Kellie Merritt on Australian participation in foreign wars

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On the eve of Anzac Day CIWI Committee Member Kellie Merritt, widow of Flight Lt. Paul Pardoel, Australia’s first serviceman to be killed in Iraq during the military operations that began with the March 2003 invasion, gave a powerful presentation at The War to End All Wars: our responsibility to those who died and their families, an event at Deakin Edge, Federation Square, Melbourne hosted by the Medical Association for the Prevention of War (MAPW).

To get the full impact of this presentation you can view it on YouTube.

The full text is below:


My name is Kellie Merritt. I am not here to talk to you because I have any qualifications or expertise on human conflict. I am the wife, the widow, of Paul Pardoel, Flight Lieutenant navigator of an RAF Hercules which was shot down in 2005 in Iraq.

Of course, Flight Lieutenant Pardoel was, to me, only my Paulie. He was to Margaret and John Pardoel their only child. He was, to our three kids, Jordan, Jackson and India, who were then 7, 6 and 2, simply “Daddy”.

I am under no illusions about my contribution to this discussion. I am a war widow. My qualifications, I guess, are in grief. My currency, I suppose, is to serve as an up close and intimate diagram of personal loss; the reminder that speaking about war in euphemistic language, or with bravado, or with optimism, is the domain of the naïve and the foolhardy.

But even in that role I have reservations – I am physically intact and my children are of course deeply photogenic (even widows are biased!). I worry that the notion of the grieving widow is almost a romantic one. I worry that the image of our family and friends crying as Paul’s flag-draped coffin returned to Australia emphasised heroism far more than any need for caution. Please don’t misunderstand me – Paul was my hero. His nine friends who died beside him along the Tigris river somewhere between Baghdad and Balad were heroes, to their families. But when the ceremonies were all over, I still did not have a husband and my kids did not have a father.

So, for me there is a disconnect between the way that we talk about our fallen in the context of ANZAC legends and the reality of the grief, the injuries and the trauma of war. One theory might be that it is human nature to think that our suffering, be it the grief of a widow, or the disillusionment of a returned veteran, is singular and unique – so to participate in the wider sentiment and ceremonies does not do justice to our individual emotions. But I think – I hope – that my unease with the commemorative furore that surrounds the Anzac celebrations is more rationally grounded. And it comes to this – my argument is that when our governments and leaders participate in and fuel this sentimentality they are trying to sell us something. They are trying to sell us something moreover which I think we should not buy.

I do not accuse mainstream Australian politicians of being amoral, or even warmongering. I do not necessarily question the sincerity of their motives in participating in ANZAC commemorations. But I do put this charge at their feet: by participating in a sort of stylised commemorative process they are only perpetuating a tired cycle. A cycle which has been pedalling along since the inception of organised conflict – of war. The cycle is this: from time to time governments require their military and sometimes even their wider population to engage in and suffer through war. Sometimes a government will claim that they have no choice. In theory the decision to engage in a war may be the last resort for the government of a country in order to preserve its citizens’ beliefs, institutions, livelihoods and even their lives. At other times, the decision to engage in a war will be cynical and foolish, motivated by greed, envy or possibly revenge. Perhaps many decisions to engage in armed conflict fall between these extremes – and the imperatives may evolve with the conflict.

If we accept that these possibilities are almost unlimited, we need to ask ourselves why our notions of respect, appreciation and affection for our troops seems to preclude any discussion about the merits of the engagement itself. And this is where the sleight of hand comes in. To question whether our troops’ involvement was warranted is to question the diggers themselves. To examine the merits of the engagement is to renounce your appreciation for their sacrifices. So the nobility of our diggers is conflated with the nobility of the conflict. Tony Abbott said recently :

“ you have fought for the universal decencies of mankind, the rights of the weak against the strong, the rights of the poor against the rich and the rights of all to strive for the very best they can. That is what Australians do. We always have and always will. Australians don’t fight to conquer, we fight to help, to build and to serve.”

Given that his speech was in the context of our engagement in Afghanistan, the United States might be surprised that our Prime Minister counts it as one of the poor weaklings with whom we always fight.

