Essay

Raggedy men

WAR IS BIG business and I am at a conference about the business of war. It's being held on the Gold Coast, near Jupiter's Casino, deep in the belly of Baby Boomer avarice. An enormous banner hangs above the entrance to the conference proclaiming the theme: "War: Fighting in the 21st Century – New Threats, New Technologies".

Consider a simple statistic from the Federation of American Scientists' Military Network: "In World War II it could take 9,000 bombs to hit a target the size of an aircraft shelter. During the Vietnam War, 300. Today (the age of war), we can do it with one."

I stand in the foyer waiting for nine o'clock, when the conference is due to begin. The convention centre is a maze of glass and chrome festooned with '80s bravado, '90s bling bling and slender new-millennium LCD screens. Big Brother watches through discreetly placed surveillance cameras while a regiment of officious security guards defends every entrance.

 

FAR FROM THE plagiarised world of the gold coast, Raggedy Man squats atop a jagged ridge near the Afghanistan/Pakistan border. He is a Mujahideen مجاهدين ), a struggler. Intense blue eyes add colour to a gnarled, walnut brown face. A once jet-black beard is now vapour trail white. His tattered camouflage jacket and baggy cotton trousers hang from a raw-boned frame.

To Raggedy Man, war is a way of life – not a business. A respected military tactician, he wears neither rank nor medals. He commands a lashkar [fighting force] of hardened veterans, some of whom fought in the war against Russia. In his lap rests a battered two-way radio and scarred Kalashnikov assault rifle. His long, talon-like fingers clinch a smouldering cigarette.

Raggedy Man knows how to fight a guerrilla war. He was young when the American Special Forces came and taught him and the other مجاهدين how to defeat the godless Soviets. Now the arrogant Americans have a new President and are his enemy.

"At approximately 16:30 UTC [Universal Coordinated Time] on Sunday October 7, 2001, the American and British forces began an aerial bombing campaign targeting Taliban strongholds and Al-Qaeda training camps. The attack was the opening shot in the new war against terrorism. US Air Force general Richard Myers, Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, stated that approximately fifty Tomahawk cruise missiles, launched by British and US submarines and ships, fifteen strike aircraft from carriers and 25 bombers, such as B-1 Lancer, B-2 Spirit, B-52 Stratofortress and F-16 Fighting Falcon, were involved in the first wave."

On the ground in Afghanistan, high-tech coalition soldiers routed an industrial-age army led by myopic mullahs. In New York, the rubble that was the World Trade Center smouldered with revenge.

Soon, Raggedy Man and his fellow مجاهدين will ambush an American convoy.

 

LIKE RAGGEDY MAN, my grandfather was a guerrilla fighter. He died in the early 1970s, when I was still a boy and ate Perkins Paste for dares and terrorised girls by chasing them around the schoolyard with dog poo on a stick. Grandpa – Pop – was a gentle man with soft hands who loved sketching people and birds. He could warble like a magpie, and when he imitated the laugh of a kookaburra, the loose skin under his throat wobbled. He often wore a brown tweed jacket with worn elbows and patches of wayward threads that I loved picking. It smelled of rich pipe tobacco. He made silver coins disappear and reappear behind my ear, and loved dunking Chocolate Wheaten biscuits into strong black tea. I'd ride upon his shoulders and be king of the world.

In 1941 my grandfather's generation beat their war drums, a call to arms to fight the Japanese Imperial Army. He wasn't my grandfather then, he was an Army Officer – a member of Sparrow Force, an elite commando. When the Japanese overran Timor, the remnants of Sparrow Force retreated into the rugged mountains from where they fought a bloody guerrilla war. For months, nobody in Australia knew what had happened; Sparrow Force and my grandfather were missing in action.

My grandfather's guerrilla war was against an industrial-age army at a time when the cogs of technology were cumbersome and communications not more than wire strung between tin cans. It was an age before satellites, the internet, TV, mobile phones and SMS.

Grandfather rode a shaggy pony through Timor's mountains. He didn't kill any "Japs", but he once blasted a bird-spider with a sawn-off shotgun. He told me he helped rescue the Dutch Administrator and his wife from a Japanese prison and gave them a .22 calibre pistol to commit suicide should they look like being recaptured.

Lost and in desperate need of finding, Sparrow Force built a radio to contact Australia, and nicknamed their radio marvel of 1940s do-it-yourself technology "Winnie the War Winner" after Churchill. Winnie is on display in the Australian War Memorial – or was – and is not much bigger than a shoebox. On April 20, 1942, a Sparrow Force radio operator turned a hand-powered generator to pump life into Winnie's two bulbous glass valves. He sent a simple message to Australia: "Force intact. Still fighting. Badly need boots, quinine, money and Tommy-gun ammunition."

