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Published on Webdiary - Founded and Inspired by Margo Kingston (/cms)

Lest We Forget

By Richard Tonkin
Created 28/04/2009 - 02:29

I couldn't cope with the Anzac Day Dawn Service. The words I heard made me feel nauseated. After last week's revelations that the military Coalition that Australia is a part of has been following orders in torturing prisoners, it felt as if everything that was good about this day had been tainted by something sinister.

"Australians are fighting all over the world, from Afghanistan, where they serve as part of the Coalition Against Terrorism, to the Solomon Islands." intoned the orator of the ceremony's preamble. He then proceeded to relate the tale of a heroic Aussie digger who had returned "through well aimed fire" to rescue his fallen Afghan interpreter. Then he talked about this soldier's opinions on everything. The parable reeked of old-school propaganda, and the five thousand people present seemed to be buying it.

This was my first Dawn Service in too many years. I went, as I often have, as a mark of respect for the many members of my family who have served in war, and for my grandfather, a Light Horse captain and standard bearer for his regiment at the opening of Canberra's first Parliament House.

It was in his pub that I first became aware of Anzac Day. Pubs were supposed to be shut at nine in the morning, but Kenneth Ross had his doors open to the old soldiers. If the police came by it was understood that they were all pub lodgers, no further questions asked. At any rate, the Anzac Day drinking laws were intended to make sure the soldiers marched in the parade instead of going to the pubs early, and there was no such problem here. I proudly strode along with them, also in uniform as part of the 1st Portland Scout Troop, the medals belonging to various family members pinned to my chest , feeling a sense of honour in participating on behalf of their owners.

We went into Afghanistan to get Osama bin Laden. He wasn't there, but we still are. The Afghan taxi driver who drove me home on Saturday morning put it this way. "Why spill more blood? Look at how many Russians died. If you use force on us, we will respond."

I wonder if, beyond the pretty words, the Afghanistan diggers are going to feel like those who returned from Vietnam. Is that what the speech spin was about? Making sure that those fighting an unpopular war weren't treated with disrespect on their return? The message of Treasurer Wayne Swan from Washington rang alarms. "Young Australians are currently fighting alongside Americans, Britons and numerous others in Afghanistan," he informed us via the ABC radio news. "They are there for many reasons, principally to fight terrorism. But they are also there because a fundamental part of their make-up says they must go." His words resonated with the unusual "Coalition against Terrorism" phrase in the Dawn Service "warm up act". Keyword propaganda as mass public re-education? Was this an attempted one day brainwash? I wouldn't go that far, but there's a nagging suspicion in the back of my mind that we're being prepared not only for the return of our soldiers in Afghanistan now, but for departure of the young people who will represent us there in the future.

Swan is right in say that for some people it's "in their make-up" to consider it their moral obligation to serve as our soldiers. I know one girl marching on Saturday who only turned 18 a few weeks ago. Having trained as an army cadet she was, in the words of her mother, "enlisted" soon after her birthday. Today she went to the base at Wagga Wagga for basic training. I feel a little cruel now in having asked her mum "So what's the class graduation exercise - Afghanistan?" She recoiled before responding, "Don't say that! It's something in all of my kids. They want to serve their country. They want to go to Afghanistan."

In hindsight I wish I'd invited this girl to come along to the arvo session at the Hilton RSL. There she could have met Stanley, a scathing pictorial artist who appears crazy to many, one of the most intelligent people I'll ever meet. If you were watching the South Australian parade broadcast you might have seen him cavorting alongside his comrades in a green suit, swilling from a bottle of red. He'd explained to me on a prior Anzac eve how, as a rural larrikin, he was presented with two options: go to jail or join the army. Stanley did two tours of Vietnam in the SAS. Despite the fact that the doctors gave him and his liver 12 months to live when his health collapsed after the Anzac Day of three years ago, Stan has a quadruple whiskey in his hand, and is buying champagne for the girl I tricked into dancing with him. Later he points to his medals and tells her, "These aren't memories; they're nightmares. Every time I went out into the countryside I knew I was going to kill someone. And I did." I don't know what Stanley would've told the departing recruit, but I do know that it would be an entirely different story to the one she heard at Dawn Service. Stan and a couple of his mates are embarking on rebuilding their rickety RSL into something special. There are new stained glass windows in the roof tiles, designed by the SAS veteran and created by his one-legged mate Fluff. The murals that have been painted onto the wall of the smoking courtyard are precious artwork representing its inhabitants' mindscapes. "When I'm done," says Stan, "they'll never be able to tear this one down."

