When he first came back from Afghanistan, in one of those whiskey-hazed nights whose memory seems to be viewed through the glass of a window louvre, my friend The Soldier led a late-night toast. He’s a fan of late-night toasts. I think it was just me and him that night, not one of those rabble-rousing, we-happy-few circles. One of his officers had lost an arm in front of him, to a roadside bomb. The Soldier had had a few close shaves of his own. He led a toast to every Australian who’d died there, said them all by name.
It was the fairly early days. There’d been a dozen, maybe less. It wasn’t something he had to think about. The forces felt each one personally.
Yesterday, we lost three more. And no-one is asking who will name the Afghans, a decade’s worth this year. Even the number of digits in their toll is blurring into nothing. Their names are powdered rock. An Afghan interpreter died yesterday. We heard about him afterwards, an addendum. Harvard style or MLA. Just be consistent.
I never know what to say to this war, to our involvement. You get the positives. The ground support for the engineers putting in infrastructure, building the schools and building the bridges. Things that will help people live lives. The stories from The Soldier – no starry-eyed nationalist – about looking into the faces of people you had helped or saved. The growing of goodwill. And then the others, the pissing of goodwill away. The ‘incidents’, the ‘unfortunate events’, the collateral, the thousands of dead who certainly didn’t make themselves that way. And would there be more or less of them if the foreigners weren’t there? And would the lives of those there are be better, or degrade?
In one way, it feels kneejerk to support it. Cheap patriotism, cocking your ears to the sound of jingo bells. The missionary conviction that we’re the enlightened ones who show the way. In another, the opponents are kneejerk too. Self-righteous lines about situations they won’t ever understand, safe indignation, having opinions about warzones when the most dangerous thing they’ve ever handled is a garlic crusher. The ones who say it’s not to do with us don’t understand what happens to the ground where people die. Blood colours a connection that can’t be scuffed away.
And on it goes, no answer. Bad results and good intentions. Good results and repercussions. Little victories, grieving brothers. Breathing harder, bleeding hearts and beads of moisture. Beer and water. Scores of things don’t go to order. Out on orders, scouting, ration packs and stats and sleep disorders. Boys who fought in Afghan deserts, local peasants rise and fade, and join up with that number that nobody here could tell you, that no-one’s ever heard. And three more Australians die, and add them to the list: the other list whose paint is clear. And now we mark them off. I can’t recall the tally now, how many have we got? They had their tour: thirty nights of boredom for each hour of rising flame. By this point, even The Soldier would struggle to memorise their names.