Australia heard the message and Sparrow Force came home.

 

AT PRECISELY 9AM, the conference doors open and I enter an Aladdin's cave of gleaming military paraphernalia. Gunrunners' booths, marshalled in parade-like precision, proudly fly their corporate logos. Puffed-up egos mix with tight, enthusiastic handshakes and business cards are swapped for promises of fat-boy lunches. The CEOs of war-age dot.coms wear corporate camouflage and whisper sweet nothings into the ears of generals and public service mandarins.

I suck in a lungful of conditioned air – ahhhh, the smell of militarism in the morning.

The conference morning tea arrives: coffee, tea, sticky buns and cakes. I watch a ruddy-faced defence public servant guzzle coffee and stuff a huge lamington into his mouth; it's the only time he doesn't talk. An expert in everything, his flabby physique and rumpled clothes contrast with the pristine war-age paladin – a general who swaggers by, closely followed by an entourage of lesser ranked clones. The general understands war and the public servant knows lamingtons. They both love war-age technology.

Two scantily dressed teenage girls wander the hall offering coffee, tea and a perv. Sex and business, women and war. Across the hall I spy a bony female lieutenant colonel holding court – debating whether women should serve in the front lines. Her short-cropped hair and cold stare neutralise her femininity. In her late thirties, she is a mother of eight-year-old twin girls and commands an Army unit of four hundred soldiers. She says: "It is not a question of political correctness, it's a question of whether gender should be counted over capability." On cue, the two scantly dressed nymphs pass by on their way to replenish their now empty coffee urn.

Women in war. I think about Lyudmila Pavlichenko, a Ukrainian sniper during World War II – 309 confirmed kills including thirty-six enemy snipers. Try counting slowly to 309.

I think about Nancy Wake, George Cross, Légion d'honneur, Companion to the Order of Australia, and the Croix de Guerre (three times); aka "Helene" and "The White Mouse". In the tradition of the ANZAC, she was born in New Zealand, raised in Australia and came of age in France where she fought alongside the maquisgroups of the French Resistance. She is Australia's and the Allies' most decorated "servicewoman". I met Nancy in the 1980s. She was a guest speaker on a guerrilla warfare course. She told us about the French Resistance while sitting on a bar stool drinking something strong and European. She spat the word "German", told foul jokes and drank me and three well-salted special forces soldiers under the table.

The tide of conference business rises as "suits" and dishevelled "techos" – twenty-first century carpetbaggers – ply their trade, spruiking the merits of their miraculous war machines. For some, the corporate mission statement is indelibly tattooed across their clenched knuckles; for others, it's just a job on the road to retirement on the South Coast.

The global arms industry is complex and curious, a cloudy and volatile mix of devilish intent, political conniving and patriotic fervour. Enemies become friends and friends become enemies, while corporations and salesmen become rich.

In a small, isolated stand, a French sales rep unfurls his corporate standard while peddling his biological decontamination system. Unfurling and peddling finished, he proudly displays a gas mask for infants, for babies – obscene but practical.

Didn't the French help arm Saddam Hussein, provide Exocet missiles to Argentina before the Falklands War and detonate nuclear weapons in the Pacific on Moruroa Atoll? On July 10, 1985, just before the witching hour, terrorists (aka operatives of French intelligence, or DGSE) scuttled the Green-peace ship Rainbow Warrior in Auckland Harbour: the French code for the mission was "SATANIC". Last year Australia purchased a fleet of advanced attack helicopters from the French – amis toujours.

In one of the booths, an LCD screen displays video footage of a remote-controlled Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) taking off from a desert airstrip. Stealthy and potentially deadly, the UAV cruises without fear and can carry an array of missiles and other weapons. Onboard cameras and multiple sensors efficiently scan the terrain and silently beam gigabytes of information via satellite to the ground control station where a patient cohort of fastidious technicians and analysts pore over the data. The UAV sweeps silently over a Middle Eastern city, passing high above a mosque and a deserted highway. The video cuts to a shot of the UAV operator. Her hands move deftly over the console, adjusting camera angles, the flight path and mission profile. Next to her keyboard is a can of Diet Pepsi and a half-eaten doughnut.

