Friday 08 Oct 2021 | 18:01 | SYDNEY
Friday 08 Oct 2021 | 18:01 | SYDNEY

Reader riposte: Funerals and the moral context

26 August 2011 15:48

Josh Farquhar writes:

I agree with the comments made by Raoul Heinrichs and Prashanth Shanmugan in response to James Brown's position on the attendance of politicians at funerals for military members.

As a soldier myself, I have been relieved that military funerals are one aspect of our involvement in recent convicts that have been treated appropriately and respectfully by both our politicians and media. However, James' suggestion that the Prime Minister should 'be left clear-headed to formulate Afghan strategy rather than overwhelmed with the emotion of attending multiple lugubrious funerals' raises some issues that remain unaddressed.

Firstly, I sincerely hope that any individual of sufficient calibre to be elected to our highest political office would likewise have sufficient mettle and judgment to avoid becoming emotionally overwhelmed by merely carrying out the duty of attending funerals. By James' logic, should commanding officers and team leaders also avoid the funerals of soldiers killed in action?

The more weighty issue is that of morality in strategic decision-making: to what extent should the cost of casualties influence decisions?

Perhaps it is healthy that some personal exposure to the human cost of war might influence our leaders' thinking. This issue should be considered in two parts — should past casualties directly influence current and future strategy, and to what extent should the risk of future casualties influence decisions? Essentially, this separates the issue between political and moral motivations.

It is only their domestic political implications that make past casualties relevant to current strategic decision making — maximising votes versus optimising strategy. Short of any significant external changes or strategic reassessment, any action determined to be worth the cost of casualties should be pursued through to its intended end state. To discontinue such a task early on the grounds of political burden amounts to a moral betrayal of those who sacrificed their lives in its' implementation.

Consideration of future casualties is less clear cut — what is the value of an Australian soldier's life, and what quality of strategic objective warrants the risk of sacrificing it? This will always be a matter of subjective judgment for which there is no easy answer. However, one thing is clear: consideration of the cost of casualties must be properly weighed in strategic assessments. In selecting a course of action, decision-makers must be very clear of the risk to life and why the objective justifies it. Candid engagement with the public should occur wherever possible throughout the process. Thereafter, if the risk of casualties does materialise — this factor having already been weighed — it should not then further affect strategic considerations.

In the context of military funerals, if the attendance of political leaders does cause them to place greater emphasis on the value of soldiers lives in weighing future strategic decisions, then why should we be the least bit uncomfortable with this? Is weighted consideration of the moral context likely to result in sub-optimal strategic decisions? I believe not. Rather, the only influence that personal exposure to the cost of war is likely to have on judgments made by our senior leaders is towards more strategically robust and morally sound decision-making.