Kellie Merritt can’t be dismissed as some sort of naïve peacenik for trying to put a brake on Australia’s apparently escalating involvement in American-led military operations in Iraq.
She is part of the campaign for an Iraq War inquiry which also includes a range of notable academics, and respected former defence and intelligence officials. The group lobbies federal parliament for an independent inquiry into the reasoning behind Australia’s participation in the 20 March 2003 Iraq invasion.
She is also the widow of Flight Lieutenant Paul Pardoel, the first Australian serviceman to be killed in that military operation.
The political, executive and military reasoning behind Australia’s involvement in the 2003 invasion has never been independently examined in an official public capacity, although two federal government inquiries into the western intelligence preceding operations were conducted in 2004. Both criticised the veracity of the intelligence.
The allies justified the invasion with fallacious intelligence that Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein was producing weapons of mass destruction that might be provided to al-Qaida terrorists.
Now Merritt and others in the group are pushing for a parliamentary debate on the current Australian deployment of Australian military aircraft to deliver aid and to arm Kurdish fighters.
Merritt’s husband was on a short-term contract with the Royal Air Force’s Lyneham base in Wiltshire, when the British Hercules he was flying on crashed in 2005.
As a war-widowed mother of three children Merritt, a Sydney-based social worker, has had ample time to contemplate the jingoistic sentiments – and their historic resonances with Anzac and national identity – that surround Australia’s military deployments.
“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?” she asks.
“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 respected current and 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’.”
Today Merritt is frustrated by the absence of a transparent public process to consider the current deployment, and by the apparent major party political bipartisanship that is stymieing parliamentary debate. Her concern echoes that of the Campaign for an Iraq War Inquiry group, whose president, former Defence Department secretary Paul Barratt, has written to Federal MPs seeking their views on publicly examining the 2003 invasion.
“The response has been mixed – the two major parties in this context have been disappointing. However, personally I’ve had some positive replies within the Labor Party, indicating it may be a partisan concern.”
There is, Merritt insists, no “public process”, either now or in 2003, to justify the deployment of Australian military personnel to Iraq. She takes aim at the “Team Australia” rhetoric employed by Tony Abbott, the prime minister, on national security matters.
“Political and public opposition to the war in Iraq in 2003 was characterised as ‘un-Australian’ by the government of the day. By invoking nationalistic sentiment, the debate was effectively polarised. Expressing any misgivings about military involvement was portrayed as radical and concerns about the wider, longer-term implications were trivialised. Having doubts about the existence of WMD’s was seen as some kind of peacenik naïveté,” she said.
Merritt says that “atrocities perpetrated by Isis are horrific” but that an all out war, such as that in 2003, would almost certainly be counterproductive.
“Any military response must be to protect and come with parliamentary and United Nations Security Council authorisation. We need to extensively aid refugee camps and resettle large numbers of refugees in Australia. We need to support the UN and the Iraq people in constructing a socially inclusive constitutional and democratic political process.”
I asked Merritt to speculate on the views of her husband (a highly experienced and decorated navigator and instructor with 14 years’ experience in the Royal Australian Air Force before his move to England) about the Australian justification for its involvement in the 2003 war.
“That’s tricky, I wouldn’t want to undermine his devotion and dedication to service. Having said that , he’d resigned and was on his last deployment,” she said.
She recalls how Pardoel telephoned her on the morning of Iraq’s first election day.
“He simply said it was a normal, busy day. He was killed that afternoon. Although Paul was obviously not really in a position to be outspoken about the war, when pressed, he was definitely sceptical about the vision of US neo-cons. During George Bush’s ‘mission accomplished’ victory speech, if I remember correctly, there was swearing followed by a hastily vacated room … without wishing to superimpose my views on to Paul, I think it was Bush’s self righteous, patriotic tone that he simply couldn’t listen to.”
“But he was also hopeful that something good would eventuate. Paul was a mixture of a sort of blokey/military languor as well as a peaceful gentleness, but he was obviously not in a position to be an anti-war campaigner.”
Kellie Merritt deserves to be listened to. I think she is right. Australia has drawn far too few lessons from its military deployments, all the way back to, and even before, Federation.
But as national security again dominates national political debate and while Australia starts spending at least $300 million commemorating Anzac, which major party politicians will be willing to publicly engage with her very compelling arguments?