Too many names

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.





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15 Responses to Too many names

  1. sara says:

    wow, that’s really beautifully written
    the last paragraph reads like a poem 🙂

  2. John Dalton says:

    First person to set that last paragraph to music gets 50k+ views on YouTube. (or a recording contract -whatever the kids are into these days)

  3. BB King says:

    You know, I posted on FB this morning the article about the three soliders, lest we forget. I understand that Qantas is holding fliers for work and tourism up, but I tell you what, the familes that have had this news, that their sons are dead, how come we’re not all stopping and thinking about this, instead of the “chaos” and the “disarray” of airports, call centres and media clusters. But you write, as you do, and those families, and the friends of their sons, are honoured, and I am glad you did this. Thank you.

  4. Beth Fleming says:

    A very young male friend from Afghanistan, (who became friendly because I refused to bargain after an appalling display from the previous customer,) told me that he believes that his people still have a lot to learn and change, and that many of them need to learn to treat women better.
    He wanted his country to change,, and his people too.
    Let us hope that some good comes of all this agony.
    ….. Emotional damage and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Loss after loss.

  5. Stacy says:

    Every death is a tragedy. In a way I am glad that we have so few that we can all call them by name, hear their story and send our condolences to the families. In the USA, PBS news honours those who have died every week on a Friday. There’s too many to remember but my American partner salutes every one of them. He’s been to war, seven times. He will never let himself forget the friends he has lost. He feels personally responsible for every single one of them and that’s a burden he chooses to bear in their honour.

    Our soldiers are there because our country sends them, they do their job and they do it with pride. We should never disrespect that. That said, I think our time is up in the Middle East. I don’t know what they are fighting for anymore. I don’t understand fighting for the sovereignty and security of a foreign country when the soldier’s own countries are crumbling while they are away. The terrorists have already moved across the border and they’ll keep doing that regardless of which country we decide to invade.

    Politics aside and a little off the topic, I did find out recently that one can send packages to Australian soldiers deployed overseas for free through Australia Post (up to 2kg). I think it’s got to be the Defense Force’s best kept secret. They are about to begin accepting Christmas care packages (7th Nov to 9th Dec 2011). The details can be found at and it’s not just troops in Afghanistan, you can send care packages to troops in East Timor, the Solomon Islands or the Middle East. We’re not as good as the Americans at letting our troops know we care, this is a really simple way to do it. Oh and you can also send packages to the defense force dogs if you’re more of a pet lover :). Just remember the three B’s, no Booze, Bacon or Breasts!

  6. smallandunpretentious says:

    Oh, my. This is beautiful Geoff.

  7. Chris Daley says:

    I’ve been there, a long time ago, nearly 8 years at last count. I wasn’t holding a gun, or a garlic crusher, but I have some strong opinions about what we’re doing there now. Building schools, wells and other humanitarian projects are noble and necessary, but not when they are being used as a smoke screen for what the real work of our soldiers is there. For every well dug, there are scores of “insurgents” killed, villages razed to the ground and children, both civilian and in uniform brutalised. Soldiers kill, that’s what their job is.
    I should know, I trained dozens of them to do so.
    To pretend their mission is anything else is deceiving ourselves and an insult to the hundreds of aid workers who have lost their lives as a direct result of the blurring of the lines between humanitarian and military missions. You can’t hand over a food parcel with one hand while holding a gun with the other. It just doesn’t work that way.
    A friend called me from Kandahar several months ago to tell me what the locals call Australians now. Uncle Sam’s Hired Killers. While we might be confused about what our mission is there, the Afghan people are suffering under no illusions.
    Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for supporting our troops, by bringing them home as soon as possible.

  8. Canneberra says:

    Poetry. And easily the best thing I’ve ever read on the war in Afghanistan.

    Please let us recall a very possible reason for why we are there:

    Let’s not forget the economic causes of war, and the real debt that the market owes the people.

  9. jabba says:

    Nice work, Bro.

  10. Rik says:

    Geoff–There’s a song there somewhere, it won’t be a happy song, but one of those songs that needs to exist -like ‘Khe Sahn’ or ‘I was only 19’

    Keep up the good work

  11. Rod says:

    I got cynical about wars when I was 40. Our leaders don’t go out there and put themselves in harm’s way for their latest cause. Now I’m over 50 and see every death as avoidable. I’m all for saving people against the Taliban but why do young people have to do the dying?

  12. Anfalicious says:

    I don’t remember there being massive calls for international aid before the war, I just remember it being a knee jerk reaction to an attack on the US by some Saudi’s who had set up shop there. That pretty much settles it for me, this was no East Timor.

  13. Liam says:

    No other words other than “Nice Work Geoff”

  14. I think it sounds like something Eminem should do. A kind of rap-for-Afganistan. I agree with you entirely. A beautiful post, with a poetic ending.

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