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The unknown war and the known soldier

By David Ritter - posted Tuesday, 22 August 2006

I had a bad dream last night - not a nightmare, but an unnerving one. For some unknown reason, I pulled out my nine-millimetre pistol and shot myself in the head.

I have no idea why, but it seemed I wanted to see what it felt like. I didn't die, but it felt like I did.

From the diary of Private Jake Kovco.


Australia is a nation at war. If one counts the aerial attacks on Baghdad of March 20, 2003 as the beginning of battle, then the conflict in Iraq has now passed its 1,300th day. Australian troops have been involved in the hostilities from the outset, participating in the initial invasion and remaining as part of the occupation. Until quite recently, our soldiers have been providing security support to a Japanese military reconstruction team in the southern Al Muthanna province. Now, following the withdrawal of Japan's contingent, Prime Minister Howard has advised that Australian units are likely to move further south, to a more dangerous assignment at the Tallil air base near Nasiriyah, providing support and mentoring to units in the fledgling new Iraqi army.

Thus far, Australia has experienced a most fortunate war. In more than three years of fighting in Iraq, only one Australian soldier has died, and in circumstances far removed from active combat. Private Jake Kovco perished on April 21 this year with a single shot from his own pistol, while in barracks in Baghdad in the company of two comrades.

The anti-heroic circumstances of Kovco’s death make him ill-suited to becoming mythologised as a patriotic martyr. Yet because of his singular status as the solitary mortal face of Australia's war in Iraq and the mysteriousness of his end, Kovco’s life and death have attained national significance. We have heard from his diary, know of the dead man’s prescient dreams and followed the twisted route home of the body. Kovco has become the dead man about whom we know too much and whose ambiguous demise has begun to stand as a metaphor for a war about which our Commonwealth Government thought too little.

In his 1987 book Thinking about Peace and War, English political scientist Martin Ceadel, set out an explanatory framework for classifying the various ideological positions within peace-and-war debates.

Historically, Australia has tended to adopt what Ceadel would cause a “defencist” position, considering international aggression to be wrong, but national “defence” to be both moral and proper, leading to participation in a range of wars that were seen as “defensive” in nature, even if they took place in Europe, Africa and Asia.

Ceadel contrasts “defencism”, with “crusading”, the latter being a rationale for warfare which embraces a “willingness under favorable circumstances to use aggressive war to promote either order or justice”. Thus a “crusade” may be embarked upon to eradicate a regime which, by its external behavior, threatens existing international norms.


Writing almost 20 years before the invasion of Iraq, Ceadel noted that “some wars for which the purely defencist case is either too weak or is insufficiently persuasive” become supplemented with a crusading justification, “which would be insufficient on its own”. The application of Ceadel’s analysis to the war against Iraq is obvious: we could not find any weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, so, (hey presto!) the evaporated plausibility of the defencist rationale for invasion was suddenly bolstered by an ex post facto conversion to crusading.

Writing under the shadow of the Cold War, Ceadel argued that “crusading would have even fewer exponents than it still has if it were generally known to require … both moral arrogance and ignorance of the real effects of war”.

The nations who took part in the “Coalition of the Willing” must face the genuine (if unknowable) possibility that the quantum of human suffering in Iraq has been increased, rather than decreased, through the destruction of Saddam’s regime. Perhaps that was a risk worth taking. Maybe Baathist Iraq was a regime so fundamentally foul that the war could have been justified on crusading basis: but if so, such a justification should have been enunciated from the outset.

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First published in The New Critic in Issue 2, August 2006.

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About the Author

David Ritter is a lawyer and an historian based at UWA. David is The New Critic's London based Editor-at-Large.

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