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After the tributes, the wounds remain

Date

is a Canberra-based writer and an award-winning political journalist

View more articles from Paul Daley

<em>Illustration: David Rowe</em>

Illustration: David Rowe

It is with terrible, monotonous regularity that our federal parliamentarians rise to eulogise Australian soldiers killed on duty in Afghanistan.

I have recently read every speech by successive prime ministers, and then every last word uttered by all 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 awkward - speeches to listen to, to read and, no doubt, to deliver. Rarely, it seems, do the speakers know the soldiers. But most make an effort to find out the intimate details of the lives spent in this faraway place.

They talk of girlfriends and wives - Ellesse, Elvi, Jessie, Toni-Ann, Reigan and Rachael - widowed too early, 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 and 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 mates who'll endure terrible emptiness for ever.

There are some 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, who, as opposition spokesman for defence personnel, has made more than his share of speeches about dead Australian soldiers in Afghanistan, 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 fact and a metaphor that plays on the prosaic nature of the echoing emptiness that death bequeaths the living.

The speeches remind us we are not just lamenting lost warriors, but blokes who liked their footy, their beer, their dogs, their cars - surfers and centre-half-forwards, halfbacks and cyclists. Lost to the war.

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

In February 2011, the 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.''

Some MPs, meanwhile, clumsily evoke an ill-defined spirit of Anzac, to guarantee the community that those who've died will not be forgotten, and the importance of staying the course.

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

Which brings me to the ''Anzac spirit'' during World War I.

From a population of fewer than 5 million, 324,000 Australians served overseas. More than 62,000 died; of the 262,000 who returned, 156,000 had been 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.

A few years ago, a senior representative of the RSL told me he thought 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 in 2011 and again last week, the Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, has vowed to care for those soldiers who will endure the terrible scars of their service.

''Seven Australians have died since my statement to the Parliament on our mission last year,'' Gillard said last week. ''The poet John Manifold wrote of the 'cairn of words' we build over our silent dead … 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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