Disbanding might be the only option for Australia’s special ops

A version of this article appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald.

The facts have been laid before us. It’s high time we came to terms with the chequered history of our special forces in Afghanistan.

Where last year, leaked inquiry documents shone a spotlight on the disquiet of some within Army ranks, this year many of the allegations levelled against Australia’s special forces have come from the mouths of Afghans themselves, adding volume to the ever-growing whistleblower orchestra inside Defence.

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Abdul Mohammad, the brother of Ali Jan. His brother had gone to get flour and ended up dead, allegedly at the hands of Australian special forces. (Photo: Supplied)

It comes at a time of increased outcry by local people across the country. Since the International Criminal Court began collecting material for a sweeping war crimes case in November 2017, Afghans have submitted over 1.17 million individual statements to investigators – alleging claims of wrongdoing against all sides, Coalition and Taliban alike.

Not every one of those 1.17 million submissions will be corroborated. The Afghanistan conflict is a complex conflagration, overlaid and underpinned by an intricate information war. In the battle to control the narrative, every party is adept at leveraging propaganda from the deeds of their adversaries.

Even so, it is time that Afghan testimony was heard in its entirety. Where these new allegations against the Special Operations Task Group are concerned, many of the critical facts appear to be damning, harmonising as they do with whistles already blown by Australians.

The specificity of time, place and person. The exactitude with which the events were described – and their correlation with actual Australian operations. The descriptions of weapons, sound suppressors, camouflage uniforms. Right down to the gruesome nature of the deaths at Darwan – a village few in Australia had heard of till now – faraway as it is in the northern reaches of Uruzgan province.

 

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In the village of Darwan, a special forces soldier kicks an Afghan prisoner off a cliff. (Illustration: Matt Davidson/Fairfax, based on an eyewitness account)

The testimony from Defence insiders too is devastating. Accounts seem to show the emergence of a psyche within special forces where all Afghan males came to be imagined as “associates”, “spotters” and “sympathisers” – somehow in league with the Taliban – a common trope in many war crimes scenarios, from Srebenica to My Lai. The coarse strategic logic behind the killings is clear then. By launching brutal retaliatory attacks against those imagined to be Taliban collaborators and by allegedly executing persons in custody, some members of Australia’s special forces sought to win their war through a campaign of fear.

With unfettered violence, these patrols sought to send a message that did not discriminate between farmer, family or foe – a message of capitulate or die.

As military theorists have reminded warfighters again and again over the years however, this “art of intimidation” approach cannot deliver improvements to a security situation. Counter-insurgency is less about what one is doing to the enemy and more about what one is doing for the population.

Namely, protecting the people from insurgent coercion and addressing the root causes of popular dissatisfaction. All this to build support and legitimacy for the host nation government. It’s no secret that the employment of heavy-handed tactics in any community erodes the trust and goodwill of those who security forces are assigned to assiduously woo.

But if the reported events are symbolic of a problem that goes right to the heart of Australia’s special operating culture, the next question to be asked is how did such a culture take root within such a well-regarded fighting force.

By all accounts, this pivot towards ultra-violence has been incubating for years, typified perhaps by the veneration of vigilante icons, Spartan imagery, death symbols and other gory phantasmagoria.

Indeed, the role played by this now-banned iconography in desensitising soldiers to what the Crompvoets Report called “illegal violence” should not be understated.

As the anthropologist Clifford Geertz writes, culture is nothing but a collection of such symbols – a process of “semiosis” or “sign-making” – “by means of which men communicate, perpetuate, and develop their knowledge about and their attitudes towards life”.

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The visage of the Phantom, as depicted on the shield of a Melanesian warrior. (Source: Christopher Johnstone)

Akin to how cargo cults in the highlands of Papua New Guinea form coalitions around charismatic leaders and paint the image of American comic book vigilantes on their shields for protection, there will be much to be discussed in future about the role played by certain charismatic corporals and foreign “cargo” (including the violent attitudes imported from American popular culture) in the formation of insidious sects within Australia’s special forces.

Nowhere is this strand of cargo cultism more palpable than in the story surrounding the soldier codenamed “Leonidas”, reported by Fairfax to have kicked an Afghan man off a cliff – mirroring a climactic scene in the film 300.