On display throughout the hall are weapons of every genus: knives, pistols, assault rifles, sniper rifles, heavy machine guns, anti-tank mines, trucks, fighting vehicles, helmets, gas masks, ballistic vests, ground sensors, night-vision goggles, radios, radars and hardened computers. At one stand a polished-skulled ex-US Navy SEAL – an elite special force – stands by to demonstrate a sniper rifle. His skin-tight t-shirt displays a cross hair superimposed on the silhouette of a running man. The underlying caption reads: "Don't run – you'll only die tired".

The demonstration begins. Within a few blurred seconds, he strips and reassembles the weapon. His fingers are long and fine, like those of a concert pianist, deftly dancing over the weapon's oiled mechanism. He explains the rifle in intimate detail, absent-mindedly stroking it while passionately describing the composite stock and butt, barrel fluting and muzzle break. He boasts about its performance over various distances and proudly declares a similar weapon holds the current world record for the longest range sniper kill in recorded history: 2,430 metres, accomplished by a Canadian sniper in 2002 during the invasion of Afghanistan. The bullet had a flight time of four seconds, finally stopping in the chest of a shocked young man – 1,000, 2,000, 3,000, 4,000. I checked, but the Guinness Book of Records doesn't recognise the achievement.

In a nearby auditorium, uniformed paladins address a congress of middle managers. As Puri describes it in the Land Warfare Conference 2005 Proceedings (Commonwealth of Australia, 2005): "Our enemies watched Desert Storm on CNN. They know they cannot engage us in open warfare. These new foes want to limit our advantage by engaging us in cities. Narrow streets and alley-ways are the new killing grounds. We have to develop technology that allows us to win while minimising collateral damage."

Collateral damage. Today, precise killing is the key: paladins and mandarins prefer discrete excision to multiple amputation – it sounds better and looks better. But there is nothing surgical about blowing a human being into ragged pieces. Suicide bombers and cruise missiles don't discriminate between soldiers and children. Nobody at the conference mentions the war dead and maimed. There is no booth selling prosthetics and post-traumatic therapy.

A senior defence scientist is next to speak. His presentation is weighed down with stodgy jargon. I want to leave, and envy the lamington-eating public servant who is asleep in his chair. The scientist warbles about military technology while his index finger repeatedly adjusts the bifocals clinging precariously to his beak-like nose. His speech is sodden with khaki jabber: transformational communications, sensor fusion, soldier nano-technologies, network-centric warfare, acceptable risk transfer, simulation, payloads, data mining, knowledge edge, integrated ballistic systems, autonomous systems, target reacquisition, hyper spectral technology, battle field survivability, high-fidelity optical systems, biofeedback, hardening. I fall asleep wondering if he has ever actually been to war.

Later, I sit alone in a quiet corner of the conference hall and sip lukewarm, bitter coffee purchased from the two scantily clad girls. I try to look intelligent as I flip through the collected conference papers: 700 pages, eighty-four papers, 143 authors. The table of contents is a lexicon of war-age militarism: "A Dynamic Sensor Fusion Model for Landmine Detection; Informing the Swarm – An Adaptive Information Distribution System for Land Mobile Systems; Infantry 2012: Meeting the Challenge of Complex Warfare; Enhancing Capability Development and Operational Decision Making Using Battle-space Transformation Centres; The Dismounted Soldier; Mobile Asset or Burdened Workhorse; Enhancing ADF Soldier Battlefield Survivability through Effective Signature Management." Formulae denote the effectiveness of sensors; statistics describe the survivability of a wounded soldier; graphics display trajectories of shells and their effects on tanks and people. Human factors are a calculation and appear in the columns and rows of tidy spreadsheets.

 

IN AFGHANISTAN RAGGEDY Man brushes tire flies from his face and quenches his thirst from a battered Nike sports bottle. The morning's chill has gone, replaced by desiccating heat. As expected, fragile wisps of dust appear on the highway – heralding the infidel's approach. An anti-tank mine buried under a culvert waits for the first American vehicle. The mine's detonation will be the signal for his men to fire into the convoy with machine guns, rockets and mortars. The killing ground is prepared; the ambush is set. This is the way of guerrillas: a hit and run on a twisted highway.

Legs stiff from crouching, Raggedy Man stands and rubs his calves, feeling the heavy scarring through his threadbare pants. When he was young, Russian aircraft dropped gas on his village and some splashed on his bare legs. At first nothing happened but later came the pain, the burning and itching.

