Sunday, April 28, 2013

Iraq: a war widow’s view

On Saturday 27 April The Canberra Times published an opinion piece by Kellie Merritt, an Iraq war widow, social worker and mother. Her husband Flight Lieutenant Paul Pardoel was an Australian navigator who served with the RAAF for 15 years, before transferring to the RAF in 2002. Paul was killed with nine other British service members when their Hercules was shot down in Iraq on January 30, 2005.

It is a powerful and thoughtful piece with some important reflections on the responsibilities of governments contemplating deploying their armed forces into international armed conflict.

What price humanitarian war?

Justification for war in Iraq was tenuous in 2003. A decade later it is even more so, writes war widow KELLIE MERRITT.
I did what I did. It's all on the public record and I feel very good about it … If I had to do it over again, I'd do it in a minute.
- Dick Cheney

If we hadn't removed Saddam from power just think, what would be happening if these Arab revolutions were continuing now … Think of the consequences of leaving that regime in power.
- Tony Blair

That was the thing about the Howard government: we stood for something. And one of the things we stood for was freedom.
- Alexander Downer

Perhaps it is a little unfair to quote out of context, but these quotes illuminate the thinking of three men who dodged and re-shaped the principles, rules and norms that limit and define the justifications for waging war. Although their reflections mark the 10-year anniversary of the war they began, their reasoning seems more elusive than ever.

The fluid narrative of justification, liberation and self-congratulation is so removed from the reasons they gave 10 years ago and so oblivious to the consequences 10 years on, that it trivialises war. They ask us to consider the case for war on a humanitarian platform, but on scaffolding underpinned by only half of the human story. They use the misery of the Iraqi people under Saddam Hussein as a framework but refuse to balance the platform by acknowledging the Iraqis' suffering during and after the war; the result is a precarious structure.

Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis have been killed. In 2006, one survey (The Lancet) estimated 654,965 deaths had resulted from the war; millions more have been injured. Close to 1.8 million Iraqis have fled their country since the war began.

Another 1.6 million make up the internally displaced. These ''humanitarian'' warriors view Iraq through such a narrow lens that the image portrayed is self-serving and deceptive. What about an authentic reflection on the reasons, both public and private, for the war and the human cost? Is it unfair to ask?

I watched, listened and read about the "shock and awe" campaign as it unfolded. I would do it in private, mostly at night while my three children were in bed. They missed their dad but they did not yet fear for his life. Paul had already been coming and going from Afghanistan. He was now in Iraq, a country he would ultimately not return alive from.

The experience of my husband serving in two distinct wars was about to become both a blur and a routine. On the home front, I buffered our children from unthinkable possibilities, while it seemed that our political leaders were doing their own form of buffering to all of us on the domestic and international fronts.

I was anxious, but my anxiety was tempered by my conscience - my home was not being bombed, my children were safe and my husband was a voluntary member of the military. Who was I to feel afraid or complain? Now, as a military war widow, a public conscience kicks in - what do I have to fear or complain about? The ceremonial acknowledgments of sacrifice and remembrance are not new to a war widow and not something to take for granted. However, I do wonder if I would sit more comfortably or graciously in these settings had Paul been killed in Afghanistan rather than Iraq?

Perhaps it is this discomfort that fuels my reflections on the Iraq war and the leaders who still do not seem to entertain any doubt about their decisions. I get that the military-political relationship is a central element of a functioning Western democracy. I know that the protection and promotion of democracy and effective use of the military falls to our elected politicians.

We have all seen governments call on their military to kill and be killed for political, ideological and moral reasons. The context of most wars is complex but the institutions and processes which transform disapproval into sanctions, sanctions into conflict and conflict into invasion seem all too malleable.

Even so, I still can't understand how the case for a unilateral pre-emptive war on Iraq was sustainable at the time, let alone with the benefit of hindsight. As ''meaningful'' factors - in the case of Iraq - such as, a UN Security Council resolution, continuing UN weapons inspections, evidence of al-Qaeda links to Saddam Hussein and weapons of mass destruction fell by the wayside, a vacuum was created. That vacuum was filled by political rhetoric and an artificial notion of urgency - and so the war proceeded. If my powers of comprehension were tested by the reasons for going to war, the deeply flawed and chaotic post-invasion nation-building strategy didn't help.

As my children and I have been forced to restructure our lives without Paul, I have watched the restructured Iraq still in turmoil and its wounded people still mired in confusion and dispossession. Free of the Saddam regime's brutality, certainly - but not of their own making - and by no means free of further conflict, bloodshed and uncertainty.

