Despite the thump and stutter of war, there is an eerie silence in Australia. So many people have all but stopped watching and listening to the incessant, if sanitised, coverage of the war. They’ve turned off the “militainment”. They’re not ringing or writing to their MPs. They’ve cut back their consumption to the necessities of life and zipped their purses.
They’re bunkered down like the poor wretches in Bagdad, many with their fingers in their ears and their eyes covered. It’s as if they have decided to change the subject, to avert their eyes, pull the curtains and mind their own business.
They don’t want to know that the Red Cross reported this week that the number of casualties in Iraq is so high that the medical staff have stopped counting and the hospitals are overwhelmed. They would prefer not to be disturbed by the screams of the wounded and the grief stricken sobbing of orphaned children and smashed families. They would rather not hear the story of Ali Ismaeel Abbas, 12, who was fast asleep when a missile demolished his home and obliterated most of his family, leaving him orphaned, badly burned and without arms.
He told a Reuters correspondent at Baghdad’s Khindi hospital on Sunday,
“It was midnight when the missile fell on us. My father, my mother and my brother died. My mother was five months pregnant. Our neighbours pulled me out and brought me here. I was unconscious.
As the correspondent reports, but not to an Australian readership,
“In addition to the tragedy of losing his parents, he faces the horror of living handicapped. Thinking about his uncertain future he timidly asked whether he could get artificial arms.
“Can you help get my arms back? Do you think the doctors can get me another pair of hands?” Abbas asked. “If I don’t get a pair of hands I will commit suicide,” he said with tears spilling down his cheeks.”
While these unimaginable horrors are happening at the behest of Bush, Blair and Howard, many of us don’t want our sleep disturbed by the dark images of Bagdad smouldering or the detritus of war – the blood, the vomit and the broken lives.
We don’t want to think about the depleted uranium dust left blowing in the deserts and the streets of Iraq to blight generations to come. Or of the unexploded cluster bombs like those which have killed or injured over 4,000 civilians since the last Gulf War. Or the warnings of Steve Goose, the Executive Director of the Arms Division of Human Rights Watch, that -“The United States should not be using these weapons. Iraqi civilians will be paying the price with their lives and limbs for many years.”
We want to live in the lotus land of sunny innocence, oblivious to 33 year old Nadia Khalaf’s body lying on a stretcher with her heart on her chest, ripped out by a missile which intruded uninvited into her morning ablutions, her bewildered father weeping inconsolably beside her bloody body.
And the Australian media will assist in this since they too do not want their narrative of victory and liberation sullied by the gore of innocent bystanders. No blood and guts, please, we’re a civilised people, fastidious about what we allow in our living rooms.
It’s only through a few exceptional journalists and the garrulous internet, with the access it provides to the other stories, that some Australians are able and willing to gain a partial understanding of how it might feel where the bombs fall. Some are angry at the stupidity of it all and at the damage being done; others feel impotent with thoughts and images of war intruding into their every waking moment.
This is deeply unsettling. It’s why most of us want it all to be over as quickly as possible and for life to return to normal. But of course, it cannot and it never will. Because our lives – less brutally, but no less certainly, than the Iraqis -are changed forever.
Many of us seem to entertain the vain hope that ignorance will confer innocence, that by denying the consequences of our complicity, it will be as if it never happened. It seems that many of us are in denial – again. That we hope that if we don’t see the deaths, they can’t be real. It seems almost as if, in some larger sense, we don’t see the Iraqi people as human beings, don’t see them as precious lives to be valued as we value our own.
We are good at denial and our Prime Minister understands that. He never tells us things we do not want to know. He knows that we would prefer to be “relaxed and comfortable”, untroubled by gloomy thoughts and speculations.
He often tells us the comforting story that we are a generous people, especially when we are at our meanest. Whatever happens, we are not guilty.
That “unseeing”, that denial runs deep in Australia. It is, after all, at the root of our relationship to Indigenous Australians, reflected in our treatment of the refugees who’ve turned up on our shores asking for our succour. Our ancestors deliberately chose to “unsee” that there was another people standing in the way, doing their best not to be consigned to oblivion. The artifice of Terra Nullius still survives in the hearts and minds of many Australians.
