Stephens, David: Reflections on Afghanistan: hell no, never, ever go? And the gunrunners win anyway

David Stephens*

‘Reflections on Afghanistan: hell no, never, ever go? And the gunrunners win anyway’, Honest History, 19 August 2021 updated

Update 1 April 2022: Memorial response to Senate Estimates Question from Senator Steele-John (Question No. 179). Pdf. Carefully worded.

Update 14 December 2021: Some more information from Senate Estimates on recent donations can be found here in the link from entry for 14 December


We do not in this post attempt a comprehensive analysis; there are enough of those already. We did note particularly Paul Daley in Guardian Australia on prime ministerial bullshit about soldiers’ deaths, Azadah Raz Mohammad and Jenna Sapiano in The Conversation on the future for women in Afghanistan, John Blaxland in The Conversation on comparisons with the fall of Saigon, and Mark Buckley in Pearls & Irritations on the risks of alliances with great powers, plus others in Pearls & Irritations (especially this from Alan Stephens today and this from Greg Lockhart and this from Alison Broinowski) and The Conversation. Media release from Independent and Peaceful Australia Network. Sue Wareham. Henry Reynolds. Hugh White in The Monthly for October.

Then there was this in Pearls & Irritations from veteran commentator, Gregory Clark (born 1936):

After Vietnam, and the Chinese civil war that preceded it, we assumed that the lessons had been learned – that a rural-based guerrilla movement facing a corrupt government can prevail provided it has leadership and an ideology to cling to.

Maybe not.

There are some points at the end of this post about the real winners from the Afghanistan War – and who their friends are. Meanwhile, here are some of the Afghanistan resources on the Honest History website.

From the Honest History vault

You can use the Search engine on this Honest History site, with search term ‘Afghanistan’. Here are some posts:

An Afghanistan calculus

A calculus of Australian and Allied involvement in Afghanistan might read something like this. On the one hand, those 20 years are said to have produced a better-trained Afghan National Army, infrastructure development (particularly schools), opportunities for women and girls, and suppression of terrorist bases and support. None of those gains look to have a bright future in the Taliban’s Afghanistan. We’ll see.

On the other hand, there have been 41 Australian service people killed and hundreds more wounded and mentally scarred (at least 500 Australian Defence Force suicides since the start of the Afghanistan deployment), thousands of casualties among Allied forces, and, more importantly, tens of thousands of Afghan civilian and military dead and wounded, and millions of Afghans displaced from their homes and/or their country. There were also (alleged) war crimes. And mission creep, from destroying Al Qaeda, then destroying Isis, to saving the Middle East for democracy – or something.

From all that, you would think there was a strong case for Australia never getting involved in such deployments again. Yet, there will still be those who pontificate about our need to preserve the American Alliance by going where Uncle Sam goes, those who focus on the opportunities to try out expensive new military kit and new ways of fighting (which means trying them out in sync with the Americans), and those who anticipate military career advancement in dangerous places.

Perhaps those awful ‘is it worth it?’ balancing acts will be with us always. But, never going on similar frolics again sounds like a plan. At the very least, we should give the elected representatives of the people a voice in the decision-making, as Australians for War Powers Reform has argued for years. ‘We owe it to our troops’, Sue Wareham of AWPR and MAPW wrote last year, ‘and to every civilian who will suffer the consequences of whatever unfolds, to get the decision right. Our current decision-making process fails appallingly on every count.’

Australians for War Powers Reform

Gunrunners come out of this well – as usual

Wars are very good for the manufacturers of the vehicles and weapons of war, and for the folks who work for them. Senior military men occasionally call these corporations ‘gunrunners’, while the same military men know they are beholden to the same corporations (and may well want jobs with them after retirement). This graph shows that the shares of Lockheed Martin, the world’s largest (by revenue) manufacturer of military kit, are currently worth $US358, compared with around $US2 in 1977. The graph covers the years of conflict in Afghanistan since the Russian invasion of 1979.

Lockheed Martin has been a significant donor to the Australian War Memorial for many years, as has Boeing, which is the world second largest military manufacturer. In the light of these donations and others like them, Honest History has previously coined the term ‘military-industrial-commemorative complex’ – building on President Eisenhower’s original concept – to encapsulate this phenomenon.

We have occasionally broadened that label to ‘military-industrial-commemorative-media complex’, given the spotty record of the mainstream media in highlighting – thus effectively covering up – this phenomenon. Guardian Australia occasionally, Michael West Media and Pearls & Irritations – and Honest History – have been some of the outlets doing their best to shed light.

