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.

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With her parents-in-law Margaret (2nd R) and John Pardoel (R) looking on, Kellie Pardoel (2nd L) is held by her father Maurie Merritt (L) as the remains of her husband Paul Pardoel arrive in Canberra, 31 March 2005, after the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) flight lieutenant was killed in an unexplained air crash in Iraq while on service with the RAAF. Photo: AFP

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.

Kellie Merritt is 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.

by Kellie Merritt

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