But this is only one element of the story. The organisational behaviour of humans is complex and the fall of a culture can be a difficult process to map. The totems glorifying murder and vigilantism were emblematic of a drift away from traditional beliefs and Chief of Army Angus Campbell was right to ban them. But they are only one facet of a more entrenched problem writ large. It’s clear now though that Defence is coming to terms with a crisis within the ranks.

In the 1990s, when members of Canada’s elite Airborne Regiment were found to have tortured and murdered an unarmed teenager in Somalia, the Canadian government’s ultimate decision was to disband the unit. With this history in mind, one wonders how Australia’s Special Operations Command as an institution could recover from this. One wonders if it should.

The Great American Drift

Much of recent domestic discourse in the US has focussed on the earmarking of Gina Haspel to run the CIA. A matter of some controversy, the debate has centred around the specifics of her role in the CIA’s infamous “enhanced interrogation techniques” program – the torture initiative which has since come to symbolize the dark early years of America’s war on Terror.

This was a well-covered story, and even though Haspel’s confirmation by the Senate ultimately went smoothly, the American public was right to examine her past with a critical eye.

Many would share the view that torture is legally unjustifiable and morally repugnant – a barbaric practice whose presence in Western society has been the subject of periodic extenteration in the writings of Voltaire; the wartime orders of Napoleon; and the big print of the UN Convention against Torture.

But while many of Haspel’s domestic critics – from John McCain to the editorial board of The Washington Post – argued that her murky past wasn’t a fit with their country’s basic values, perhaps Gina Haspel’s rise to the CIA’s directorship is precisely in keeping with the current trajectory of American moral drift – a drift she merely symbolises.

Take, for example, the White House’s May 7 pick for the next recipient of the Medal of Honor, the US military’s most prestigious decoration for valor. At a ceremony this Thursday, President Trump will award a Navy SEAL by the name of Britt Slabinski the highest award in the American military honors system for actions “above and beyond the call of duty”.

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Master Chief Petty Officer (ret.) Britt Slabinski is to receive the MoH this Thursday.

Such a lofty laurel is reward for a 2002 action that took place on an Afghan mountain called Takur Ghar. In the face of heavy fire, Slabinski single-handedly assaulted an enemy position in an attempt to rescue a wounded teammate – at great risk to his own safety.

This single act, in and of itself, might well be praiseworthy. But what is less well-known about Master Chief Petty Officer Britt Slabinski is his role as a central figure in a tradition of corpse mutilation that became the norm within the US Navy’s Special Warfare Development Group. To some, that last sentence might read as shocking and out-of-place – as if this graphic but factually neutral statement was some colossal new revelation. But all these details have been on the public record for a long time.

See for instance the interview Slabinski conducted with Newsweek journalist Malcolm Macpherson for his award-winning book Roberts Ridge. “Talking about funny stuff that we did,” Slabinski described of coming upon the corpse of an Al-Qaeda fighter on an Afghan hilltop known as Objective Wolverine. “There was this guy whose feet were sticking out of some little rut. He was dead but, you know, people got nerves so I shot him about twenty times in the legs… Every time you’d shoot him he would kick up and you could see his body twitching. It was like a game. It was good therapy.”

 

Article 18 of the Geneva Convention states that soldiers presiding over the dead must “take all possible measures… to prevent their being despoiled” but according to SEAL team leaders interviewed by The Intercept reporter Matthew Cole in findings published last year, such desecrations were widespread – even going beyond riddling corpses with bullets. Skinnings were frequently carried out, ostensibly to collect DNA evidence. In one infamous incident, one of Slabinski’s operational orders to bring him “a head on a platter” was interpreted as more-than-rhetorical, resulting in one of his subordinates decapitating a dead enemy fighter during a raid in Helmand province.

Unsavoury allegations about Slabinski’s teams extended to live targets as well. In 2015, the New York Times reported complaints about civilian casualties from Afghans at the site of a Slabinski-led raid. When the US Navy’s chain-of-command requested comment from Slabinski about an order he had allegedly given to “kill all the males” he did not deny the claim.

Under normal circumstances, such allegations levelled at the feet of somebody who is to receive the Medal of Honor on Thursday would usually draw attention. But few in the US seem to know. Fewer seem to be concerned. Given that all this information was on the public record while the medal approval process was taking place one might conclude that there is a problem here.

