In my catalogue of political miscreants, there is a special place for former US Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. During the war in Vietnam, a lot of my contemporaries argued the case for the justice of the war, supported the US in prosecuting it and defended Australia’s involvement in the conflict. It was not easy, especially as the Australian death toll grew. But we believed that the cause of giving the people of Vietnam a chance to defeat communism and live under democracy was a good one, and we said so.
For years, McNamara told us we were right. But in 1995 he recanted and announced that the war had been ‘wrong, terribly wrong’. One unsavoury aspect of this conversion was that McNamara claimed the US had not been supported in the war by a single ally, ignoring the fact that 500 young Australians had been killed. But the truly monstrous feature of this recantation was the callous message it sent to the families of allied servicemen who had been killed.
I was reminded of this last week while reading Major General John Cantwell’s account of his military career, culminating in his command of our forces in Afghanistan. The title, Exit Wounds, refers to the post-traumatic stress disorder that Cantwell acquired and which unfortunately still afflicts him. Perhaps this explains his unfortunate remarks about Australia’s commitment to the war in Afghanistan and, for good measure, Iraq. But they should still not have been made. Cantwell is quite specific in answering the question that has apparently been gnawing away at him: ‘Is what we have achieved in Afghanistan worth the lives lost and damaged? Today, I know the answer — it’s no. It’s not worth it. I cannot justify any one of the Australian lives lost in Afghanistan.’ Moreover, he blithely disdains ‘the international power politics, security frameworks and national self-interest that got us into wars in Iraq and Afghanistan’, quite an array of vital defence considerations to be junked in such a casual way. I really wonder how people like Cantwell, and McNamara before him, can so coldly tell the families of deceased servicemen that the cause their sons have died for was ‘not worth it’, even if they believe this to be true. It is even worse, I think, in Cantwell’s case than McNamara’s. At least the latter delayed his capitulation for more than 25 years after his departure before he told American parents that their sons had died in vain. Cantwell has shown no such delicacy in making his announcement to the families and friends of servicemen who have died and those who are still at war.
You will not find the same defeatist attitude in Mark Owen’s insider’s account of the SEALS raid that killed Osama bin Laden, No Easy Day. Owen wanted to set the record straight after the speculation and the inaccurate versions of the raid that are finding their way into folklore. The Pentagon opposed this, but Owen pressed on and the result is a graphic description of his ten years of training and the missions that took him to every trouble spot that has figured in the war on terror, including Iraq and Afghanistan. There are no breaches of security in the book and nothing is revealed that could endanger the lives of anyone serving with the SEALS. But his description of how bin Laden was traced to his last bolt hole, the meticulous planning for the mission and the denouement, when bin Laden was revealed as an even bigger coward than we thought he was, is riveting. What shines through in the text are Mark Owen’s pride in his work and the stimulation he got from the just and inherently worthwhile nature of the cause of which he was an essential part and which, unfortunately, led to the death of many of his comrades. Mercifully, there is none of the Cantwell remorse that the cause his comrades died for was futile. For Owen, ‘We know they died for something so much bigger than themselves.’ The ledger is clear: every bomb maker and al-Qa’eda fighter the SEALS killed ‘made the world a little safer’.
The odd thing, in comparing these two books, is that the publication of Owen’s book was opposed by the US military, but is intensely patriotic and supportive of the armed forces and ‘the international power politics, security frameworks and national self-interest’ that Cantwell disdains. In contrast, Cantwell’s own book must have been approved, or at least was not opposed, by the Australian authorities, and yet is so utterly destructive of the just cause they are trying to promote.
Speaking of defence and security, I see the Attorney-General has announced another weakening of the flimsy barriers we have in this country against foreigners who sail here as if they were out for a casual afternoon’s boating on Sydney Harbour. They already have the benefit of an administrative assessment, a review of that decision, appeals to the Federal and High Courts and the Ombudsman and various human rights bodies who lend a helping hand from the sidelines. But wait, a retired judge will now check the homework of current judges and re-assess ASIO’s adverse security findings, with a thinly-veiled threat that ASIO’s findings will then be ‘refreshed’ or, in other words, reversed. Clearly, the result will be that refugees will now be accepted despite ASIO having decided they are a threat to the safety of this country and its people. Surely it is time the elected government determined who comes into this country and the circumstances under which they do so?