That this debacle could be one of the catalysts for the re-election of Howard, Bush and Blair was exasperating. It illustrated to me how pervasive a non-critical view of war could become when a nation's electorate is not - by and large - affected by its ravages; I finally got that I was naive.
In 2004, I started to reflect - in the context of Iraq - on the fairness of the military-political relationship. I began to struggle with the concept and implications of military service, balanced with the toll it took on our young family. Was it worth it … worth Paul's life? I talked with Paul about resigning - which he did - the resignation process would take 12 months. Paul died - with nine of his military friends - on his last deployment to Iraq on January 30, 2005. That day marked the first ''free'' election day in Iraq, a day of liberation, or so the politicians said in their condolence letters.

Paul's Hercules was shot down over the Tigris River, somewhere between Baghdad and Balad. Clearly, the virtues of democracy delivered by an occupying force were not worth celebrating for the Sunni Iraqis who pulled the trigger.

If I had responded to the condolence letters sent by various politicians I would have thanked them for their letters. I would have said that my family honoured the expectations and obligations that are implicit between military families and their governments; that we put the needs of country and defence before our own.

I would have said that, in turn, governments owe a duty of care to military families that was undermined in the pursuit of a pre-emptive war. I would have asked them why they didn't reaffirm the reasons they gave to invade Iraq.

I would have said that while I shared their noble hope that Iraq would be free and liberated, their post-invasion nation-building strategy was palpably inconsistent with this commitment. I would have said that the condolence that Paul died bringing peace and freedom to the Iraqi people would have been reassuring if it wasn't so misleading, but that my pride in Paul was unshakable.

We need to learn about what happened in Iraq and the reasoning behind it, because the reflections of Cheney, Blair and Downer (and Howard's reflections during his address at Lowy Institute more recently) 10 years on suggest that they have forgotten. It is no longer appropriate for these men to continue to shape and dominate the political and rhetorical landscape - on Iraq - as they did 10 years ago.

Their thoughts and recollections - 10 years on - only seem like attempts to shape their jealously guarded historical legacies. I think we deserve better than that.

The decision to wage war requires a nation's attention, (not just from its political elite). It is time now for the Australian people and their government to hold a transparent and frank inquiry into the Iraq War and to give that inquiry the attention it deserves.

Perhaps my imaginary letter back to government would also have included my hope for such an inquiry to be held; my hope that this inquiry leads to Australians reconsidering their acquiescence in this tragic war and my hope that such an inquiry bears witness to the war's human cost and brings some small redemption for those killed and injured in Iraq.

For the original article as published in the online version of The Canberra Times see What price humanitarian war?

Friday, April 26, 2013

Robert O’Neill on lessons not yet learned

Today’s edition of The Australian carried a piece by defence writer Brendan Nicholson summarising the views of distinguished military historian Robert O’Neill AO, Chair of the International Academic Advisory Committee at the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, as presented in a chapter he contributed to Gallipoli: A Ridge Too Far, edited by Ashley Ekins of the Australian War Memorial.

The text follows:

Lessons from history not learned by politicians

Brendan Nicholson

THE confused thinking behind the disastrous Gallipoli campaign persists a century later and was evident in the military interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Robert O'Neill, one of Australia's most respected historians, describes in a new book on Gallipoli how "blindness and miscomprehension" about Turkey's ability to defend itself was repeated in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan.

In Gallipoli A Ridge Too Far, edited by Ashley Ekins of the Australian War Memorial, Dr O'Neill says lessons that should have been learned in the Gallipoli campaign still bedevil current conflicts.

Under Winston Churchill's direction, the Allied nations sent a potent force to take on what they considered to be an unsophisticated enemy, but they miscalculated badly.

"Once again, clever people in national capitals had failed utterly to learn how other armies might be able to defend their own territory and compensate for their lack of firepower and communications by the bravery and determination of individual troops, their NCOs and officers," Dr O'Neill writes.

And so the troops were ground down by the superior strength of the Turks, the weather, lack of water and dysentery.

"How strange it is that Winston Churchill, a voracious student of military history, thought that a force of some 60,000 men, backed by the Royal Navy, would rapidly induce a Turkish collapse leading to the seizure and occupation of Constantinople," Dr O'Neill says.

"He saw the Ottoman Empire as moribund. Unfortunately the Ottoman Empire in 1914 had plenty of fight left in it."

