Stephen Smith locks himself in cone of silence

  • by: Ian McPhedran  From:Herald Sun June 21, 201212:00AM

It is essential for the community to know the true “cost” of going to war, argues Ian McPhedran. Source: The Daily Telegraph
THE Gillard Government and our military top brass want Australians to believe that our casualties in Afghanistan all die quiet, dignified deaths surrounded by their mates.
The truth is somewhat different.
Frantic efforts are made to save them and then deliver them to a field hospital where dedicated surgeons fight valiantly to mend bodies torn apart by high-powered rounds or high explosive.
So, to have every casualty reported in the same predictable, sanitised terms defies credibility and demeans their sacrifice.
The public now seldom hears the real story. That’s because the Government has abandoned its commitment to tell us the full human costs of going to war.
In February 2010 then Defence Minister John Faulkner delivered an extraordinary speech at a CEW Bean Foundation dinner in Canberra.
“If history teaches us anything it is that the only way to secure the public support so critical to a democracy’s military power is to be as transparent and accountable as military exigencies permit,” he said.
“For the first time, the Parliament and the Australian people will be given regular reports about ADF casualties.
“When the Australian Government commits Australian forces, we put Australian lives at risk, and exercise potentially often actually lethal force in the name of the Australian community. It is essential therefore that the community knows not only the reasons, but also the costs of such action.”
As citizens of a robust and free democracy Australians have a right to know at least some of the grim reality
The speech was music to the ears of correspondents who had spent years fighting against a secretive Australian military for greater access to information.
Fast forward 30 months and we have a new defence minister who has a very different approach to transparency.
Stephen Smith spends a lot of time talking, but says very little of substance.
A regular on ABC Radio and Sky News, the mountains of transcripts he generates reveal a master of the endless stream of gibberish.
As public opinion against the war in Afghanistan moves above 60 per cent, Smith has seen fit to implement a policy of censorship contrary to most of what his predecessor said 30 months ago.
He claims that the families of soldiers killed in Afghanistan should not be subjected to the extra grief that a public airing of official reports into the deaths of their loved ones would generate.
Since Smith took over even the heavily censored official reports into the fatalities are kept secret.
No one wants grieving families subjected to any unnecessary heartache, but Faulkner was right when he said it was essential for the community to know the true “cost” of going to war.
When a soldier dies in battle they die a violent and horrible death. With luck it is quick, but it is seldom clean.
This is the reality of combat, but as this war becomes increasingly unpopular politicians and their generals don’t want the public to be exposed to the human cost.
Journalists and media outlets risk being labelled “un-Australian” by defence chiefs if they dare to write anything that causes grieving families to be exposed to the terrible facts of their loved ones’ death or the processes involved in repatriating their remains.
Politicians meanwhile seek out new ways to sugar coat the PR message that war is about toiling alongside old friends to train new friends or open new schools and medical clinics. It is not.
War is about killing more of the other side than you lose yourself.
Even details about the actions of our best and bravest are sanitised to the point of insult.
When a soldier saves his mates and wins a medal by his “selfless and gallant actions” he has usually slaughtered a large number of enemy fighters during brutal close quarters battles to the death.
It is not glamorous or indicative of some higher Anzac tradition, it is savage and violent and painful and ugly.
Equally when a Digger is killed by an enemy gun or bomb it is bloody and dreadful and traumatic for his mates who are often left scarred by the experience.
Sheltered from these realities by a campaign of censorship, society is then shocked when veterans return home messed up by the experience and at the mercy of Veterans Affairs.
As citizens of a robust and free democracy Australians have a right to know at least some of the detail of that grim reality.
As it stands the community will know little about future casualties short of the hackneyed press release about brave Diggers and their mates who fought hard in the Anzac tradition.
The wider community, who share only a tiny portion of a family’s mountain of grief, but who fund an expensive military force fighting in a war half a world away, deserves better, much better.
Ian McPhedran is Herald Sun defence reporter

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