Issue 2, 2006 | David Ritter

The Unknown War and the Known Soldier

I had a bad dream last night - not a nightmare, but an unnerving one. For some unknown reason, I pulled out my nine-millimetre pistol and shot myself in the head.
I have no idea why, but it seemed I wanted to see what it felt like. I didn't die, but it felt like I did.

~ from the diary of Private Jake Kovco.


Australia is a nation at war. If one counts the aerial attacks on Baghdad of 20 March 2003 as the beginning of battle, then the conflict in Iraq has now passed its 1300th day. Australian troops have been involved in the hostilities from the outset, participating in the initial invasion and remaining as part of the occupation. Until quite recently, our soldiers have been providing security support to a Japanese military reconstruction team in the southern Al Muthanna province. Now, following the withdrawal of Japan's contingent, Prime Minister Howard has advised that Australian units are likely to move further south, to a more dangerous assignment at the Tallil air base near Nasiriyah, providing support and mentoring to units in the fledgling new Iraqi army.

Thus far, Australia has experienced a most fortunate war. In more than three years of fighting in Iraq, only one Australian soldier has died, and in circumstances far removed from active combat. Private Jake Kovco perished on 21 April of this year with a single shot from his own pistol, while in barracks in Baghdad in the company of two comrades. The anti-heroic circumstances of Kovco’s death make him ill-suited to becoming mythologised as a patriotic martyr. Yet because of his singular status as the solitary mortal face of Australia's war in Iraq and the mysteriousness of his end, Kovco’s life and death have attained national significance. We have heard from his diary, know of the dead man’s prescient dreams and followed the twisted route home of the body. Kovco has become the dead man about whom we know too much and whose ambiguous demise has begun to stand as a metaphor for a war about which our Commonwealth Government thought too little.

In his 1987 book Thinking about Peace and War, English political scientist Martin Ceadel, set out an explanatory framework for classifying the various ideological positions within peace-and-war debates. Historically, Australia has tended to adopt what Ceadel would cause a ‘defencist’ position, considering international aggression to be wrong, but national ‘defence’ to be both moral and proper, leading to participation in a range of wars that were seen as ‘defensive’ in nature, even if they took place in Europe, Africa and Asia. Ceadel contrasts ‘defencism’, with ‘crusading’, the latter being a rationale for warfare which embraces a ‘willingness under favorable circumstances to use aggressive war to promote either order or justice.’ Thus a ‘crusade’ may be embarked upon to eradicate a regime which, by its external behavior, threatens existing international norms. Writing almost twenty years before the invasion of Iraq, Ceadel noted that ‘some wars for which the purely defencist case is either too weak or is insufficiently persuasive’ become supplemented with a crusading justification, ‘which would be insufficient on its own.’ The application of Ceadel’s analysis to the war against Iraq is obvious: we could not find any weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, so, (hey presto!) the evaporated plausibility of the defencist rationale for invasion was suddenly bolstered by an ex post facto conversion to crusading.

Writing under the shadow of the Cold War, Ceadel argued that ‘crusading would have even fewer exponents than it still has if it were generally known to require…both moral arrogance and ignorance of the real effects of war.’ The nations who took part in the ‘Coalition of the Willing’ must face the genuine (if unknowable) possibility that the quantum of human suffering in Iraq has been increased, rather than decreased, through the destruction of Saddam’s regime. Perhaps that was a risk worth taking. Maybe Baathist Iraq was a regime so fundamentally foul that the war could have been justified on crusading basis: but if so, such a justification should have been enunciated from the outset. The reality, though, is that other rationales for the attack on Iraq did not appear until after the initial, defencist justification for the war became untenable when no weapons of mass destruction were discovered and the intelligence upon which the belief in their existence had been founded was utterly discredited. Now the bloody quagmire of contemporary Iraq hardly vindicates the invasion of Iraq as a ‘successful’ crusade and even still, there has been no articulation as to Australia's war aims in the sense of a clear statement of the necessary preconditions for bringing the troops home.

In Baghdad alone, an average of more than 1’000 Iraqi people have died violent deaths each month of the year to date. Not all of those who are killed can be automatically regarded as victims of ‘insurgency’ or ‘civil war’, of course, but then it would be vastly over-simplistic to imagine that what is going on in Iraq now can be understood as a single conflict. In addition to the attacks directed against the American-led coalition forces and the violence between the principal ethnic groups, there are no doubt any number of ‘little wars’; regional, local, familial and even personal conflicts, hatched from the lawlessness which followed the destruction of the formal institutions of Baathist Iraq. Socio-economic chaos tends to supplicate the evening up of long-held scores. In truth, girt by sea and enjoying great national prosperity in our splendid geographic isolation, Australians perhaps tend to suspect little of such intricacies.

The good luck of our war in Iraq has, following the famous indictment of Donald Horne, been shared by the ‘second-rate people’ in national government who committed Australia to the foolishness in the first place, but have themselves suffered no political consequences. A number of commentators have observed that a critical difference between Howard, Bush and Blair is that the latter pair has been faced with a steady stream of casualties; their foreign policy choices standing accused by the growing roll of the dead. Howard, on the other hand, had luxuriated in the providence of a war, the waging of which, until April of this year, had not required the ultimate sacrifice by any Digger. Prior to the death of Private Kovco, no Australian had fought and fallen to become an Iraqi son as well.

I had a dream last night in which the Federal Government pulled out a pistol and shot itself in the head, but did not die. It was others who suffered.

Our deepest condolences to the family of Private Jake Kovco.

David Ritter,
for the Editors of The New Critic.