Ten years have passed since the initial insurgence of allied troops into Afghanistan with the aim of dismantling Al-Qaeda. A decade of constant conflict, unrest and bloodshed has culminated this year in the death of Osama bin Laden and ongoing talk of peace initiatives and the gradual withdrawal of troops. On June 22nd, President Obama announced that 10,000 troops would be withdrawn by the end of 2011 and an additional 23,000 troops will leave the country by the summer of 2012. The UK has followed suit with a very gradual withdrawal, and likewise the Spanish Prime Minister has announced the withdrawal of troops beginning in 2012 with a complete withdrawal by 2014. Back in June of this year Julia Gillard announced there would be no reduction of Australian troops in Afghanistan until 2014 as planned, stating that “Australia, a key coalition partner, will not change its strategy in the fight against terrorism. Australia will see the mission through.” There are currently around 1,500 Australian troops deployed in Afghanistan.
Eleven-thousand, four-hundred and thirteen kilometres from the action, in the quiet little suburb of Tempe, NSW, I had acquired an interview with Private of the Second Commando Regiment, set for deployment in Afghanistan mid next year. Although I had met him on previous occasions, he consented to an interview on the condition that he could be kept anonymous. On being asked why that was necessary he replied, “It would just piss off my commanding officers. They’re really funny about talking to the media.” Maybe this wasn’t such a drawback as I hoped it might make him appear more representative of the Australian soldier, (although just for purposes I will refer to him as Danny). Having just been granted his Commando status last month, a Fairbairn Sykes dagger and certificate confirming this ranking hangs pride of place on the wall of Danny’s swish apartment that he shares with his English girlfriend and her friend. Despite living with two girls, the walls of the apartment are adorned with predominantly his interests; photographs and paintings depicting military scenes. A three by three foot abstract piece of art of a soldier running in battle hangs in the kitchen, and above his study area a framed still of Operation Ulmarra, the cordon and search of Lang Phuoc Hai village, South Vietnam, 26th August 1967.
Being a hospitality working student, 8 o’clock on a Saturday morning was an unfamiliar sight for myself. As I slumped in my sleepy stupor on the sofa, Danny was a picture of dynamism, zipping about the kitchen topless, preparing us coffee from his own coffee machine, a 21st birthday present, which he hoped “didn’t taste like mud”. Anyone who had just met Danny might mistake his assured little smile and his tendency to walk around topless as arrogance or self-importance, but in truth it’s just reflective of a serene content in his own skin. His broad shoulders and muscular torso do nothing to reveal his humble and even slightly meek persona and his dark hairy chest reflects his Italian lineage. His head and face is in stark contrast, gentle and slightly out of proportion with his body, atop of which is sandy brown and naturally well-kept hair. He wears a pair of khaki shorts and at the end of the interview casually slips on a red t-shirt before he and his girlfriend set off to the beach for the day. Presenting me with a mug of delicious creamy coffee, we adjourn to the breakfast table and I ask him about the dagger.
It hangs on the wall of his living area, next to it a certificate stating:
“PTE D. A. Rowntree
Has qualified as an Australian Commando and has earned the right to wear the commando beret. The awarding of this beret comes with a responsibility to your nation, your regiment, your family and ultimately yourself. You have been assessed against well-known criteria for a steadfast character and have demonstrated both the physical and mental toughness required for service within this command.
“To whom much is given much is expected”
Along with this feature, at his graduation he was presented with a green beret, and at previous meetings I noticed he took to wearing it during routine occasions, making dinner or watching T.V. It reflects a quality in him that is almost endearing childlike, similar to a boy who insists on wearing his 50m backstroke medal around the house. The dagger itself however was not to be utilised, being more of a symbolic entity;
“Commandos used it in World War Two. It’s quite old now but still embodies the fighting spirit. When it’s issued it’s just as a symbolic thing rather than an actual fighting knife.” It takes a bit of questioning to understand what it’s actually for, and Danny has a quiet look of surprise, mostly due to my ignorance in the field of military training. It effectively indicates his graduation from a paratrooper and has been the result of five weeks of intense training as part of the Commando Selection Training Course, yet Danny gives out no air of egotism or self-congratulation that many would think typical of a soldier. Instead, he keeps the manner of his answers purely straightforward with a neutral face, presumably because he knows the extent of what he still has to achieve.
Namely, Afghanistan. I turn our attention towards what drives his passion to go there as he picks up an AAA battery on the table and starts turning it between his fingers. Initially he starts to describe when he first joined the army and I feel he might be avoiding the question, before he suddenly remarks;
“There’s heaps of reasons eh. It’s basically for me just because I want to be a solider. I’m not going to say that I’m not patriotic, but it’s not really for patriotic reasons. Whether or not that’s similar to others I’m not sure. It’s more for that sense of adventure and something that in today’s modern society you can’t really experience that.”
It seems to me like one of the more unique jobs you could do nowadays I observe and he agrees. “Also just to validate all the training I’ve done, it would seem a waste of time if I haven’t validated it overseas.” From this I observe his desire to go to Afghanistan may not be because a dedication to the cause; the upheaval of Al-Qaeda, and this is supported by his next comment: “I don’t want to go to Afghanistan as such, I want to go on active service. It doesn’t matter where I go.”
He drops the battery and it clunks on the wooden table. But then, how does he feel about war and conflict generally? Does he condone it or think it’s necessary? His speech becomes fragmented and it’s on occasions like this I see how he used to suffer from a slight stutter. Speaking with his housemate she speculates that it’s still a problem for him; “Sometimes, especially if he’s had a drink or two he’ll have problems getting the words out”. I can see him thinking through his answer carefully;
“Look, I definitely don’t condone it, and I think it’s a bit blunt to say it’s necessary. In certain instances, yes, it might be. But to generalise…it’s obviously quite tragic, the war in Iraq was just a massive tragedy. Being a soldier and wanting to go on active service…I don’t think it’s good…it’s just part of the job.”
