The Coalition of the Disappearing
12 June 2012
Looking north from the hill behind the kiosk at Sydney Park the dreamy pastel hues of the sun rising through low moist clouds lit up the city. Swallows skimmed the wet grass, flitting effortlessly over the slopes.
It was 6.45 and the city was coming awake in a rising mutter of traffic and the distant roar of jet engines at Mascot. It was good to be out early even if I was on a matrimonial investigation – a line of work I normally pass on the Cliff Hardy unless I need the money and there’s absolutely nothing else worth taking.
I was posing as a bird watcher, which is a great cover if you’re lurking in a public place carrying a camera with a big telephoto lense and binoculars. I had a copy of the Slater Field Guide to Australian Birds poking out of my jacket pocket and a notebook to complete the effect.
I was waiting for the subject to make his way from the carpark to the kiosk where my client suspected her husband met his bit on the side when my attention was distracted by a loud, agressive male voice, downhill among the trees, barking commands.
What the hell?
I was contemplating rushing to an unknown somebody’s assistance when a grey-haired man in silly jogging tights emerged from the dead ground and staggered uphill towards me. He was holding a big aluminium beer keg in front of him and was followed by a man of middle-eastern appearance in camouflage pants screaming orders.
Great Mother of Darwin what was this, the TWU beer carters’ training course? The SAS advanced age entry program?
At the top of the rise, Camo Pants ordered the poor bloke to stop and lift the keg from the ground to waist height.
“Okay, lift … give me ten” he barked. “Nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three, … don’t be weak … two, one. Okay … keep going … that way. Don’t drop it!”
It’s an amazing thing that people will fork out good money to be bullied and called weak by personal trainers. We live in a heroic service industry economy where you can get people to pay for almost anything from hair depilation to having their dog washed. Down at Bunnings, they’ll sell you a little throw-away pine stick to stir paint with. It’s come to that.
Once up a time, a few short decades back – at the time of the Vietnam War – when I was an infantryman in what’s now the Army Reserve (it was then called the Citizen Military Forces) lots of us actually got paid to be humiliated like this, but times have changed and it was the political disaster of Vietnam that did it. That American adventure was the death of the citizen-soldier ideal. The fact that Australia had to introduce conscription by ballot to scrape up enough troops to make its small commitment to the war focussed the minds of a couple of generations on the horrible politics of the war, and the result was draft dodgers, thousands of protesters on the streets, a running political sore, and ultimately the end of a long run of Liberal governments.
In the wash-up, Australian governments decided it was politically safer to rely on professional soldiers to fight the increasingly unpopular and counterproductive wars the Yanks wanted us to go to. The result was that we could never actually commit more than a risible handful of troops, but the Yanks didn’t mind too much. What they mostly wanted was for us to merely attend, so they could say they were heading up a coalition.
So here we are now with a token force in the wilds of Afghanistan’s Oruzgan province and gosh, we’re being accorded the huge honour of leading the whole disappearing commitment of similarly risible contingents from two-bit players like Singapore and the Slovak Republic, and even a handful of yanks.
Meanwhile, the whole American-led occupation is being slowly strangled by the Pakistani blockade of NATO supplies. Instead of coming the easy way through Pakistan, the supplies our troops depend on have to be trucked in from Central Asia, through the crumbling Salang Pass Tunnel – a desperate two-kilometre-long choke-point where 900 Russian soldiers and Afghans died by asphyxiation back in the Russian war after a Mujihadeen ambush took out a Russian armoured vehicle at the tunnel entrance. But that’s a detail that doesn’t get much noticed in our media because most Australians don’t give a damn about what happens to professional soldiers and that’s the way our politicians like it.