It certainly doesn’t require any kind of boldness to offer that there is something wrong with a political system that would allow the subject of ongoing, credible war crimes allegations to receive that country’s highest decoration for bravery.

Indeed, one way to assess the bill of health (shall we say, the constitution) of a society is to examine the personalities of those chosen to occupy positions of high status. Gina Haspel as CIA Director. Britt Slabinski as Medal of Honor recipient. Donald Trump as President of the United States.

The presenting signs seem to belie an illness – a necrotic rot – not a system in stasis.

Perhaps then, when Trump’s critics in America’s technocratic classes perceive the President as the cause of their country’s problems their political sphygmomanometers are giving a bad read-out. Perhaps Donald Trump is not the problem at all. Perhaps he’s but a symptom. A symptom of America’s moral drift.

On Being Nominated

I have been nominated for an award.

I submitted the entry myself. Filled out the form. Sought out a reference from my editor. Selected the “New Writer’s” category in the drop-down column. Hoping, probably, that the award for neophytes was less competitive. It doesn’t seem that way, for future reference.

Now I’m a “nominee”.

“Congratulations.”

But what does “new” to the game – this highly-temporal, self-categorizing word “new” – actually mean? I’m a “New Magazine Writer” now apparently. But I’ve been writing obsessively since I was five.

Told my grade school teachers I wanted to write for a living. Wrote it down on a collage about my grown-up dream job. Spelled the dream “W-H-Я-I-T-E-R”. The “R” scrawled back-to-front in the bad handwriting I still live with today. Experimenting with Cyrillic script, maybe. Or so I’ll say at parties.

“New to the Magazine Writer’s World,” is what it means. And it says as much explicitly. The capital “M”s and “W”s etched into the announcement.

“Welcome to Magazine Writer’s World. Here is the coat-check, there is the first aid station. There’ll be a half-time show where chimps show off their skills with a crayon at ten o’clock.”

Above the heads of the anointed in the entrance hall, a banner with that famous apocryphal quote often falsely attributed to Hemingway: “Writing is easy. You simply sit down at your typewriter, open your veins, and bleed.”

Very “work-making-free” in its implied hardship but absent any real suffering.

But there you have it. The writer’s lot. Written plainly in the entrance hall to Magazine Writer’s World. The red carpet has been rolled out.

A nomination then is a ticket with a scannable barcode. Bring it with you on the night and you can queue up while the doors open. On the other side of those doors? Upward mobility into the literary cosmos. Access approved.

“Here are some publishers. Some publicists. Agents of dissemination whose presence in your life negates the need for self-promotion.”

“Leave the blog behind. Self-publication is for the uninitiated.”

All in my imagination, of course. I’ve only been nominated. I haven’t inherited the Chocolate Factory yet.

But more important than this? This newfound access? The money, of course. The fame. F-A-M-E. No Cyrillic typos in “FAME”. No bad handwriting (others will do the ghost-writing for you now). Just the word itself, in big block letters, a neon-illuminated sign.

Public lectures and private functions with guest lists. The nightclub narthex with the vanishing queue.

“Witness me then worship me.”

Honorariums worth what it used to take the whole summer to earn. All the glitz. All the glamour. All the praise. Inevitably corrupting.

Not good for the ego but good for the pocket. The equivalent of academic tenure-track for a freelancer trying to cobble together a living on 25 cents a word.

I repaired my car with the pay I banked for the Outpost article – a travel piece about a train ride across Mauritania. At the time, as I drove away from the mechanic, it seemed a great reward just to have new wheel struts. It didn’t seem to matter that the three-figure cheque had barely fifthed the cost of a trip to a Saharan country in Africa’s northwest.

A reminder then, that I don’t write for money, for fame. Those words are there because they’re deeply embedded in my person. Because without this form of self-expression I am but a vessel of half-formed, swirling, unedited thoughts – thoughts without elocution, refinement and excision.

What did they do before the written word? Orated, I suppose. Without the electrics to power this blog, without the ink-wells to blot an A4 page, I’m sure I’d soon learn to speak properly too.

But I have this privilege – the privilege to not merely speak but also to write. It’s incumbent upon me to make the most.

