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The progress of defeat: the withdrawal of Australian forces

By Binoy Kampmark - posted Tuesday, 10 June 2008


Australia’s five-year military commitment to Iraq has, we are officially told, ended. Overwatch Battle Group, along with its training contingent, halted operations at their station base at Tallil in Dhi Qar province on Monday, June 1. The withdrawal of Australian forces is being wrapped in curious packages of rhetoric, many of which require demystifying. A relieved Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston has observed that, “The Iraqis are doing their business”. Defence Minister Joel Fitzgibbon has called the deployment a success; the opposition has cursed the government’s good luck.

It is hard to find any credible description of what Australia’s role has been in that divided, crumbling state. The Rudd Government promotes the message of withdrawal, yet retains some 800 Australian personnel in the region. The opposition is still getting high on petrol fumes, seeing this military measure as a populist distraction by a wily, if cornered Prime Minister. Rudd, argued Liberal frontbencher Peter Dutton “will use anything at his disposal to distract from the fact that he hasn’t brought petrol prices down”.

During the conflict, the Iraqis have been often seen like helpless children happy to receive the instructive comforts of Australian “liberty”. But they have grown up now - they can, in Houston’s own words, do “their business”. Some disagree - the Iraqis still need nursing, the schooling of good democrats. According to Liberal backbencher Dennis Jensen, “you have a war that is essentially being won and we’re seen to move out of there.” Jensen is evidently reading different dispatches from the front.

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This nonsense of reading the Australian mission as a triumphant enterprise in giving freedom becomes even more troubling on inspecting it in historical context. The Australian forces, coattail riders and Gurkas of American realpolitik, were committed to an enterprise marred by fraud and trickery. The mysterious weapons of mass destruction remained the great absentees of the entire conflict, while the rhetoric of emancipation only crept in later.

The Howard government remained, along with Fox News outlets in the US, the only pious agents of the Coalition to keep believing that those WMDs might mysteriously crop out from a desert shelter.

Another, almost equally fantastic aspect of Australia’s involvement has been the way its soldiers have been deployed. It is utter fiction to suggest that the Australian forces, apart from the SAS frontline personnel, were being engaged in the thick of operations during their stint.

The Defence Department under the Howard government was petrified by potential losses, and bureaucrats were terrified about the impact body bags would have on the home front. The then Defence Minister Brendan Nelson made sure losses would simply not happen. The show, at least from the perspective of the infantry, had to be bloodless, a pantomime of freedom giving. The insurgents obliged - they had bigger targets.

What is forgotten in this withdrawal is that John Howard, the man who, along with Prime Minister Tony Blair and President George Bush, participated in this invasion, is now the object of a war crimes brief drafted by an International Criminal Court Action group in Melbourne. The 52-page brief hones in on Article 8 of the Rome Statute covering war crimes.

Minimal publicity has been given to the activities of Glen Floyd, a chief organiser behind the push. This is little surprise, given the fact that the circumstances surrounding the Iraq war have become assimilated into a culture of denial and deceit. The semantic tortures of former US Secretary of State Donald Rumsfeld heralded that culture. He will go down in history as having concocted the most obtuse, convoluted rationale for dealing with Saddam’s lethal assortment of purported WMDs:

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Reports say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns - the ones we don’t know we don’t know.

Cutting through this contorted verbiage is heavy going, and it supplemented the rationale for war in Iraq for years. It was not a case of granting “freedom” or undertaking the task of nation-building. Both this challenges have proven virtually insurmountable.

The Melbourne group itself, made up of a collection of political figures, legal personalities and academics, have made their intentions clear for some time. Senator Lyn Allison of the Australian Democrats, a firm supporter of the move “has been taken to hold those accountable for their action”, namely, the ex-Prime Minister.

An uncomfortable reminder then, as Australia’s soldiers leave, of what the “supreme international crime” as articulated at Nuremberg in 1946 is: the “planning, preparation, initiation or waging of a war of aggression or a war in violation of international treaties, agreements or assurances”.

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About the Author

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He currently lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne and blogs at Oz Moses.

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