But Tony Abbott’s pronouncement begs the question – who are our leaders trying to convince? Certainly, a democratically elected leader may well need to justify military engagements to their electorate, but why to the fighters themselves? If our relationship with our diggers is sacrosanct and above politics, do we not owe it to them to give an objective assessment of the rights and wrongs and political and moral complexities of their assignments? The answer seems to be a resounding and I think disappointing “no”. We give our troops a rallying cry and tell them, not only that they are appreciated, but in the next breath also that their government was in the right to deploy them. That whenever the government deploys them it is always in the right. By so closely associating the deployment decision itself with the diggers’ actions and bravery, that decision becomes noble, brave, patriotic and unimpeachable – and to question it, especially on Anzac day, well that becomes downright un-Australian .

Coming back to the overlap between the personal and the political – a phrase that is often trotted out in my other life as a social worker. For me, it has become increasingly important to take some ownership or control of my personal/political paradigm. Or, cutting out the jargon, to feel that my experience as a widow will serve as an incentive for peace – at least in a small way.

In 1915 Sigmund Freud wrote, ‘that above all else, the Great War brought with it a heightened awareness of death’, on average 20,000 soldiers were killed every 4 days throughout the war.  The millions mourning their loss were a highly visible reminder that the carnage was on a vast scale. Individual mourning became superseded by public and national commemoration that was highly politicised. A pervasive culture emerged where ‘German and American’ governments used widows and their families as symbols of national sacrifice and patriotism. As long as widows conformed to the nation’s script they could access some of their fallen husband’s glory by acting as dead soldiers’ living proxies. The trick for war widows, as Erika Kulham author of ‘little Comfort’ explains was to display the expected grief without minimizing the national glory. I can’t imagine what this divide looked like for our indigenous diggers widows and their families.

Respect for the war dead should not mean that we silence alternative narratives and conflicting opinions.

Ok, so this presumably means I am a pacifist. It is hardly surprising – my kids have grown up without their father due to war. But let’s remember that in Iraq, this would virtually be the norm. 660 000 to a million Iraqis suffered violent deaths as a result of the 2003 war, millions injured, millions of Iraqis were displaced. Approximately 4.5 million children orphaned. I pull my hat on as a widow and I inevitably ask “What did Paulie die for? Did the war that he was fighting serve a purpose? What was that purpose? Were the objectives met? And what about the human costs on ordinary Iraqis?”

These are the sorts of questions that a widow – perhaps especially the contemporary widow – or widower – will ask in the context of war grief. And surely it is not unpatriotic or unreasonable to ask these simple questions.

But in Paul’s case, the answers for me are uncomfortable. We went to war in Iraq in 2003 for a primary reason – the presence of weapons of mass destruction – which was spurious at the time. In sober hindsight a few years later it went from spurious to laughable. But we had the safety net of a secondary reason – we can’t be going too far wrong by getting rid of Saddam Hussein’s murderous regime and installing democracy. However this reason, given the disgraceful failure to plan properly, has proved catastrophically naïve and arguably disingenuous. Twelve years on, it’s as profound as it is tragic.

So, I end up with the conclusion that we invaded Iraq for no reason, that the fall back reason has backfired (especially for the Iraqi people) and that my husband did not die for any tangible purpose.

This leads me to question the nature of the contract between the military and our government. Conventional democratic wisdom holds that it is disastrous for the military to second guess our democratically elected government’s decisions. This makes it all the more important that our government exercises its decision making processes with caution, transparency and a sense of accountability.

Transparency and accountability are core values of democracy. If instilling these values in a foreign country is justification for waging war on that country, surely it would look a lot better if we also stuck to those values in the process of deciding to wage that war? Recent events suggest otherwise… security and humanitarianism are being offered as reasons to justify our participation in a third war in Iraq in only 25 years but much of the detail about our involvement is shrouded in secrecy . The absence of any spirited parliamentary debate on the issue is disappointing; a unity ticket on our participation in another war in the Middle East is depressing.