I would like to believe that merit alone matters in this market.

But, “Christopher Augustus Elliott”. The whiteness is self-evident and my surname is soon to be hyphenated.

The fact of my white skin is a fact of genetics beyond my control, but the history which privileged it is one I should all the while acknowledge. Yes, I was born this way and without my permission.

But these words are all middle class, all private school, all three square meals with space to think and travel. There’s no real struggle here. Just words on a page. Phonemes on a blank blog template. Or however you wanna put it.

Born in Australia with the right to live and work in two Western countries. Raised in suburbia. But close enough to the city limits to escape, at will, to wild places. Before returning.

There are many places where others were born. But I was born in none of them. Not in a refugee camp. Not in some urban hood. Never the birth-written subject of some Ta-Nehisian riff – like one of the ones that inspired this screed.  So how lucky am I?

Lucky enough to be nominated, anyway.

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The Personification of Pheme, Louis de Silvestre

 

FYI, And in Case You Were Wondering…

 

For those wondering who I am.

I am a writer, yes. But I am not a journalist in the news-man sense.

I was once a soldier, yes. But I have not served in uniform for a number of years. My military background helped shape how I view the world but it is not central to who I am anymore.

I am an academic now. The word “anthropologist” is written right there as the first word of my Twitter bio.

This means I spend my days as a recording instrument (an imperfect and completely fallible one) – examining social structures and documenting cultural practices. I am an outsider looking in on foreign systems.

One of these systems is Australia’s Special Operations Command – an institution to which I have never belonged nor sought to join.

As with my credit card and social insurance numbers, other unmentioned specifics about my person are reserved for employers and others who need to know.

All my public writing has occurred post-service and through the lens of somebody who has been anthropologically-trained. I don’t write about infantry minor tactics or TOETs for basic weapon systems although I could probably still operate a 66 or an 84 if I had to.

That said, my usual choice of topics tends to reflect former lives and many people I use as sounding boards for ideas (especially on controversial issues) were individuals I met while in uniform. They were my colleagues. They are my friends. My love for them is real and I hope that it’s mutual.

Some of them deployed with Australia’s Special Operations Task Group to Afghanistan. Some discussed the details of unsavoury things with me. Some are still serving. I, however, am a former.

I use the phrase “former soldier” in my public writing because I don’t self-refer as a “veteran”. A personal preference because I never thought I earned the status my Granddad earned when he helped liberate Kokoda.

My great-grand-uncle Major J.F Walsh was the first Queensland officer killed at Gallipoli – nailed by a bullet through the spyglass of a spotting scope while conducting a reconnaissance of an elevated machine gun position.

Still, I have never marched on ANZAC Day. At dawn every 25th, I prefer to reflect on the meaning of sacrifice while alone on a run, or away in the bush, or up on a granite wall – not out at the memorial monuments. Not everyone finds the same meaning through the same rituals and I have reservations about religions of the state.

My main interest is in data and analysis, not in credentials and personalities. Discussions about military topics are not the sole purview of those whose primary pre-occupations are pissing contests and medal counts.

In an academic round-table, I am less interested in whether or not someone has a PhD and more interested in what they have to say.

Key points to note – focus on the facts, not the personality and the qualifications behind the byline.

People don’t like “experts” these days anyway, remember?

So. I won’t ask you about your gongs if you don’t ask me about mine (I don’t wear my militaria anyway). Nor will I ask after the legal first and last names behind your anonymous social media avatars. Partly because a name is just a name but mostly because I don’t care.

 

A ban on “death symbols” distinguishes an Army from a ‘death cult’

A version of this post appeared on ABC News

A short directive, bland in tone, from Chief of Army Angus Campbell titled “Use of Symbols in Army” would normally go unnoticed outside of the Army.

But Lieutenant General Campbell’s order to prohibit the display of “‘death symbology/iconography” is likely to have an outsized impact on military culture-at-large.

No doubt, grumbling in the ranks over the ban — which includes the Grim Reaper, the Skull and Crossbones, Spartan, vigilante and death-related symbols — will lead to accusations of political correctness.

In some barracks lines, parallels have already been drawn between Lieutenant General Campbell and his predecessor, Lieutenant General David Morrison, whose diversity crusades made him less-than-loved by the troops. And there are a great many unhappy troops.