 

MUSTARD GAS (C4H8Cl2S, HD, senfgas, sulfur mustard, blister gas, S-LOST, and Kampfstoff LOST or Yperite or Yperiet) is a weapon of mass destruction. Our fear that Iraq possessed such a weapon was one of the reasons we invaded Iraq. But, Saddam wasn't alone in his use of toxic weapons. Mustard gas was used with devastating effect in World War I. Britain used it against Iraqi rebels in 1920, Japan used it against China, Russia may have used it in Afghanistan and Iraq definitely used it against the Iranians and the Kurds. No immediate symptoms occur after exposure to mustard gas. But within four hours, deep, burning blisters appear wherever the gas has contacted the skin. If inhaled, the vapour causes the lungs and internal organs to blister and bleed. Exposure over more than half of the body's surface is fatal.

Australia conducted mustard gas trials during World War II, in paradise – on Brook Island near Townsville. I have camped on the shores of Brook Island where, in the 1940s, Bristol Beaufort aircraft dropped the bombs containing mustard gas. Later, according to The Gillis Report: Australian Field Trials with Mustard Gas 1942-1945 (Australian National University, 1985), white-coated scientists came ashore and observed the effects of the gas on goats tethered in Japanese-style bunkers and foxholes. Burned and dying goats sound like crying babies.

Even later, in the jungles near Innisfail, the Gillis Report tells us that Australia tested mustard gas on men. This physiological research was meant to determine the effects of mustard vapour on the human body under tropical conditions. I have seen the stark, black and white movie footage of the human trials. Blistered and burned men quiver like jelly and cry like dying goats.

 

RAGGEDY MAN WATCHES the American convoy of trucks, armoured vehicles and HMMWV (more commonly known as "Humvees") approach. The column moves slowly as the poor condition of the highway prevents speed. Inside a Humvee, big-boned, burger-fed American soldiers sit on narrow, padded seats and chew gum. Some talk, some eat, some think. Some want to help build a new Afghanistan; others want to kill 'rag heads'. Dust-covered bandoliers hang from the roof and, with each potholed bump, bounce about like a springy bassinet toy. Half-eaten field rations lie scattered on the floor. A bank of radios squawks with indecipherable chatter. The air is thick with diesel fumes.

In a lead vehicle, a diligent, lantern-jawed lieutenant peruses a map, marking off key checkpoints against GPS readouts. He sweats under the weight of fear, his Kevlar helmet and body armour.

Above the convoy, two American fighter aircraft thread white vapour trails through the cloudless sky – they watch and wait.

On the ridge above the valley, Raggedy Man has finished waiting. He speaks rapidly into the mouthpiece of his two-way radio and stares intently at a point on the highway – for a few seconds, he forgets to breathe.

The first Humvee is crossing a culvert when the ground underneath it explodes in flame, rock and dirt. The blast throws the vehicle into the air. It lands squarely on all four wheels, engulfed in flame, and slowly, almost deliberately, rolls to a stop. A smouldering American drops from the vehicle and crawls crab-like into a roadside ditch.

A second explosion topples a truck. Poorly aimed mortars burst harmlessly in a nearby field of barren dirt. Accurate heavy machine-gun fire rakes the convoy.

Raggedy Man bellows orders and the ambush ends – the surgical strike is over with no collateral damage. Today is not a day to fight a pitched battle with the infidel. He and his men scatter and, God willing, all the مجاهدين  will get home.

Above the ambush, the vapour trails vanish as the fighters respond to the now-frantic Lieutenant calling for their assistance. The pilots are Tom Cruise cool, veterans of a hundred sorties. Their aircraft are flying computers and decisions are microchip fast. From high altitude, the world is a surreal patchwork of possibilities. The pilots descend, packed in a cocoon of blinking lights, digital screens and dials. Target rings dance about small video screens and data scrolls rapidly on sidebars. The aircraft shake and rattle as they contort through tight turns and punch into a band of heat-driven turbulence. They attack along the ridgeline above the convoy – 20mm cannon fire hammers down, smashing into rock and dirt. But Raggedy Man and his lashka have gone; only the scuff marks from their worn leather sandals remain.

Next to the burning wreckage of the Humvee, a bloody and broken American soldier lies in the dirt and screams for his mother. His body armour has saved his life – vital organs are untouched by blast and shrapnel – but his arms and legs are minced and burned. Within an hour he will be a multiple amputee.

In a whirlwind of noise and dust, an Army medical team arrives by Blackhawk helicopter to efficiently triage and retrieve him and the other wounded. They gather the war fodder and fly off, leaving bits of body on the road, food for scavengers. For Coalition soldiers, modern surgical techniques and drugs can give life to a head on a stick. By contrast, The Guardian reported on March 9, 2005 that about a fifth of all Afghan children die before age five.

A day or so later, Raggedy Man arrives at his village and gently hands the Kalishnokov to his eldest son to clean. He stands and surveys his village, which clings precariously to a steep, scree-covered hillside overlooking a fast-flowing mountain stream. Old shell craters and the remnants of several mud-brick buildings are testament to the ferocity of the Russian war.

