Saturday 21 Jul 2018 | 19:57 | SYDNEY
Saturday 21 Jul 2018 | 19:57 | SYDNEY

Why Julia Gillard should make this military funeral her last


James Brown


23 August 2011 13:36

It will be a brave politician that makes the decision to stop attending the funerals of Australian soldiers killed in Afghanistan, but that is exactly what Prime Minister Julia Gillard should do. The upcoming funeral of the soldier killed yesterday in Afghanistan should be the last she attends. It's time we de-politicised military funerals.

There is now a familiar ceremony that accompanies Australian military deaths in Afghanistan. Defence Public Affairs announces an 'operational incident', the Defence Minister and Chief of Defence Force front a media conference, meander through banal questions like 'Do we often patrol at night?' before finally answering the perennial question: 'Does this death mean it is time for us to leave Afghanistan?'.

Yesterday was General David Hurley's first announcement of a military death since becoming CDF. It was Stephen Smith's ninth since he has been Defence Minister and the personal strain was showing in his hoarse voice. The responsibility for putting soldiers into conflict must be no easy burden to shoulder.

In the coming days a shattered family will organise a funeral. Like eight other bereaved families this year they will incorporate the onerous protocol of having the Prime Minister, Opposition Leader, and other politicians in attendance. The AFP will coordinate security and transport arrangements so dignitaries can attend.

The full glare of the parliamentary press gallery will blaze as military colleagues say final goodbyes. Because, by convention, Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott will take no other media appearances that day, the military funeral will become the only vision TV networks have of our political leaders. By virtue of the politicians' attendance, a private funeral will become a nationally televised political event.

For the next two weeks, when Australians think about the war in Afghanistan they will think of the only military event important enough to unite political and Defence leaders — the death of another young soldier. AusAID's development progress won't be in their minds, nor will the pressure on the Taliban being applied by our special forces. If form is any guide, media networks will run polls on our involvement in Afghanistan right at the time when coverage is dominated by terrible news. Australians, when asked what our Afghan strategy should be, will make an emotional decision framed by a military funeral.

It's likely that some of these grieving families have taken comfort in the presence of political leaders marking the importance of a fallen soldier's sacrifice. But it is equally likely that future families will prefer to grieve privately, and leave the politicians to more appropriately honour the military dead in parliament and on ANZAC Day.

I don't foresee our federal politicians making the call to stop attending military funerals. It would be all too easy for frothy-mouthed critics to label them as insensitive and cowardly if they did. Yet Canada's evolving method of honouring military deaths in Afghanistan is instructive as a marker for where Australia might head. Canadian public attitudes have evolved with mounting casualties, though opposition to the war remains at similar levels to Australia (58% of Canadians opposed the war in a July 2011 poll).

Until early 2006, Canadian military forces had incurred eight deaths in Afghanistan. During 2006 there were 35 Canadian military fatalities, and approximately 30 deaths again in each of the three subsequent years. In 2006, Canadians elected a conservative government led by Stephen Harper which decided that flags across the country would no longer be lowered to half mast for every Afghan military fatality.

The move was controversial, and was explained by the then Canadian Defence Minister (himself a retired general with 30 years Army service) as a return to the tradition of previous wars where soldiers were commemorated on Remembrance Day. A national editorial at the time captured best the reasons why Canada should not grind to a halt every time a soldier died in Afghanistan:

The four Canadian men who gave their lives for Canadian security and Afghan freedom on Saturday should be mourned as heroes. But as the inheritors of a proud and stoic Canadian military tradition, they would not have wanted their deaths to be an occasion for grief on such a scale that it undermines their comrades' mission. Once Parliament — and, by extension, the nation — begins treating death in the field as something extraordinary and unexpected, we will have tacitly embraced the myth that our mission in Afghanistan will be peaceful and bloodless.

The presence of our most senior politicians at military funerals in Australia reinforces the myth that Australian military deaths in war are extraordinary and unexpected. Australia's deployments in East Timor, Iraq, and the Solomon Islands were relatively bloodless for the ADF. Afghanistan has not been.

My colleagues in the military are the ones now asking why the politicians keep coming to military funerals. Some think it is an awkward burden to force the logistics of a political visit onto a grieving family; others think it is better that the PM be left clear-headed to formulate Afghan strategy rather than overwhelmed with the emotion of attending multiple lugubrious funerals. I agree with both views. It's time politicians leave the military and families to grieve in private.

The best place for politicians to honour slain soldiers is in the parliament: working hard to prevent Australian soldiers from being killed in the future.

Photo, of the Prime Minister, Leader of the Opposition and others at the funeral of Sapper Jamie Larcombe, courtesy of the Department of Defence.