The outcry has two predictable arguments.

The first posits that “death symbology” is good for “morale”, a necessary part of maintaining an army capable of violence. It’s all just a bonding exercise used for the purposes of “group absolution” — psychological relief for individuals trying to cope with the pressures of war.

Death is indeed an indivisible component of war, and such criticisms see a gross kind of irony in an Army chief banning death symbols. After all, military training is itself a form of operant conditioning specifically designed to dissociate recruits from the natural aversion to killing.

The second argument is premised around heritage — the so-called “spirit and pride” attached to these symbols. Given how closely soldiers wed themselves to the customs of their forebears, such attachments shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand.

But most all of the banned symbols are imported from overseas. These banned totems have very little, if any, Australian lineage.

The Spartans were Greek. The Phantom hails from the fictional African island of Bengalla. The scythe-wielding Grim Reaper dates back to the Middle Ages.

To argue that the image of Death incarnate is some kind of Australian icon (as opposed to, say, the kangaroo mounted on the slouch hats of infantry units) seems dubious at best.

Similarly, displaying Punisher memorabilia on the battlefield has always reeked of US influence.

A vigilante worshipped in the American military, the Punisher’s distinctive skull emblem was first co-opted by Navy SEALs on operations in Iraq. The skull was painted on body armour, hessian barricades, butt-stocks — sometimes even graffitied in the streets.

As Chris Kyle writes in his autobiography-turned-posthumous-action-film American Sniper:

“We spray-painted [the Punisher skull] on every building or wall we could. We wanted people to know: ‘we’re here and we want to f— with you’.”

For the most part, the pre-occupation with this character stemmed from the Punisher’s willingness to go off-reservation. As one Marine Corps veteran explained the fetish to New York Magazine:

“Frank Castle is the ultimate definition of Occam’s razor for the military… Don’t worry about uniforms, inspections of rules of engagement. Find the bad guys. Kill the bad guys.”

It’s not hard to see why flying the Punisher skull, to quote Lieutenant General Campbell directly, “encourages the inculcation of an arrogant hubris and general disregard for the most serious responsibility of our profession: the legitimate and discriminate taking of life”.

No surprises then, that the Chief would want to stamp down on subcultures that glorify individuals taking the law into their own hands — as patrolling Afghanistan with the Punisher symbol on your body armour implies.

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Jon Bernthal as Frank Castle/The Punisher (Source: Netflix)

Forefelt, it’s inevitable that the concurrent ban on Spartan iconography — described as symbolising “extreme militarism” — will be reviled by many combat units. Some grunts are besotted with the muscled hoplites of ancient Sparta, especially since the release of the Hollywood film 300.

Heed, for example, the way Victoria Cross recipient Ben Roberts-Smith’s battlefield actions have been described:

“He just tore into the enemy … He is the epitome of the Spartan soldier. It was only a matter of time before he would demonstrate his true ability.”

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Ben Roberts-Smith on operations in Afghanistan. Note the skull-and-crossbones shoulder patch.

With an internal Defence inquiry into the conduct of special forces in Afghanistan ongoing, Lieutenant General Campbell’s reservations about Spartan imagery are not without merit.

Indeed, politically incorrect as it is to say in the mess-hall of an infantry battalion — extreme militarism was a major cause of ancient Sparta’s eventual downfall.

The proscriptions also apply to the Grim Reaper. And Lieutenant General Campbell is right — revelling in “death” iconography precisely misses the point of soldiering.

As a comparison, the explicitly violent bayonet drill practised by new recruits, should not be read as a celebration of death but rather a tightly rehearsed routine where a commander exercises his monopoly over a soldier’s newfound killing ability.

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Iraqi soldier with a skull face mask popularized by the character “Ghost” in the video game Call of Duty

While it’s true that soldiers are weapons who occasionally reap death, it is not true that soldiers embody death. This is because a weapon symbolizes not only the use of force but also the threat of force. A demonstrable, calculable, avoidable threat that makes militaries instruments of state power in the first place.

This is the distinction between “death” symbols and the ADF’s formal iconography. Iconography like the Army’s skill-at-arms “cross rifles” badge or the solar-ray bayonets on the Rising Sun badge.

