Saturday 21 Jul 2018 | 18:14 | SYDNEY
Saturday 21 Jul 2018 | 18:14 | SYDNEY

Funerals remind us of the cost of war


Raoul Heinrichs

25 August 2011 11:59

James Brown's recent piece about why the Prime Minister should stop attending military funerals gets it a bit wrong.

As the Australian death toll mounts in Afghanistan, the public has become quietly anesthetised. While public opinion polls reflect gradually increasing discomfort with the war, no one is marching down Collins or George Street or bringing any real pressure to bear on our political leadership to change its policies.

For James, this may seem an encouraging sign, a reflection of a healthy divestment of the myth that casualties in war are extraordinary, and an acclimatisation to the gruesome realities of conflict (as if partaking in military operations overseas should lead us to expect, unquestioningly, the loss of Australian lives, irrespective of what's at stake).

In fact, the explanation for Australia's silence is much more mundane: after a decade at war, the Australian public, almost completely unaffected by the costs of our role in Afghanistan, has all but perfected the ability of tuning out.

Partly as a cause of this and partly as a consequence, a convenient bipartisanship has settled over the issue of what we're doing in Afghanistan and why. Neither side of politics has any inclination to be seen 'back-flipping' or upsetting the status quo over an issue of such limited political consequence.

Contrary to James' argument, then, the de-politicisation of Afghanistan lies at the heart of the problem. The ready bipartisan acceptance of our soldiers' deaths and funerals has engendered, and compounded, the kind of complacency that lets our Prime Minister get away without 'working hard to prevent Australian soldiers from being killed in the future' — even if to do so only requires, at a minimum, placing a few additional strictures on the kinds of operations they perform, and comes at no real cost to our national interest.

This political situation is unlikely to change. If Prime Minister Gillard is to be jolted out of her complacency, the impetus will have to come from her own conscience. That, in turn, will rely on her remaining fully, and personally, attuned to the scale of pain and suffering that her policies are producing, manifest most obviously in the form of military funerals.

For this reason, and others, she should definitely keep going to military funerals — provided, of course, that her attendance does not conflict with the wishes or preferences of the bereaved. She should also make regular visits to repatriation wards around Australia. There, missing arms and legs, the use of colostomy bags and the stricken faces of young men with post-traumatic stress disorder testify to the true cost of our reckless unwillingness to change tack in Afghanistan. 

Photo courtesy of the Prime Minister's Flickr account.