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Men may cheer, boys may shout but for thousands of Johnnys war never ends

A sombre milestone was recorded last week in the Afghanistan war: the 3000th Coalition death. He was a 26-year-old American sailor, assigned to the US Naval Forces in Bahrain in support of the war.

The death barely registered in Australia, but then here - as in other Coalition nations - the focus is on the scramble for the exit from Afghanistan. France is just the latest nation to announce an earlier-than-planned withdrawal (the end of this year).

The images are confronting. Bodies are truncated; bandaged men are missing limbs, their faces and bodies burned and scarred. 

Politicians and the public are resolute. They want the bloody and costly post-September 11 wars to be gone, erased, left behind - and for these civilians they pretty soon will be. For the veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, of course, this isn't possible, and they will forever live with the physical and mental legacies of their military service.

And so as the conflicts which dominated our national discourses for the past decade come to a close, there is a troubling disconnect between those who fought in these wars and those who ordered, supported, benefited from or just stood by as they were waged in their names.

Some population numbers illustrate how wide the gap is between the military and civilian populations.

In the US, for instance, 0.5 per cent of the American population served in the US armed forces over the past decade, according to the Pew Research Centre. In Australia the Australian Defence Force says 9800 personnel served in Iraq, and 17,600 in Afghanistan - meaning just 0.1 per cent of the total population has fought in the two wars.

The gap portrayed in the figures is backed up by attitudinal research: Pew also found 84 per cent of America's post-September 11 veterans say the public does not understand the problems faced by those in the military or their families, and the public agrees, though by a smaller majority of 71 per cent.

While the numbers of veterans we are talking about here might be relatively small compared with their wider populations, the burden they will carry as a result of their service on the front line is immense. Ironically, this is a direct result of the fact that more military personnel are surviving their wounds in our modern wars than ever before.

This fact was brought home very plainly with some further, rather shocking, statistics on Monday, when the US commemorated its annual Memorial Day holiday. First, more than 500,000 American armed forces members have come home from Iraq and Afghanistan with disabling injuries (whether physical or psychological). Second, 45 per cent of post-September 11 veterans are now seeking compensation for service-related injuries - compared with 21 per cent of veterans after the 1991 Gulf War.

(In Australia, the ADF says 223 personnel have been wounded in action in Afghanistan.)

This disparity and disconnect between civilians and veterans in terms of their ability to put the post-September 11 wars behind them suggests that before we close the book on the past decade's conflicts, we should all pause and reflect on what that period taught us.

Was it worth the human toll for the US? Was it worth it for us?

These questions sprang to mind this week when I came across the Joe Bonham Project - an incredibly affecting artistic collaboration founded in the US by Michael Fay, a former Marine Corp combat artist who did two tours of Iraq and two of Afghanistan while in uniform.

The project goes a significant way towards bridging that gap between civilians and the military, by documenting through art in a very tangible and moving way the physical and mental impact the two wars have had on serving personnel.

The project, which is touring America now, has involved a group of artists with different connections to the wars (some have had serving family members, others previously deployed as official military artists) spending time with willing wounded veterans in hospitals and rehabilitation facilities, talking with them, observing them, and drawing them.

The project is named after the central character in the disturbing 1938 anti-war novel by Dalton Trumbo, Johnny Got His Gun, about a World War I soldier who wakes up in a hospital bed and slowly realises he has lost his limbs and face, but not his mind, and is trapped in his body.

The images are confronting. Bodies are truncated; bandaged men are missing limbs, their faces and bodies burned and scarred. Some are hooked up to tubes and colostomy bags. They speak volumes about events most of us are only too willing to move on from now, and about those who can't.

Fay likes to think of the artists as witnesses, or ''listeners in the woods''. ''We are the ones out there who are going to listen and say 'yes, the goddam tree did make a sound'.''

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143 comments

  • Tell me again why we are there in the first place. Oh! wait I remember it was our war on Terrorism. I was in a group once who had a similar philosophy on Virginity, delicacy forbids the anaology here though

    Bring our soldiers home and help us prepare for the coming threat from a nearer neighbour than Afganistan, PLEASE..

    Commenter
    Les Bursill
    Location
    Engadine
    Date and time
    June 01, 2012, 7:45AM
    • Les,

      Do you regard Syria as a nearer neighbour?

      The same war drums that took the coalition of the willing into Iraq and Afghanistan wants war in Syria and than Iran.

      The media persuades us that it is the human thing to stop the violence through violence. Do we stop and ask the question what is motivating the call for regime change in Syria....No I don't mean the killing of babies. What is the real objective?

      For mine, the constant in your face media re Syria smacks much like the never found weapons of mass destruction for calling for war against Iraq. Do we never learn?

      Meanwhile more sons and daughters are killed maimed and psychologically scarred....... for what?

      Commenter
      Robert
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      June 01, 2012, 2:27PM
  • Overnight, John Howard was invested with the Order of Merit by Her Majesty.

    John Howard marched us into Iraq while more than half of us objected to the war and many of us marched in the streets to protect him from himself and to prevent him putting our troops in harm's way for no good reason, and to prevent the senseless destruction of life in Iraq, with none of those deaths likely to be of people who were responsible for 9/11 or who were in any way our enemies.

    John Howard broke the commandment, "You shall not bear false testimony' with lies about WMD's, to justify his breach of the commandment not to kill.

    It is pleasing to know that he is rewarded with a medal for such heroism, while the broken soldiers who earned it for him rot in their own hells.