What I still have trouble grasping is why he would want to do what he does. Never susceptible to bouts of anger and more likely to deal with a difficult situation with humour, he seems far too passive to do something as radical as firing a gun. “He never gets angry” his housemate comments. “At the most, when he gets annoyed with something, he’ll silently pull a face, you can see his jaw move.” Danny has the physique of a soldier, but the mind of a poet, more quirky than loutish, constantly coming out with whimsical observations and passé expressions; he has a habit of ironically referring to himself as a “big dummy.” A few nights later, whilst discussing children’s television shows, he would go on to deconstruct the early 90’s classic “Biker Mice from Mars”; “There aren’t even any mice on Mars. It doesn’t have a suitable atmosphere or topography. And the bikes as well? It’s a ridiculous premise.” I have to say I agree.
Back at the breakfast table I tell him he seems too much of a pacifist to seem like a soldier. He smiles;
“Yeah, it’s funny this. I’ve just always had a massive fascination with everything to do with the military. I can look at photos, like that photo…” he points to the picture of the cordon of Lang Phuoc Hai “…I can look at for ages and keep noticing small things. And it’s exciting, doing things like parachuting and boating, and abseiling off buildings, it gives you a rush…and also a bit of fear. Not crippling fear but manageable fear, which is good, it makes you feel alive. And not many people get to feel like that these days.”
I ask him about the future. I can’t help but be concerned myself about the dangers he’ll face out in Afghanistan, but any fear or doubt he has stifled. Aren’t you scared, or at least nervous I press? He maintains an air in his answer more suited to discussing a skiing holiday. The downplaying of his own courage is a most endearing feature.
“I’m mainly excited. You can’t really be scared. Well, I say that now because I’m not there, once I’m there I’ll probably be really scared. But if you get scared, I don’t believe that you can go. Fear is a funny thing. They seem to do quite a good job of conditioning you not to fear things, even though reasonably you probably should. It’s funny.”
Beyond his active service, I’m interested to know whether he feels this is something he could do for life. Scratch deep and it’s clear he would excel in a number of professions. The innate flair he displays in his interaction with other humans is one of his greatest talents and could be utilised in other jobs. Sensitivity and considerate thought processes are traits that form the basis of his interaction with what seems to be every person he comes across, and I wonder whether he realises this. I ask of his plans when he comes back from Afghanistan, would that spell an end to his stint in the army?
“I do think about this. Because with the army you can’t do it forever… well, you can but I’ve seen people who do it man, they’re so caught up in it and it’s the only thing they have in their life. It sends chills down my spine, I really hope I’m not that person in 20 years. I mean, how you can do 20 years in the army, I don’t know. But I definitely plan at this stage to go to University. And study Psychology maybe. Human beings really interest me. Conventions and human interactions, reasons for why people do what they do.”
Sitting back in my chair I try to imagine him in a suit; a professional with a 9-5 and a briefcase, although he refutes the idea of working in an office. Danny was not an individual designed for accounting or selling insurance, but I get a sense of excitement on his behalf envisaging him as a Psychologist or a Doctor. The most solicitous and considerate Psychologist in NSW. I slurp back the cold dregs of my coffee and bring the interview to a close, thanking him. “That’s alright”, he says. “Anytime of the week Jon.” And what a nice way to put it, I thought.
Days later and sets of unasked questions drifted around my mind. I couldn’t help thinking during the interview the atmosphere was too tranquil and care-free to get into a really deep discussion. Casting my mind back to a previous encounter with Danny disclosed more about his own personal desire. Back in August I met him at a fancy dress party, attired as a Mexican complete with his poncho and sombrero. It wasn’t until we paired up on the walk home that I had the opportunity to chat with him properly. A night of heavy cocktail drinking left him slightly vulnerable to difficult questions, and it was then in the small hours of that icy August morning he told me he would be going to Afghanistan next year. Isn’t that dangerous I naively asked? Why would you want to go so badly?”
“Because that’s what it’s all about man! You saw those guys at the Argyle on ANZAC Day with their medals. That’s what it’s all about! All the guys talk about Afghanistan, and I want to be part of it. I can’t wait to go. That’s the whole point!”
I was having trouble grasping why someone would put their life at risk just for fulfilment. What happens if he was fatally injured?
“At the end of the day that wouldn’t matter as much as everyone seems to think! I would’ve done my bit, and that’s part of the point in being a commando. Obviously I would rather come back home in one piece than be hit with a bullet out there… but if it does happen…some people think it’s quite a selfish thing. Is it Jon? Do you think it’s selfish?”
Looking at him with his false curly moustache, I didn’t really know what to say, but I couldn’t help being fascinated by him and his mentality. I didn’t necessarily agree with his beliefs, but I was beginning to understand them at least.
In the days following the interview at Danny’s apartment, I messaged him one final question; what he thought of Julia Gillard’s decision not to start withdrawing troops, unlike many of the other nations;
“It was always going to be that way. Until the US significantly reduces their numbers we won’t start withdrawing, and that won’t be until 2014 or 2015. I personally don’t think Australia will have success in Afghanistan.”
At the time of writing Julia Gillard had just paid a flying visit to Afghanistan, where she opened a new Australian embassy building in the capital Kabul, indicative of “Australia’s long-term commitment to the country.”
In the new year Danny and myself will go our separate ways, him to Afghanistan and myself back home to the U.K. Whether he is representative of the Australian soldier I am unsure. Parts of his dogma are surely felt in every soldiers desire to go to war, but perhaps he stands apart from the rest through his atypical docility. With this he will surely go far, and I wish him the best of luck.