Near the village centre, two prisoners – young soldiers – lie bound, face down in the dirt, blindfolded, bloody and stinking of fear. They are members of the new Afghan Army, trained by the Americans and British. To the مجاهدين  they are traitors. Raggedy Man has not decided their fate, but it will not be painless. He walks off leaving a scabby village dog to lick at one of the prisoners' wounds.

Raggedy Man solemnly enters a makeshift hospital. His nostrils flare, assaulted by the pungent, gagging stink of gangrene. A dozen patients, war wounded, lie on stained, grass-filled mattresses. Some are missing limbs and others have gaping, jagged wounds from shrapnel. A veiled nurse squats over a dying man and does what she can to ease his final suffering. The only sound comes from muffled praying and a lingering swarm of excited flies.

 

ON THE GOLD Coast, I enjoy the conference dinner. We are plied with alcohol and fed thick, bloody steaks. We ravage sugar-filled desserts and plates of exotic, pungent cheese. Nobody pays attention to the litany of promotional speeches. Instead, we eat and get drunk.

The next morning, hung over and tired, I check out of my five-star hotel. I have collected a hundred brochures and a fine bathrobe.

The taxi driver taking me to the airport talks like a right-wing extremist. He explains why the invasion of "fuckin eye-ran" was justified. "Musees should be rounded up and put into camps in the desert." I politely point out we invaded Iraq, not Iran, and tell him my sister is a Muslim. We don't talk again.

 

RAGGEDY MAN LEAVES the main village and walks along a small track leading to his home. Tonight he will sleep with his wife. Tomorrow he will leave to hide from the American Special Forces who will be hunting for him. On the path he meets one of his children, a little girl. He hasn't seen her for some months and he marvels at how tall she has grown. She is afraid of him, this tall bearded stranger. He scoops her into his arms, throws her upon his shoulders and jogs for a few paces. Her fear dissolves into squeals of laughter as her hands dig into his beard. Together they laugh and sing a silly song about a goat.

High above the village, an American UAV circles silently. It's a Predator UAV MQ-1 Hunter/Killer – lethal, and silent. The pilotless aircraft's camera zooms in on a man, a target – he is carrying something on his back. Eight hundred kilometres away, somewhere hidden and safe, the UAV "pilot" squints at the monitor trying to make out the detail – is it a backpack, a weapon? The technology isn't perfect, the air vehicle is hard to fly akin to driving a car by looking through a straw. Either side of her are two sensor operators. It's hard to tell what is on the man's back, so they assume the worst. The warrior mistress begins to manipulate a targeting crosshair. Nobody inside the control room can hear the child's ecstatic giggles or Raggedy Man's silly goat song; if they could, they too might laugh.

Later, the Predator operators pack their belongings into small satchels and leave the air-conditioned comfort of the trailer. It's hot outside, but the sun will soon drop below the distant horizon, and with its departure the cold night air will descend. It's steak and movie night so there is still time for a short workout and shower. The "pilot" cracks a joke about Homer Simpson – they all laugh.

 

ALL SOLDIERS DREAM about their homecoming. When my grandfather arrived home from fighting the Japanese Imperial Army in Timor, he was sick from war, malaria and malnutrition. He spent months recuperating in a Darwin hospital. When he was well, he returned home to the Blue Mountains where he learned that my mother, then a child, had been publicly kicked and beaten by a nun and priest for attending a Church of England service. He found her in a boarding school and brought her home to heal. He rarely spoke of the war, and never marched on Anzac Day.

I arrive home from the war-age conference to the smell of baking bread and a warm hug from my wife. Our teenage daughter abandons her homework and charges across the room to dig her hands into my suit coat pockets. She doesn't mind that this time I don't have a gift for her and, as only fourteen-year-old girls can, rattles off a kaleidoscopic story about school, friends, boys, homework and a movie she wants to see with me.

That night we watch the TV news: Iraq is the lead story – again. The parade passes by: cannon fodder, the sacrificed, teenagers in military dress uniform, 2,500 faces. Nobody quotes the number of maimed or civilian dead.

Another suicide bomber has exploded in a marketplace, killing innocents with hate-tempered schrapnel.

The news rambles on in its quest for ratings and the perfect sound bite: the price of petrol has soared – black gold, Texas tea.

Australia decides the barbarians are inside the gates.

There is something wrong with the weather.

News over, I sit back into my leather lounge and wait to watch a re-run of The Simpsons. 

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