Photo: Jason South
At the Nuremberg Tribunals in 1946, the crime of aggression was judged to be not only an international crime but ”the supreme international crime, differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole”.
Nearly six decades later, on March 18, 2003, then Coalition prime minister John Howard announced the commitment of Australian Defence Force troops to the invasion of Iraq.
The invasion was not authorised by the United Nations Security Council, and nor was it an act of self-defence for Australia. The majority of international lawyers believe it was illegal, that is, an act of aggression. In Australia, as in Britain and the United States, it raised very serious questions of government honesty and accountability.
With consequences that will span continents and generations, the war has been widely condemned as a monumental disaster. That is not simply with the benefit of hindsight. In the months before the war, millions of people in cities around the world could see that it would be so, but there was an almost chilling disregard for their concerns by those who seemed determined to go to war.
Never before in living memory had a war been so unpopular before it even started.
The ”accumulated evil” of the war was, and is still, felt most exquisitely on the ground, in the lives of the Iraqi children terrorised and scarred for life by exposure to extreme violence, the millions of civilians – children, women and men – killed, mutilated, bereaved or displaced, the torture and atrocities that go hand in hand with warfare, the erosion of womens’ rights in this previously secular country, the degradation of a society and its transformation to a virtual perpetual war zone with an influx of jihadists and suicide bombers.
Our own troops have been put at risk of all the physical and psychological legacy that war brings, on the basis of false assertions, and without the support of the people they undertake to protect. Economically, the war is likely to have cost Australians about $3 billion (and the US approximately $3 trillion eventually). The violation of international law with impunity, and the marginalisation of the United Nations, have greatly undermined our security.
The threat of terrorism against us has increased. What has been achieved for this horrendous price? The war removed Saddam Hussein. That’s it, unless the wealth of the merchants of death is to be applauded also.
An inquiry into how Australia came to be involved in such a catastrophe has been called for by former prime minister Malcolm Fraser, former secretary of the Defence Department Paul Barratt, and many other prominent Australians.
However the call has been quickly rejected by both major sides of politics, in what seems an unspoken understanding that our involvement will never see the light of scrutiny.
The courage that our troops display in battle has gone AWOL in Canberra, where leaders duck for cover when accountability is mentioned.
Politically it seems much easier to focus the national attention on the war we fought a century ago, for which accountability is now largely irrelevant, than on our war of a decade ago, that poses burning questions of immediate importance.
The immediate importance is this. As the US exits the unstable and bloodied scenes of her first 21st-century wars, her eyes look to the Asia-Pacific region for the next ones. Australia is a critical part of this Asia-Pacific pivot.
Unless we know how things went so wrong in 2003, we will repeat the grave errors and again find ourselves in wars we don’t want.
While the damage caused by the 2003 Iraq invasion is almost too terrible to contemplate, that’s all the more reason we must do so. Never again must we engage in such futile acts of aggression with their accumulated evil.
If our democracy means anything, and if accountability is not a lost cause in this country, then Australians deserve to know why the will and wisdom of so many people on the streets a decade ago was ignored, and how this can be prevented from happening again by an overhaul of the process by which a decision to go to war is made.
>> Dr Sue Wareham is secretary of the Campaign for an Iraq War Inquiry www.iraqwarinquiry.org.au, and vice-president of the Medical Association for Prevention of War.