While the banned symbols are fetishistic and in poor taste, these icons evince a well-disciplined soldier’s membership to the profession of arms.

Weighed against all the facts then, Lieutenant General Campbell’s directive has little to do with political correctness or avoiding offence and everything to do with a strong leader engineering a culture of discipline that is appropriate for a military force in the 21st century.

In the end, the difference between an Army that marches into battle beneath a symbol like the Rising Sun and an Army that marches into battle beneath symbols of vigilantism, lawlessness, extreme militarism and death is the difference between a force that values professionalism and obedience to the law and a force that defines itself by its own violence.

The difference between an army and a “death cult”, if you will.

It’s not difficult to guess which fighting force the Australian public would prefer to have represent them on operations abroad.

Lieutenant General Campbell should be applauded for setting the tone for his future tenure as Chief of the Defence Force.

 

 

Mỹ Lai: What we learnt about ‘forever wars’ from one of America’s worst atrocities

The following appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald.

This month marks the 50th anniversary of an event in history the Vietnamese people call Tham sat Mỹ Lai – the Mỹ Lai Massacre. Unmatched as the most appalling episode of America’s campaign in Vietnam, the incident at Mỹ Lai was so visceral and so objectively abhorrent as to have a permanent impact on the ultimate perception of the war. The name “Mỹ Lai” itself has become practically synonymous with the “war crimes” concept.

In total, as many as 500 men, women and children were murdered on March 16, 1968 – the final outcome of a clearance operation conducted by the US Army inside a so-called “free fire zone” in South Vietnam.

Immediately afterwards, Captain Ernest Medina, the commanding officer of the company responsible for the killings was issued a Letter of Commendation and General William Westmoreland, the overseer of the entire war, personally congratulated the unit for an “outstanding job”. A “heavy blow” had been “dealt” against the enemy, the dispatches initially claimed.

When all was said and done though and the truth about Mỹ Lai was finally revealed, Second Lieutenant William Calley, a junior-level officer present at the scene, was charged and convicted with 22 counts of pre-meditated murder. He was the only officer to serve time for offences related to the massacre.

Although some Vietnam veterans like Colonel David Hackworth have asserted that there were literally “hundreds of Mỹ Lais” over the course of an almost 20 year military engagement in Southeast Asia, Mỹ Lai retains a particularly important place in the imaginarium of this period – in part because of the sheer scale of the slaughter and in part because of its effect on public opinion at a time when opposition against the war was becoming increasingly vociferous.

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Images of the massacre taken by US Army photographer Ronald Haeberle. Immediately after the killings, Haeberle destroyed some of the evidence. Photo: AP

The somewhat sensational revelation of the killings and the subsequent highly publicised trial of Calley also raised important questions about the issue of responsibility in a war crimes situation.
How did such a thing as Mỹ Lai occur? Who participated in it? And perhaps more importantly, who ordered it and/or allowed it to happen?

One view, the “wrath of the centurions” view, asserts that the greatest culpability lies with the leaders at the small-unit level – the bottom-level links in the so-called “kill chain”. By this reading, the low-ranking “centurions” who directly oversee the killings – the “strategic corporals” and the Second Lieutenant William Calleys who are physically present when atrocities occur – are primarily responsible when clusters of army privates gang-rape, mutilate and murder civilians as the US GIs did at Mỹ Lai.

As military psychologist Lieutenant Colonel Dave Grossman argues in On Killing, “the proximity [emphasis added] of the obedience-demanding authority figure” is the most important factor in enabling killing behaviour, especially when the killing occurs under morally questionable circumstances.

The opposing view is that incidents like Mỹ Lai reflect a broader cultural problem within a military force – that the very creation of so-called “free fire zones” in Vietnam demonstrated an indifference to and perhaps even a disdain for the act of separating innocent civilians from lawful combatants.

When William Calley was convicted for his role in the killings, Brigadier-General Telford Taylor, who had served as a senior American prosecutor at the Nuremberg Trials, asserted that the US military had done a great injustice with its failure to lay charges against any higher ranking officers.

Following this logic, the broader strategic emphasis on attrition and the Pentagon’s obsession with body counts and “kill ratios” was as much a part of the problem as the “centurion” on the ground marking a child for death.