If we have a niggling feeling that all is not well, we comfort ourselves with the thought that our leaders wouldn’t take us into war without reason, that John Howard must know something that we don’t. Or we embrace the idea that we have to fall into line because our fellow Australians need, indeed demand, our unqualified support; that mateship requires unthinking allegiance to the cause, no matter how blighted. Or we seek to minimise the horror and destruction of war saying it could have been worse or that it is the lesser of two evils, belatedly discovering, as Howard has, that Saddam Hussein’s regime was a brutal one.
We can listen, apparently untroubled, as Howard reassures us the precision bombing and “targeting policies” are working and, in response to Kerry O’Brien’s description of children lying dead in ditches from American fire, civilians young and old blown literally to pieces, that “some civilian casualties are unavoidable”.
I wonder if he or we would be so sanguine if the death of his wife and children was calculated to be the necessary, “unavoidable” sacrifice necessary to overthrow the Iraqi regime. As O’Brien put it, “killing innocent people so you can liberate their surviving relatives.”
How many of us listened in stunned disbelief as Howard surpassed himself this week, breathless with outrage – the only time I’ve heard him express any emotion about this war- saying that he was “sickened” by the opulence of Saddam Hussein’s palace. But not one word about the life-blood spilled on the pavements outside.
We solve the dissonance between the mayhem and misery being carried out in our name and our view of ourselves as a generous, decent people who do not wilfully injure others by not seeing, by finding excuses, seeking refuge in “the mindlessness of the group mind” and by bowing to authority, yet again. Follow our leaders.
Why are we Australians so subservient?
We frequently pride ourselves on our refusal to cringe before authority and boast of our petty rule breaking. But it may be that conformism is one our strongest national character traits; that we have cynical – but unfortunately not sceptical- attitudes to authority figures. We seek refuge in the officially sanctioned position because we’re terrified of being seen as different or troublesome. Rebellious anti-authoritarianism is reserved for the outer at the football.
While we mutter about the indignity of Australia trailing meekly behind our “great and powerful friend”, the United States, and being overlooked in all the international reports of the war effort, many of us display exactly the same subservience to our own government. It’s as if our colonial past has permanently weakened our national and personal independence and our ability to think for ourselves.
Hugh Mackay wrote this week that his research shows that there are three groups of people who have shifted from opposition to support for Australia’s involvement in the attack on Iraq – he describes these as the impatient, the bored and the waverers. According to Mackay, they all have in common the view that now the war is started, the issues are irrelevant and that, in any case, winning is better than losing.
Don’t ask too many questions about exactly what is being “won”, or how.
About whether it is really a “fair fight” between the world’s military and economic superpower and a nation weakened by decades of oppressive rule and years of punishing sanctions. Don’t ask whether the United States – the most unequal of all the industrialised countries -is indeed the paragon of democratic virtue that it claims to be, the “single, sustainable model” of social and political development. Or whether we should endorse U.S. government’s narcissistic belief that is, above all other nations, ordained by God to deliver liberty to the Iraqis through the barrel of a gun.
As one African American asked so pertinently, ” how you gonna export something you ain’t even got at home?” It’s a very good question. And he is entitled to ask it since it is his people who are jailed and executed at astonishing rates, who are twice as likely as their fellow citizens to be unemployed and who are, as a result, disproportionately represented among those the army has recruited to put their lives on the line to fight the Bush war.
Don’t ask any of this – winning, apparently, is all that matters.
Through all of this and because of our denial, Howard and his government are not being held to account. There is only occasional and perfunctory questioning about his reaction to the deaths that he has sanctioned. Or questioning about the reality of Iraqi people’s lives in the charnel house of war. Or pressure on him to explain how it is that the justification for the war – removing the weapons of mass destruction – seems to have been one of the early casualties. What of his claim that the war was legal and flowed from U.N. resolutions now that the lynch pin has been removed?
Our willing ignorance, our denial, our susceptibility to propaganda, our failure to properly assess or comprehend what is being done allows Howard and his champions to keep trotting out the same old lies – that the war would not be a difficult endeavour; that the Iraqis would be grateful; that targeting would result in few casualties.
And we hold close the dark secret that we could not feel as we do if the bodies being mangled were more like us; that our distance – and Howard’s – would be impossible if these were white, Christian, English-speaking westerners.
* Federal Member for Fremantle, Western Australia
Email: “Dr Carmen Lawrence” <Carmen.Lawrence.MP@aph.gov.au>