    Commenter
    Ross
    Location
    MALLABULA
    Date and time
    June 01, 2012, 7:47AM
    • Ross - Afghanistan is a war entered by Howard with the bipartisan support of the ALP under Beazley.

      Obama (Democrat) took over from Bush (Republican) and drew troops down from Iraq (Bush's war) to then commit to a surge in Afghanistan (now truly Obama's war). Australia contributed to the surge in Afghanistan under Rudd. Gilllard continues to support a role in Afghanistan. Australia under the ALP remains the largest non-NATO contributor to Afghanistan.

      Stop blaming Howard for Afghanistan by attempting to invoke Iraq. Such comments are disingenuous and intellectually dishonest.

      Both the Left and the Right of politics in the West and Australia are to blame for the Afghsnistan war, not just Bush, Howard and Blair.

      Commenter
      Andrew
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      June 01, 2012, 8:58AM
    • Ross, As you will be aware the Liberal Party has been in Government when most, if not all, major conflicts have started. Please name any significant conflict involving our allies since WW2, which started while the Labor party was in government? Also of those conflicts name any that for any unpopular, moral, financial or any other reason misguided or not that when asked to by those allies the Labor party elected not to participate in?

      Commenter
      Michael
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      June 01, 2012, 9:26AM
    • Ross, John Howard is arguably Australia's second greatest PM after Menzies, so is more than deserving of the Order of Merit. As for Iraq, a UN report dated 30th May 2012 indicates that the human rights situation has improved, however, in 2003 a Gallup poll was conducted of Iraqi citizens in Baghdad, which found that 62% of correspondents agreed that the ousting of Saddam Hussein was worth any hardships they might have personally suffered since the U.S. and British-led invasion. It is very easy for those of us who already have our freedom protected to make judgements from afar without knowing the true situation but often it is better to listen to those who are in the firing line

      Commenter
      liklik
      Location
      sydney
      Date and time
      June 01, 2012, 9:29AM
    • Young Andrew, tell me where in my post I ever referred to Afghanistan? When did masses of people march in the streets to prevent war in Afghanistan? When did I blame Howard for war in Afghanistan?

      If you concede that the answer to all these questions is 'never', then my objection to 'Howard's Way' remains valid.

      In retrospect, Afghanistan was also a terrible decision. Much better than bombing third world countries into the stone age is the approach of Indonesia, that finds the culprits and subjects them to due process.

      It is disgusting that governments of the left prosecute wars started by the right. But at least they don't start them.

      You accuse me of being 'disingenuous and intellectually dishonest' but surely it is you who have attacked me for two things of which I am not guilty.

      Commenter
      Ross
      Location
      MALLABULA
      Date and time
      June 01, 2012, 9:36AM
    • @Andrew
      utter rubbish.
      Little John Howard was the one that obsequiously proposed we join Bush's devastating folly and howard initiated our troops' movement, just because Beazley went along with it does not absolve howard of responsibility for this devastating folly.
      Ross is totally justified in citing the mess, the waste, the needless loss of life, the displaced humans and the endlessness that is the war in Iraq in this forum on Afghanistan.
      Because, once again, it was howard that took us into this hopeless debacle using the same spurious and deceitful excuse of rooting out terrorism. Then there was the weapons of mass destruction falling in to the hands of terrorists bulls**t plus the blatant lie of Saddam's links to Al Qaeda.
      Andrew Wilkie told howard that these things could not be true so the nationals/liberals demonized him and sooled their attack dog, abbot on to him .
      Crean opposed Iraq but supported the troops.
      Howard lied and knew he was lying .
      Countless people are dead,displaced and those remaining will have to endure a hollowed out and gutted country for the foreseeable future due to his lies; lies that in any court of humanity would be dubbed criminal.
      I will NEVER forget and I am sure there are many men ,women and children in Iraq and Afghanistan that will never forget either.

      Commenter
      nkelly
      Date and time
      June 01, 2012, 10:06AM
    • Ross - Young Andrew? What has my age got to do with this debate about Afghanistan? As much as your post about Howard.

      By the way I am 43 and well recall the First Gulf War which PM Hawke of the ALP unilaterally decided without Parliamentary approval to contribute Australian military forces to. I distinctly recall this because I was doing my basic parachute course at HMAS Albatross at the time and my fellow soldiers and I were all talking about possible deployment.

      The First Gulf War in turn lead to Al Qaeda's hatred of the USA (as Osama Bin Laden thought it sacreligious that US soldiers, especially females, were posted to Saudi Arabia), such hatred lead to 9.11.01, Afghanistan and the Iraq War

      I also distinctly recall that the PM of the UK when Afghanistan and then Iraq were entered following 9.11.01 was Tony Blair of the British Labour Party. Mr Blair was also the driving force behind NATO intervention in Kosovo which then gave rise to the Respond to Protect Doctrine that also gave us the UN resolution 1972 to authorise military force in Libya that ultimately deposed Gadaffi.

      The Left is equally culpable for the wars we are still occupied with. They are continuing to fight them as well as start them.

      Commenter
      Andrew
      Location
      Sydney`
      Date and time
      June 01, 2012, 10:08AM
    • Ross, The approach of Indonesia, that finds the culprits and subjects them to due process." Care to run through the events in East Timor for us? Since when has genocide, condoned by Australia, been due process?

      Commenter
      Michael
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      June 01, 2012, 10:10AM

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