Monday, October 1, 2012


The war in Afghanistan continues - yet there's been little analysis of what's occurring from an Australian perspective. 

Until now. One of the former Australian commanders, Maj Gen John Cantwell, has released an extraordinarily honest book about his life. 

This was my take on the book . . . 


The story is wonderful and only enhanced by the sparkling twinkle in the vivid-blue eyes of the woman telling it. Julie, the wife of Major General John Cantwell, AO, DSC, just retired, is describing the moment they first met. He’d just completed his Subject One for Sergeant course and, quite literally, collapsed at her feet. The incident established a dramatic imperative - true love had to follow. Fortunately, it did.

But what I find quite startling about this story isn’t that the couple fell in love. It’s the idea that Cantwell – even if just for a moment – wasn’t in complete control of everything that was happening around him. I first met him a few years later, in 1983, and at that time I remember thinking he most resembled a tightly-coiled spring. By then he was a tank Lieutenant, adding mine-warfare as another qualification to a long list of specialities he’d already mastered. Ironically, Cantwell hadn’t excelled at school and that’s why he joined-up as a private at the age of seventeen. But the Army was different. Suddenly the boy from Queensland saw the point of learning practical things and he dedicated himself to his profession. Annual reports graded officers on a five-point scale: Cantwell’s always seemed to be marked as a person a commander would “fight to get”.

That’s part of the reason he was selected for an attachment to a British armoured regiment just before the first Iraq War. And that’s why, as the tanks began rolling across the sand, Cantwell was serving as a liaison officer with a brigade headquarters. Suddenly the attack stopped, literally, in its tracks. Mines littered the ground ahead and all around the spearhead of the advance. The leading troops couldn’t see their way forward. Cantwell acted. He charged forward, jumped out of his vehicle, and guided the column along the edge of a minefield. If the tank tracks had hit a mine, they’d have just slipped and come off: armour would protect the crew. Anyone on foot, however, would have been riddled with shrapnel. That mine-warfare course many years earlier had shown Cantwell exactly how easy it is to hide mines and booby-traps – he knew his survival depended on chance. He avoided – just – bomblets that had been dropped from planes and – through skill and good fortune – guided the armoured column around the edge of the minefield. The tracks ground on and soon the advance proceeded down the newly cleared path. His ordeal was over.

Over? Do you ever really recover from something like that? The sheer randomness of wondering if your foot will fall on a booby-trap and blast you into pink mist; the shock of seeing the hand of a person buried alive stretching up from the sand of a covered trench; the fear of sudden death in the midst of thousands of heavily-armed soldiers, all keyed up and ready to shoot at anyone, even someone on their own side, who suddenly appears somewhere they’re not expected?

Then the war was over and Cantwell returned to Australia to an army at peace. There weren’t enough veterans from that war for a parade and there was no understanding of how post-traumatic stress disorder affects individuals. Even someone like Cantwell, who’d served in the vicious, overwhelming chaos of war, couldn’t really understand the very different horror of peacekeeping operations in places like Somalia or Cambodia, for example, where individual Australian signallers were posted to operate in the booby-trapped jungle with Khmer Rouge guerrillas and the ‘peace’ could have broken down at any moment. Everyone always has their own burdens to bear; the trouble was that back then everyone was just expected to ‘get over it’. So Cantwell did. He and Julie didn’t talk about his nightmares. They covered up his sudden explosions of temper at home. At work he was just as he’d always been: a carefully-oiled machine, purring with precision. The personal toll was hidden.

More promotions inevitably followed, as did another Gulf War and, eventually, command of our forces in Afghanistan. Because he was a commander, Cantwell wasn’t in the front-line, but where exactly is the ‘front’ in an insurgency? This is a war where suicide-vests might be worn by anyone and where a general makes an ideal target. Even aid workers, like Canberra’s own David Savage who was badly wounded in a blast last year, are targeted with just as much enthusiasm by the Taliban as are soldiers. More complex questions demanded answers as well. How does someone who understands the complex factors of human terrain in Uruzgan implement a strategy that rests on a flawed analysis because of the requirements of some distant politician back in Canberra? And how can these issues be communicated to the public when every scrap of information must be so tightly controlled to ensure operational security’s maintained?

Cantwell’s excellent biography, Exit Wounds, doesn’t have the answers but it achieves something far more valuable. It challenges the comfortable assumptions with which we surround our lives. In the years after World War Two psychologist Norman Dixon examined the tensions between command of soldiers in peace and the uncertainty and chaos surrounding every moment of war. Such factors are even more an issue today. Military training and professionalism focus on controlling the surrounding environment, yet war is madness and bedlam.

Cantwell raises three vital issues. Most significant is the urgent requirement to do something to assist the psychological casualties of war. Damage is to be expected – it’s our obligation, as a society, to recognise this and assist people in their recovery. Second comes the imperative to discuss the Afghan war, something the politicians are refusing to do. Outrageously, they have not even made a start on compiling an Official History of the conflict – Australia’s longest. Wounded veterans are pushed into the background. The final requirement is to address the serious issue of what we are attempting to achieve in Afghanistan and matching this to the way we’re going about it and the resources we’re prepared to devote to the job.

Until this is achieved our list of psychological casualties will continue growing.

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