George Brandis recently said that those who link Iraq 2003 to Iraq 2014 are narrow and simple minded. I beg to differ; when the coalition of the willing invaded Iraq in 2003 it destroyed the Iraqi state – its military, its bureaucracy, its police force, almost everything that holds a country together. It forcibly removed a secular Sunni and brutal dictator Saddam Hussein and paved the way for a sectarian Shi’ite and brutal dictator Maliki. As it turns out, Maliki’s allegiances were to the terrorist sponsoring Iran and not the United States. As some experts predicted, the Iraq War lifted the lid on the sectarian violence which has gained momentum over the past decade.

It is within this framework that I support both the call for an inquiry into the decision to go to war in Iraq in 2003 and the agitation for reform to the federal government’s ability to commit troops to foreign theatres of war without parliamentary debate.

A recent Roy Morgan poll, commissioned by The Campaign Group calling for an Inquiry into the Iraq war, showed three out of four Australians believe that unless there is immediate danger to Australia, Parliament should be required to approve a decision to send Australian troops into armed conflict abroad.

I said a few months back that

“Commemoration of a nation’s military history and the role that military conflict has had in shaping its sense of national identity risks a serious credibility deficit if the country is not also prepared to honestly and robustly examine how it came to be involved in its military conflicts in the first place.

What were our objectives? Were those objectives met? Would we send troops again in the same, or similar circumstances? ………………………

If we aren’t prepared to scrutinise this process then, if nothing else, our perceived affection and gratitude to our diggers seems rather hollow”

We are sorry you were maimed, your mates were killed and you have PTSD. We are not really sure if the exercise was worthwhile, or if we’d do the same again, because the process of working these questions out seems arduous and some former politicians are uneasy about any retrospective appraisal of their decisions. We are however delighted to present you with this campaign medal and to listen to the Last Post with you.

I am not advocating an inquiry into Australia’s involvement in the 2003 Iraq war on some premise that the conclusions are foregone and that this will embarrass the government of the day. I am not advocating war power reform as some tool to prevent Australia from discharging its international obligations where appropriate.

As I said before, I am talking to you in this forum as a widow and I accept that this may lend itself to certain characterisations. Perhaps our interest in the families of fallen soldiers stems from emotion and compassion, maybe it does not extend to their political notions, which can easily be dismissed as clouded by grief and emotion and lacking the cool head necessary for such momentous decisions and undertakings…But my position on both issues is consistent with the cool head imperative, surely? To advocate parliamentary debate and approval before committing to a foreign war and to support some scrutiny of a past engagement hardly seems hysterical or impulsive.

The specious arguments against this agenda and suggested reform, I think, do more to support than oppose these initiatives. The one that most grabs me is the suggestion that these reforms would stymie the dynamism and even the integrity of the government, that questioning a government’s decisions lends itself to smug conclusions with 20/20 hindsight, followed by a witchhunt.

What can be more dangerous to an ex political leader than a possible smudge on their legacy?

It would be a shame if a review of the 2003 Iraq war was ruled out because “what is done is done”, or because questioning previous decisions might offend past, well respected, leaders and appear partisan or petulant. It would also be a shame if parliamentary and community debate is shown to be so tokenistic that the decision to go to war does not require it.

We all understand that, if nothing else, war is not trivial. We treat it seriously. There is cause for ceremony, ritual and the need to acknowledge bravery and loss. But you have to forgive me if it sometimes seems that these rituals also serve as tools to perpetuate war, or – more accurately – to occupy and even distract those who might question a war.

I always hesitate before I speak for Paul. God forbid that I would be an inaccurate mouthpiece for someone who has been silenced by war, but I knew him and I loved him. He would have gladly sacrificed ceremony in exchange for any measure which made it less likely for any man, woman or child to be wounded, traumatised or killed in a misconceived war that served no purpose in a country that did not benefit from their involvement.

So my friends, (I think we kinda are now). Can I leave you with this proposition: Just because I love my country, it doesn’t mean that I think it is always right about everything. I love this country all the more for my freedom to express my disagreement with some of its decisions. So please don’t use the memory of our fallen to silence this debate. We owe it to the memory of all fallen soldiers and victims of war not to look away with jingoistic tears in our eyes. We can do better. We can honour their memory on ANZAC day by undertaking to never put them in harm’s way without proper justification.


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