Look particularly for the by-line of Michelle Fahy, some of whose work is gathered here, and who published this piece this week on Australian arms sales to Israel. And this earlier one on the ‘revolving door’ between senior military and public service folk and arms companies.

Tasha May in Michael West Media on Tuesday summarised the cost of recent wars and nailed who wins – not the people of Afghanistan, or even the Taliban. Try Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman, suppliers of technological wizardry to the Afghanistan theatre. Then, there’s this piece on Common Dreams from Jessica Corbett, comprehensively analysing how arms companies profited from the Afghanistan conflict. Corbett quotes US advocacy group, Public Citizen, which calculated these returns over the last 20 years on the stocks of the world’s five largest defence contractors (all US-based): Lockheed Martin: 1236% return; Northrop Grumman: 1196% return; Boeing: 975% return; General Dynamics: 625% return; Raytheon: 331% return. (Pepe Escobar in the Asia Times this week referred to ‘the Lords of the Weapons Racket’, which seems appropriate to this sector.)

All of those companies have been significant donors to the Australian War Memorial in recent years. And for those who have forgotten, former Australian War Memorial Director and former Defence Minister, Brendan Nelson, is now President of Boeing’s Australia, New Zealand and Pacific operations. While he was still at the Memorial, he had a gig as an adviser to the French gunrunner, Thales. He donated his fee to the Memorial.

Dr Nelson left behind a War Memorial whose current Director, Matt Anderson, has said it is ‘a place of truth’, including about Afghanistan. Really? Given the unfavourable reaction to that statement (sub-heading commencing ‘Stokes is still our guy …’), given how the Afghanistan adventure has since ended (recriminations and justifications contending), and bearing in mind prime ministerial remarks about how no Australian soldier ever dies in vain (see Appendix below) we wonder whether those crucial truth-telling questions of ‘was this war worth it?’ and ‘who, apart from Australian soldiers, suffered in it?’ can ever be honestly addressed in an institution which Mr Anderson just last week (Main Works Package 1 video Mark 47.54) claimed was ‘Australia’s most sacred place’. In the land of the civil religion of Anzac, truth is always qualified.

(As often in the past, Honest History offers to publish without amendment any comment the Australian War Memorial cares to make on this post. HH)

Related: Veterans’ Affairs Minister, Andrew Gee, put out a media release directed to the welfare of Afghanistan veterans.

And another media release from the Minister on the same subject.

Appendix: Dying in vain: never happens? or we just refuse to admit it?

Prime Minister Morrison: ‘No Australian who’s ever fallen in our uniform has ever died in vain, ever’. (ABC News Breakfast, 16 August 2021)

Former Prime Minister Howard: ‘N]obody who wears the Australian uniform ever dies in vain because Australia is always associated with a noble military objective when it goes into combat’. (ABC 7.30, 18 August 2021)

From The Honest History Book:

The readiness to fight wars in future is affected by the way we look at past wars. Elizabeth Samet lectures to military cadets at West Point in the United States. She has written about the sentimentality of the way Americans – and, we can add, Australians brought up on Anzackery* – talk about war, how “emotion … short-circuits reason”, how people become “exhibitionists of sentiment” in relation to war, and, most importantly, how sentiment stops them asking hard questions – Was that war worth it? Did those men die in vain? – about war, because they are afraid of being seen to disrespect the dead. Most importantly, Samet says, this attitude effectively supports jingoism – the inclination to wrap ourselves in the flag and go cheerfully off to war again. Wallowing in sentiment – pickling ourselves in Anzackery – makes it more likely that we will do it all again next time.

(* ‘Anzackery’ is defined in two Australian dictionaries as ‘The promotion of the Anzac legend in ways that are perceived to be excessive or misguided’.)

(Source: David Stephens, ‘Anzac and Anzackery: Useful future or sentimental dream’, David Stephens & Alison Broinowski, ed., The Honest History Book, NewSouth, Sydney, 2017, p. 132, quoting Elizabeth Samet, ‘Can an American soldier ever die in vain?’ Foreign Policy, 9 May 2014. Our thanks to James Brown, author of Anzac’s Long Shadow: the Cost of our National Obsession (2014), for the Samet reference. Mr Brown is an Afghanistan veteran.)

* David Stephens is editor of the Honest History website. For more on those points about gunrunners, use the Honest History search engine with terms like ‘military-industrial’, ‘Boeing’ and ‘Lockheed’ and, of course, ‘gunrunners’.

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