunk on patriotism that they can not see the wider perspective of history? Are they indifferent and simply professional regardless of the job? They are skilled, hardworking, elite and brave but so are many high end armed robbers. If those traits alone were a virtue then some elite criminals and terrorists would also be heralded by the wider public.
In the recent death of members of a US Navy SEAL team in Yemen the public mourned them and President Trump took the opportunity to pay respect in a choreographed moment of political theatre. None of that same public however seemed to shed a moment of thought for the dead children gunned down by those very same SEALs. The operators are held up with tremendous esteem, even when reports of their brutal conduct comes to light it is in the end downplayed. New Zealand specialists executing prisoners in Afghanistan were for a brief time scandalous but now the public does not care, the dead are just after all Afghanis. The British in its gruelling occupation of Ireland saw many incidents were its elite SAS conducted itself with grim effectiveness in murder, whether terrorist suspect or innocent, after the bloodshed it did not matter. The SAS are still the best of the best.
In Malaysia, Kenya and Yemen, just as they did in Ireland the British military ruthlessly killed civilians and those suspected of being terrorists. Knowingly starving millions of Indian civilians or dropping gas bombs on villages in Iraq were early twentieth century examples of the Imperial rule of Empire inside distant colonies. The ungrateful dead and imprisoned were dark skinned barbarians that foolishly resisted the rule and modernity of their supposed betters. In his 1899 poem “White Man’s burden” Rudyard Kipling wrote for the United States it as warning about the perils of empire building as it undertook the noble violence of suppressing the “pacific negroes” of the Philippines. Like the British, Belgians, Germans and French the US was savage and genocidal in its conquest and eventual rule over its colonies. Civilizing was harsh work, the heroic nobility of the blue and red coats was gallant in their deeds, the raped and murdered civilians belonged to a half human race, so went the popular education of the period, thus did not matter.
How many millions of aboriginals across the Earth were killed beneath the stomping boots of civilization. Whether in Australia, New Zealand, across the Americas, in Africa or throughout Asia they all died because they practiced a primitive culture that did not appeal to the imperial supremacy of Western values. The geography and resources necessitated the drive into their lands, the missionaries and civil servants bought with them the religion of God and Government. The dead whether directly by slaughter or indirect through disease and the famine of displacement is considered necessary, the modern world and its glory was born. If not for the introduction of technology and civilization these regions would remain dark and backwards, yet for all their uncivilized vulgarity no aboriginal people ever detonated an atomic device above a city full of civilians or marched millions into gas chambers. The dead aboriginal peoples however are simply footnotes of conquest.
The Iran and Iraq war, one that lasted nearly all through the 1980s was fought by a Western and Gulf state supported Iraq then ruled by Saddam Hussein, against the Islamic Republic of Iran the pariah entity. The tragedy for the civilians in the region was immense, as chemical weapons were used by Iraq, eagerly supplied to them by the West. Long range artillery, sea mines, gunned up speed boats, jet fighters and masses of human waves fought under World War One conditions, all met in an arms supplier’s fantasy. Chinese freighters would go from one national port to the other supplying each with tanks, shells, artillery and stores. The only wider public care concerning this horrible war was the testimonies of Colonel Oliver North over the Iran-Contra scandal. The crimes of the regimes would only matter, after the war when it suited the narrative for a new Gulf War.
The use of chemical agents on civilians by the Iraqi regime was widely reported at the time but because it was against Iranians and Kurds, it did not then need to matter. After the Iraq invasion of Kuwait, an invasion that President Hussein felt he was being supported in as far as Washington went, an invasion he felt validated in considering he had just fought a war against the Persian Shiites for the Arab world, suddenly threw a spotlight on the Baghdad regime. The crimes of the Iraqis suddenly mattered. Saddam Hussein was apparently the next Hitler. How the difference of two years made.
The shooting down of an Iranian civil airliner over the Persian Gulf by a US Naval vessel, Flight 655 in 1988 led to the instant death of 290 civilians. The official response from Washington was callous and dismissive. The dead were unimportant. The US Naval vigilance in the region was due to both sides mining the sea lanes and attacking tankers but was especially due to an Iraqi aircraft attacking a US naval vessel a year earlier. The US response to the death of their personal onboard the USS Stark from an Iraqi Exocet missile attack, was to blame the regime of Iran and not their then-ally Iraq. It seems that because of this skewered logic, that the 290 dead civilians aboard flight 655 was sufficient payback for 7 dead sailors. Though Iran had nothing to do with the attack on the USS Stark in 1987.