Dr O'Neill says the Allied decision making process was dominated by Churchill and he quotes Charles Bean's observation on how through "the fatal power of a young enthusiasm to convince older and slower brains, the tragedy of Gallipoli was born".

Sadly, he says, this tendency on the part of forceful and determined political leaders such as Richard Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, is still with us.

That was manifest in the US-led "shock and awe" campaign against Saddam Hussein.

Dr O'Neill also notes that at Gallipoli the British built a significant part of the Turkish defences that destroyed several massive allied warships. That mistake was repeated when Western nations helped Saddam Hussein in Iraq wage war against Iran.

"Like Churchill in 1915, our governments need to think harder about the possible consequences when they give military assistance to foreign countries," he says.

"More recently we have learned through painful experience in Vietnam and Iraq, and now in Afghanistan, that such blindness and miscomprehension is still to be encountered regularly in our own governments and their agencies.

"The lessons from history's pages are obvious but do we have politicians who are prepared to take the time necessary, and do the hard studying, to develop real expertise in the management of international security policy?

"The experience of the past decade suggests that we are as far from that goal as were the national leaders of 1914-15."

Monday, April 15, 2013

Crowd-sourcing our public affairs campaign

Campaign for an Iraq War Inquiry (ABRN 162 022 979) is seeking donations from the general public to support the implementation of its media strategy in pursuit of the following objectives:
1.  To campaign for an inquiry into the steps which led to Australia participating in the invasion of Iraq, for the purposes of identifying the lessons to be learned and of developing better procedures for the future.
2.  To promote public awareness of the procedures required by current law for the deployment of the Australian Defence Force into international armed conflicts, and of the risks involved in the current arrangements.
3.  To campaign for the involvement of the Commonwealth Parliament in any future deployment of the Australian Defence Force into international armed conflict.

Please consider donating an amount you are comfortable with to help bring greater integrity to the most important decision our national government ever makes.

You can do this in one of two ways:

1.   By cheque payable to: ‘Campaign for an Iraq War Inquiry’, and forwarded to the Hon Treasurer (Andrew Farran), c/- PO Box 7389, Beaumaris, Vic. 3193; or
2.  Direct deposit or electronic transfer to the Campaign for an Iraq War Inquiry bank account at NAB’s 300 Collins Street Branch:
BSB 083-054
A/c No: 14-992-1270.

If you contribute funds by direct deposit or electronic transfer, please send an email to giving your name, address and amount credited so that we may send you a receipt.

Your donation will be very much appreciated. It goes without saying that we receive no assistance from government for this important campaign and the scale of the effort we can mount is entirely dependent upon the support we receive from the general public.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Radio National, Sunday Extra – “Outsiders”

This morning Sunday 13 April 2013 CIWI President Paul Barratt participated in a panel discussion on the ABC Radio National program “Outsiders”, a segment of its morning current affairs program Sunday Extra.

The host was Jonathan Green, and the other participants were:
-  Trisha Jha, active student feminist and past candidate for the Liberal Democratic Party in the ACT
-  Nick Feik, Chief Executive of The Monthly's SlowTV.

Our subjects were
- Former Prime Minister John Howard's recent address to the Lowy Institute about his Government's decision to participate in the 2003 invasion of Iraq
- The recently announced to help provide additional funding for the Gonski reforms to school education by cuts to the tertiary education budget.
Audio feed may be obtained here: RN Sunday Extra Outsiders, 13 April 2013.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Iraq: Former official nails Howard

“The belief that Saddam had WMDs was near universal” said former Prime Minister John Howard when he addressed the Lowy Institute for International Policy in Sydney on 9 April 2013.

He neglected to mention that, to the extent that this belief was widespread, it was the result of an enormous effort on the part of the George W. Bush Administration and Tony Blair’s Government in the UK to persuade the world that this was so.  Most of us are not in a position to make an independent assessment, and we assumed that we were hearing from reputable people.

He also neglected to mention that the belief was not shared by his own intelligence agencies, the intelligence professionals whose job it is to advise the government of the day, without fear or favour, on the best assessment they can make at the time on the basis of the information available to them.

In today’s edition of The Age  and other Fairfax newspapers, Margaret Swieringa, who from 2002-07 was secretary to the Federal Parliamentary Intelligence Committee, nails this claim completely. Her account, in full, as published in The Age under the headline and sub-head Howard ignored advice and went to war in Iraq: the government's justification for war was not supported by any of its own agencies' intelligence:

Former prime minister John Howard's justification this week on why we went to war against Iraq in 2003 obfuscates some issues.