It's not surprising, on the day after such a militarily auspicious one, that the story of the new torture photographs was buried below thirty-three pages of newspaper. Accompanied by an Abu Graib "happy snap" of a naked male Iraqi writhing in pain from bites by U.S. Army dogs, the piece tells us of "hundreds" of photos about to be released by their Department of Defence thanks to legal pressure from the American Civil Liberties Union. In a media release announcing the May 28 release deadline, the ACLU [1] says that the new torture photos include shots taken in prison camps in Afghanistan:

"The disclosure of these photographs serves as a further reminder that abuse of prisoners in U.S.-administered detention centers was systemic," said Jameel Jaffer, Director of the ACLU National Security Project. "Some of the abuse occurred because senior civilian and military officials created a culture of impunity in which abuse was tolerated, and some of the abuse was expressly authorized. It's imperative that senior officials who condoned or authorized abuse now be held accountable for their actions."

Leaving aside the fact that Australia's Coalition minions would've been aware of the possibility of such a Sunday paper scenario well before Anzac Day, let's have a look at what level of "senior officials" we might be dealing with. Cheney, Rumsfeld and Rice are definitely at the top of the pecking order. The fact that Rice condoned waterboarding was published throughout the world's media last week, supported by Cheney's request that torture "success stories" also be declassified. Rumsfeld? Let's just say that he may have known unknowns and unknown unknowns but he knew the new photos existed at least as long ago as 2005, as the ACLU's campaign for their release was long underway by then. As we protested Rummy's presence in Adelaide, he and his aides would have known that they were suppressing information that would've swelled the ranks of protesters into the tens of thousands. He knew his soldiers were committing military atrocities.

"Rummy" was visiting Adelaide for a quick tête-à-tête with Defence Minister Hill and the man who calls Dr Rice "Condi", our erstwhile Foreign Minister Alexander Downer. There was also time for a quick chat with Rupert Murdoch, coincidentally visiting his hometown at the same time.

Some people say you can't trust Alexander Downer further than you could kick him. I can't kick very far. Did Downer know about the court case? The only way he could have been unaware, in my opinion, is if DFAT shielded him from the information; either that or their intelligence-gathering capabilities were nonexistent. At the very least, Downer could not have been unaware of what was going on while he was facilitating the Cheney-organised transfer of David Hicks to South Australia's Yatala prison. If he knew, would he have warned the State's Premier and Attorney-General? Given that they governed for an opposing political party, possibly not. Then there's the Chief of the Australian Federal Police, Mick Keelty. While aware that ASIO and AFP officers had interviewed Australian prisoner Mamdou Habib in Pakistan, Keelty dismissed as deception (and didn't investigate) Habib's claims of torture. Since the Special Rapporteur's submission to the UN Human Rights Council in February, claiming proof that Australian intelligence officers interrogated Australian prisoners in Pakistan at the very places in which they were being tortured, Keelty has said nothing; nor, as far as I can see, has anyone from the Australian Federal Cabinet. If they weren't aware of it before, they certainly were able to read it on Webdiary on April Fools' Day.

President Obama and his countrymen appear to be prepared to face up, at least to some degree, to the atrocities perpetrated in their name. What will be the psychological technique applied to exonerate Americans from the leaked CIA memos and the declassification of the damning photos, some of which are of torture of Afghans? How can the U.S. convict Khalid Sheik Mahommed when the public now knows that the CIA waterboarded KSM around a hundred times in a single month? How can the confessions of anyone who arrived at Cheney's Halliburton-built Guantanamo camp via rendition or a CIA ghost camp be treated as anything but the torture-conditioned responses of people who have been treated worse than is permitted for any animal? What will be the ramifications when photos of tortured Afghans are circulated in Afghanistan?

A Presidential Pardon for all tortured detainees, with all the legal repercussions it might entail, is something that might be considered by Obama as a soothing balm of atonement. The legal consequences for Adelaide's own Guantanamo inmate David Hicks would be just the tip of one of many icebergs of class actions the US Government would face, but compared with the cost of losing control of Afghanistan, this could be considered a small price to pay.

While all of this is going on, what does the Federal Government who inherited the responsibility for our close association with the perpetrators of torture have to say about it? Nothing at all.

If Anzac Day is an indicator, and support by Australians for ongoing participation in the "Coalition against Terror" is being encouraged, I doubt they ever will There's modern Anzac Spirit for you!


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