Sitting across from the East during the 1990s after the Soviet Union had ceased to exist and the Russian Federation trembled into existence, many wars were fought for independence and in support of the new republics by Moscow. The terrible war in Chechnya was of most note, where conscripts were mashed into a bloody pulp as they attempted to take Grozny, many just boys. The defenders fought savagely and won, only to then suffer alongside with the civilians beneath artillery, air strikes and the calculated onslaught of more professional soldiers. The death toll was high and the images gruesome. It was easy for Western observers to condemn Moscow for its thuggish treatment of the Chechens, just as they a decade earlier had brutally invaded Afghanistan.
It was easy for Western observers to call for intervention as Yugoslavia tore itself a part in a horrible civil war, terms like ethnic cleansing soon became a part of the common vehicular. NATO and the Clinton regime used cruise missiles and air strikes to some times punish the Serbians for all of their crimes against humanity into the late 1990s. Though the United Nations stood by and watched as Srebrenica became a place of mass rape and murder. All sides during the conflict spitefully abused the civil populaces with maliciousness. Humanitarian bombing became the way of the interventionists, bombing for peace as civilians were “accidentally” killed was the norm.
The massacre of untold hundreds or thousands during the Tiananmen square protests in 1989 depicted a regime that is still not ready for dissent and certain freedoms. It was a brutal crackdown of a communist nation as the Berlin wall fell, Eastern European regimes including the Soviet Union began to liberalize as a contrasting backdrop. Despite the decades since that moment of tyranny and the many in roads that the Peoples Republic has made towards allowing its populace freedoms, the 1989 massacre is still very much China. For many they still suffer beneath a cruel regime, though not as brutal as North Korea and not as outwardly imperial as the United States it still imprisons and executes thousands. Those victims however are not as important as trade, business and adventures to the Great Wall, the gritty under realities of life inside of China is insignificant to making money.
To the North of Australia, whether in Timor, Bougainville, Aceh or Papua massacres, rape and torture at the hands of friendly governments have gone on with open silence. Thousands are brutally executed and hunted down, often with the support of the Australian, US and UK governments at various stages in history. Whether the government of Papua New Guinea or Indonesia the violence has been consistent and tragic to those suffering it. The mining interests, the business concerns and relations between the nations of the region however is of paramount concern not the plight of Bougainvilleans or Western Papuans as none of the dead matter in the end to the politically wise or the pragmatic.
With a portable device that allows all of us to see much of the world, both unedited and filtered we can see the calamity and crisis to the splendor and beauty that exists beyond the comfortable proximity of our own life. With social media and technology with or without narrative we can see the misery of war, the victims, those dead and those broken. But there is a sinister side to this available technology, theatrical marketing to help sway opinion for or against one side and again it is the innocent that play the props. Whether a child doused in make up to look injured in a Syrian waiting room or a corpse of another child washed up on the shores of another land, they are figurines and not innocent children. They are instruments to help engineer our own feelings and impulses, they are not individual victims. They are for us to, as Adam Curtis puts it, to sigh “Oh dear.”
Mosul, it seems has for the most part fallen, it is now in the hands of the “friendly” forces. No longer a bastion of ISIS terror and control, those non-combatants trapped there are not suddenly uplifted, now if the fighting is over they are left with the rubble and to rebuild their homes and lives until the next battle for Mosul. The war masters, politicians and armchair voyeurs will refer to the city in the singular context, it was a battle. Like the two for Hue, Stalingrad, Mogadishu, Aleppo or Fallujah they are hellish dwellings for the valiant soldiers that were sent into them. They are not the beautiful cities full of people in the before but simply the morbid carnage of the after. To those whose memories, livings and history are eternally blended they are no longer home but a name to be carved in stone on a memorial. Symbolic points on a map to be taken. The civilians, heritage and architecture meaningless.
Even in incidences where forces have attempted to minimize the harm to the civil populace, deaths and destruction still occurs. While in the recent battle of Mosul the Iraqi forces were on many accounts considerate of the trapped civilians. Though coalition airstrikes, supporting them were not. Revolutionary groups claiming to fight for a people, or homeland often not only kill foreign civilians but also their own. Those that may be sympathetic to a cause can just as easily die in a suicide bombing as those not. As always an end often justifies the very terrible means, for most factions “good” or “bad.”
War should not have a simple narrative; the victims are complex individuals who have simply been wronged. They are not responsible for their government or the criminals that lurk nearby. They are only accountable for themselves, they bleed, cry and whimper in the night as you too would under the worse situations. They should be respected as private beings, not as Time life covers to win a photo journalist awards, forever frozen in the memories of millions of strangers as they suffer in their most horrible intimate moments. They are not demographics or statistics marginalized by what region, religion or ethnicity that they “belong’ to. The unmourned, the unimportant dead that history eagerly ignores and yet as a collective, as an equation that climbs into the thousands or millions they are congealed into one bloody mass and used to validate more war or more death. They are the forgotten fallen among humanities perpetual mess.
I think it does.
Kym Robinson, July 2017