When 9/11 happened, I was just weeks off of finishing my Bachelor of Arts (history/sociology) degree at the University of Tasmania: in a far corner of the globe, almost as far away from New York City – both geographically and metaphorically – as you could be.
A couple of months later at my December graduation, the keynote speaker that year was Tassie’s own Professor Henry Reynolds, an eminent and widely published historian. Generally, the point of graduation speeches is to send a rousing message to the graduates, before they – as a bunch of young people – embark on a journey into a largely unknown future. For us, that was a future no doubt already being shaped by the events of 9/11 on a global scale. Although I don’t remember everything that Reynolds spoke about in his address, one message resonated with me, and that was this: part of what our generation needed to do was figure out why something like this happened. I guess at that point in history and at that stage in my life, I felt moved by that. Although it took a few years before I really acted on it.
I spent the next few years putting my degree to use as a staffer for a senator in the Howard government. At that stage, I strongly believed in the messages they supported, including the ideas around bringing Western democracy to nations that were struggling. While this was much more nuanced in places like Iraq, the situation that was still unfolding in Afghanistan seemed much more cut and dry. It was black and white. I recalled Reynolds’ words. I still wanted to know the ‘why’. So, as a 31 year old, I made the decision to join the Australian Defence Force.
I did two deployments there between 2008 and 2010, as a Public Affairs Officer (PAO). Most notable was my time as a PAO to the Special Operations Task Group (SOTG) in 2009-2010. I was lucky to be there for some historical happenings on each occasion. Working with local forces as part of the SOTG was the most eye-opening.
Looking back on my experiences, I realise I was fortunate to experience a glimpse into the complexities of the situation there. But I don’t kid myself into thinking it was anything other than just that – a glimpse. It seems trite and almost impossible to try and distil much of it into an answer to the ‘why’ proposed by Reynolds nearly 20 years ago.
But here’s one of my takeaways. Let’s just assume for the sake of argument that at least some of the missions in Afghanistan were well-intentioned, and not just about the US extracting ‘revenge’ – although that was the catalyst. The ideas central to the mission in Afghanistan were around bringing stable, democratically elected government. That’s good, right?
And let’s also for the sake of argument concede that democracy, in theory, works as a meritocracy: you work hard, you’re the best person for the job? You get rewarded. But what I realised in my time there was that these ideas can’t really take root in a place where loyalty is valued over everything else. And that’s been because for generations in a war-ravaged country like Afghanistan, that’s what it took to survive. War lords demanded unwavering loyalty because traditionally, that’s what saved them and the people who supported them. But democracy isn’t compatible with that. For example – again, an oversimplification – if giving a job to ‘the best person’ means choosing that individual over someone else in your family or clan or to whomever your loyalty lies, that is seen as an act of betrayal. While – by contrast – things that in Western democratic countries would be seen as nepotism, in Afghanistan they are seen acts of as loyalty and allegiance. Of self-preservation.
After the events that have unfolded in the past weeks with ending the occupation, I have felt a little numb. So many lives and so many resources just to go back to the start, again.
One last thing I want to mention – this date is significant to me for another reason. My wife and I met in the Army, and despite the tragedy of 9/11, it was an event that also created the circumstances that eventually led us to meet. We collectively decided to ‘reclaim the date’ – and so in 2010, 9/11 also became our wedding day.