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Soldiers: Lambs to the slaughter or sacred cows?

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Can our soldiers be considered livestock? A conversation at the Byron Bay Writers’ Festival today discusses the idea.

Soldiers: Lambs to the slaughter or sacred cows? featured several distinguished speakers. James Brown is an expert on military issues and defense policy.  Rabia Siddique – a human rights lawyer, and David Finkel, author of Thank You for Your Service, which discusses the effects of war and its associated brutalities on the human psyche. These authors provide us with a rare insight into war.

James Brown, who served in both Afghanistan and Southern Iraq, mentioned the lack of reliable information coming from the war in Afghanistan to help us understand its complexity.

“There are no poets or ballads anymore. All we have is millions of photos that have no context,” he said, highlighting the need for these contemporary memoirs. His book, Anzac’s long shadow: the cost of our national obsession, illustrates how ignorant we are of modern warfare scenarios.

Rabia Saddique told us how she accepted a commission to the British army even though she had originally traveled overseas to study international humanitarian law. Siddique enjoyed her time serving until her career came sadly and unexpectedly to an end.

Joining the army was a perspicacious move on her behalf. She found herself at the forefront of human rights abuses. The allied forces were sent in after Hussein had been killed to sort out the mess that had been left behind. Saddique was deployed to Iraq.

Without disclosing too much of her intriguing book, Equal Rights written on the subject,  Saddique related her experience in fabulous storytelling style. The audience groaned when Saddique talked of the day they discovered that two of their colleagues had been detained.

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Rabia Saddique teases the audience with details from her book. Photo credit: Cath Piltz

It seemed the whole crowd was holding its breath, waiting for the next part of the story, but the chair Russell Eldridge stopped Saddique before she revealed too much. He cut to David Finkel and asked him to describe some of his time embedded with US troops as a journalist for Washington Post.

At the time, there were legitimate concerns for the idea of embedding journalists. Finkel was one of two dozen writers and photographers that were sent to Iraq to cover the war. They were dispersed throughout the area and throughout the day and night.

“We had 24 people out there,” Finkel said. “No one person is going to see everything, but at the same time, with that much coverage, it’s possible to get a good indication of a typical day in the war.”

Finkel was embedded with 800 young men ranging in age from 18-20. Finkel lived among the soldiers and even went on patrol with them. He realised that the book he wanted to write was about their experiences. He wanted to document the character of these young men.

Finkel captivated us as much as Saddique had earlier as he told his story. Of watching young men, who typically joined the army as the average mother’s child, facing the traumas of watching their friends being blown apart, or losing a limb, or an ear.

Finkel then shook his head, clearly still wondering at the millions of dollars it must have cost to maintain the house full of journalists, complete even with cooks and their families. Finkel’s job included driving through Kuwait into the war zone.

Session chair Eldridge tried to tell us a little more of the story but James Brown cut him off, thankfully lightening the mood by insisting, “No, don’t ruin the ending. Maybe it all works out, there’s no war, nobody gets hurt and everybody goes home to their loved ones.”

It got a laugh until everyone juxtaposed the sombre reality. The laughter was replaced with silence.

RP Stoval is a Creative Writing student at Southern Cross University.

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