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Honour fallen by caring for living

Date: November 04 2012


IT IS WITH terrible, monotonous regularity that our federal parliamentarians rise to eulogise Australian soldiers who are being killed on duty in Afghanistan.

In the past month I have had cause to read every speech by successive prime ministers, and then every last word uttered by all of our federal MPs in Parliament about the 39 soldiers who've been killed in Afghanistan since February 2002.

The public gets to see a little of question time, for all its combative adversarial aggression and theatrics. But these solemn moments of parliamentary introspection don't make the headlines they warrant.

They are difficult - sometimes even awkward - speeches to listen to, to read and, no doubt, to deliver. Rarely, it seems, do the speakers actually know the soldiers who have been lost to this most electorally unpopular of wars. But almost without exception, they make an effort to find out the intimate details of the lives that are being spent in this faraway place that Australian forces will supposedly leave at the end of 2014.

They talk of the girlfriends and wives - Ellesse, Elvi, Jessie, Toni-Ann, Reigan and Rachael - who've been widowed well before their time, left alone to lament the terrible cost they are paying on behalf of the nation.

They talk of the children who'll grow up fatherless. They talk of the grief of the dead men's parents. And we learn, also, about the pain of those who are rarely thought of - the brothers and sisters and the mates who'll endure a terrible emptiness for the rest of their lives.

There are some extremely thoughtful, sensitively coined speeches that articulate with perfect emotional pitch just how the loss of these men will manifest, in a thousand little ways, in the lives of those left behind.

Stuart Robert, as opposition spokesman on defence personnel, has made more than his share of speeches about dead Australian soldiers in Afghanistan, yet still manages to personalise each.

''Today is an ode to this fallen soldier, an ode to a grieving wife, an ode to a family left behind, an ode to the music he will never play, the ball he will never kick and the friends he will never see,'' he said in a eulogy to Sergeant Brett Wood, 32, who died in May 2011.

The ball he will never kick. It's a powerful truth and a metaphor that plays on the prosaic nature of the emptiness that death bequeaths the living.

The more powerful eulogies remind us that we are not just lamenting lost warriors.

They are blokes who like their footy, their beer, their dogs, their cars - surfers and centre half-forwards, halfbacks and cyclists. Lost to the war.

The eulogies are almost invariably spoken by those who support the war. But there are exceptions.

In February 2011, Greens Senator Christine Milne, an opponent of the war, spoke of her empathy as a mother at the death of Corporal Richard Atkinson, a fellow Tasmanian.

''As a mother of sons in their 20s myself, I cannot even begin to understand and imagine the profound grief and sense of loss that his mother and father, his brother James and his wife, and his fiancee must be feeling. His parents, Ross and Kate, have spoken of their profound sadness. His father said: 'He enjoyed being deployed. He was just a lovely boy. He was funny. He loved playing sports. He was a loved son and a loved brother to James.'''

Some MPs, meanwhile, clumsily evoke an ill-defined spirit of Anzac to guarantee the community that those who've been killed in the line of duty will never be forgotten.

Many MPs, supportive of the fierce bipartisanship that continues to ensure Afghanistan is not subject to the intense political scrutiny elicited by far less weighty policy matters, have talked repeatedly about the importance of ''staying the course''.

In a Parliament that has been defined by abject aggression and personal abuse, where lazy moral equivalence too often underpins justification for political action, the eulogies sound a sombre note that reinforces the true responsibility of democratic representation.

It seems to me that those who speak of the dead with such respect and sensitivity before arguing to ''stay the course'' may actually, ironically and unintentionally, be aiding the case for withdrawal.

Which brings me back to the Anzac spirit, such as it was, during World War I.

From a population of less than 5 million, 324,000 Australians served overseas. More than 62,000 died; of the 262,000 who returned, 155,000 had been physically wounded.

This, of course, did not include the vast horde of ''NYD'' (not yet diagnosed) cases.

These were the men with ''shell shock'' - the precursor to the scourge of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) - who were at once cruelly denied medical acknowledgment and shunned.

Their legacy - wasted years on the road, the self-medication with alcohol and morphine, the beaten wives and children, the uneaten dinners in thousands of suburban kitchens - were hidden from view.

I had lunch with a senior representative of the RSL a few years ago. He was himself a warrior, wounded in battle.

He told me that PTSD ''is bullshit''. It's a view shared by many in the military establishment.

But in reasserting Australia's commitment to the Afghanistan war in Parliament last year and again last week, Prime Minister Julia Gillard has vowed to care for those soldiers who will endure the terrible scars of their service.

In 2011, she said: ''They suffer: amputations, fractures, gunshot and fragmentation wounds, hearing loss and what is called 'mild traumatic brain injury' - something we will see more and more often as we learn more about how to detect and understand percussion damage from explosions. There are also lacerations and contusions, concussion and traumatic brain injury, penetrating fragments and multiple severe injuries. Many will not serve again. Some will not walk again. Not one will be forgotten. Our country will recognise and respect our wounded as well as our dead. Our country will take care of these Australians as they have taken care of us. We will see our mission through; we will see our people through as well.''

Last week, meanwhile, she said: ''Seven Australians have died since my statement to the Parliament on our mission last year. The poet John Manifold wrote of the 'cairn of words' we build over our silent dead. Yes, we will remember them. And it is right that we give words to our sorrow and pride. But we must do more. Their widows, their children, their wounded mates - these Australians live on, they live amongst us, as we who are left grow old.''

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