I was the secretary to the Intelligence Committee from 2002 until 2007. It was then called the ASIO, ASIS and Defence Signals Directorate Committee, which drafted the report on the Intelligence on Iraq's Weapons of Mass Destruction.

Howard refers to this committee in his speech justifying our involvement in the war.

The reason there was so much argument about the existence of weapons of mass destruction prior to the war in Iraq 10 years ago was that to go to war on any other pretext would have been a breach of international law. As Howard said at the time: ''I couldn't justify on its own a military invasion of Iraq to change the regime. I've never advocated that. Central to the threat is Iraq's possession of chemical and biological weapons and its pursuit of nuclear capability.''

So the question is what the government knew or was told about that capability and whether it ''lied'' about the danger that Iraq posed.

At the time, Howard and his ministers asserted the threat to the world from Iraq's WMD was both great and immediate.

On February 4, 2003, Howard said Saddam Hussein had an ''arsenal'' and a ''stockpile'', and the ''illegal importation of proscribed goods has increased dramatically in the past few years … Iraq had a massive program for developing offensive biological weapons - one of the largest and most advanced in the world''.

On March 18, 2003, Alexander Downer told the House of Representatives that ''the strategy of containment [UN sanctions] simply has not worked and now poses an unacceptable risk''.
In his speeches at the time, Howard said: ''Iraq has a usable chemical and biological weapons capability which has included recent production of chemical and biological agents; Iraq continues to work on developing nuclear weapons. All key aspects - research and development, production and weaponisation - of Iraq's offensive biological weapons program are active and most elements are larger and more advanced than they were before the Gulf War in 1991.''

None of the government's arguments were supported by the intelligence presented to it by its own agencies. None of these arguments were true.

Howard this week quoted the findings of the parliamentary inquiry, but, as with the original claims about WMD, his quotation is selective to the point of being misleading.

What was the nature of the intelligence on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction provided to the government at the time? The parliamentary inquiry, Intelligence on Iraq's Weapons of Mass Destruction, reported on the intelligence in detail. It gathered information from Australia's two analytical intelligence organisations - the Defence Intelligence Organisation and the Office of National Assessment - from March 2001 until March 2003.

The inquiry found:
1. The scale of threat from Iraq's weapons of mass destruction was less than it had been a decade earlier.
2. Under sanctions that prevailed at the time, Iraq's military capability remained limited and the country's infrastructure was still in decline.
3. The nuclear program was unlikely to be far advanced. Iraq was unlikely to have obtained fissile material.
4. Iraq had no ballistic missiles that could reach the US. Most if not all of the few SCUDS that were hidden away were likely to be in poor condition.
5. There was no known chemical weapons production.
6. There was no specific evidence of resumed biological weapons production.
7. There was no known biological weapons testing or evaluation since 1991.
8. There was no known Iraq offensive research since 1991.
9. Iraq did not have nuclear weapons.
10. There was no evidence that chemical weapon warheads for Al Samoud or other ballistic missiles had been developed.
11. No intelligence had accurately pointed to the location of weapans of mass destruction.
There were minor qualifications to this somewhat emphatic picture. It found there was a limited stockpile of chemical weapon agents, possibly stored in dual-use or industrial facilities.

Although there was no evidence that it had done so, Iraq had the capacity to restart its chemical weapons program in weeks and to manufacture in months.

The committee concluded the ''case made by the government was that Iraq possessed WMD in large quantities and posed a grave and unacceptable threat to the region and the world, particularly as there was a danger that Iraq's WMD might be passed to terrorist organisations.
''This is not the picture that emerges from an examination of all the assessments provided to the committee by Australia's two analytical agencies.''

Howard would claim, no doubt, that he took his views from overseas dossiers. However, all that intelligence was considered by Australian agencies when forming their views. They knew, too, of the disputes and arguments within British and American agencies. Moreover, Australian agencies, as well as the British and American intelligence agencies, also knew at that time that the so-called ''surge of new intelligence'' after September 2002 relied almost exclusively on one or two entirely unreliable and self-serving individuals. They knew, too, that Saddam's son-in-law, Hussein Kamel Hassan al-Majid, who had defected in 1995, had told Western agencies that the nuclear program in Iraq had failed, that chemical and biological programs had been dismantled and weapons destroyed, largely as a result of the UNSCOM weapons inspections.

There are none so blind as those who will not see.

Margaret Swieringa is a retired public servant living in Canberra.

See the published version online at Howard ignored advice and-went to war in Iraq