Observe, for example, Calley describing Captain Medina’s orders during his trial: “I was ordered to go in there and destroy the enemy … I did not sit down and think in terms of men, women and children. They were all classified as the same, and that’s the classification that we dealt with over there, just as the enemy”.

Of course, just as the Nuremberg trials established the principle of “command responsibility”, Calley’s excuse that he was only following orders, was just as comprehensively shot down during Telford’s prosecution of the Nazis. The SS man guarding the door to the gas chamber was just as culpable as Himmler or Hitler.

But perhaps it is also true, as General Walter Boomer, Assistant Commandant of the Marine Corps, succinctly put it: “My Lai happened because officers failed.”

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2nd Lt William Calley being led away after conviction. Photo: AP

Irrespective of where the blame for atrocities like Mỹ Lai should lie – be it with the grunts, with their “centurions” or with their high-ranking overseers – the Vietnam war, we now know, ultimately became a lost cause. And perhaps it already was a lost cause, even before the soldiers of Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment began the initial sweep into the My Lai hamlet cluster.

Increasingly, as we have seen more recently in Iraq and Afghanistan, savage “wars among the people” are simply not viable. As “forever wars” like Vietnam drag on, infantrymen will fatigue, the “Other” will be dehumanised and the lines between enemy and civilian will be blurred by a miasma of relentless combat. Maybe under these circumstances, incidents like My Lai are inevitable – a sobering realisation.

Ultimately then, perhaps final responsibility for the events of March 16, 1968 lies with the American public for allowing the unwinnable war in Vietnam to carry on as long as it did.

The Lost Generations

Physicists suspect that the universe is expanding – that the space, time and matter that constitutes our everything is spreading out as part of an ever-growing cosmos. One day, they theorize, that process of expansion will come to a stop – finito! – and everything thereafter will begin to contract, collapsing down into the ultimate form – the dimensionless singularity – as it was at the time of the Big Bang. Then and there, some believe, the cosmological film-reel will play over.

Such as it is, history appears cyclical, not linear. The universe expands, contracts then expands again. History doesn’t merely tend to repeat itself – it must repeat itself. This is the story of everything.

While the physicists have the hard data to prove it, the minds behind the world’s great religions suspected as much too. After all, this recurring cyclical trope re-appears with the emphasis on the prefix “re-“ in most human belief systems. “Reincarnation”, “resurrection”, “rebirth” – even in words like “repentance”. As in, to return in penitence to see things as they truly are. The return to the source. Faith, like the universe, works in cycles too. It comes and it goes.

When a friend goes missing, people hope. When a death occurs, people pray. History repeats itself.

Likewise, it also follows that our own lives are not merely timelines – as if we were progressing through the pages of a book – but rather a part of one great oscillation – the slow building up of fetal matter into separate bodies of selves and the slow degradation of those same selves into their separate constituent parts. This act of molecular separation is “the end” – the thing called “death” – with which we are all familiar.

But just as one person’s universe collapses into nothingness, a new universe will be born again somewhere – beginning anew the process of expansion and contraction.

Death is inevitable, we know. But so, in all likelihood, is life – a truth made self-evident by the facts of our repeating universe.

A man who falls from a mountaintop, and plummets to his forever into the bowels of a crevasse, will one day be ground up and ejected at the glacial terminus. His tissues and ribcage powdered, his heart and brain broken down into the molecules which comprised him. The atoms that once constituted the body will be washed downstream in alluvial deposits and one day those waters will be consumed by a high-altitude farmer who, in turn, will beget a descendant. One life into the next. The particles reconstituted, the stories recycled. Some might call this “reincarnation”. I simply call it “repetition” – the cyclical order of things.

When Marc-Andre Leclerc, just twenty-four years old and one of the most accomplished alpinists that North America has ever seen, went missing last week on a mountain in Alaska’s Medenhall Towers, he fulfilled his part of a covenant which dictates that every member of his generation will die.

His partner too – Ryan Johnson, a thirty-four year-old Juneau native – fulfilled the same pact – the theorem of inevitable contraction. In so doing, they also proved another sad fact – another seemingly inevitable occurrence throughout history – that the boldest and best of every new generation will be the first to perish.

In recent months and years, many of their peers have joined them. Hayden Kennedy, Inge Parkin, Kyle Dempster, Scott Adamson, Justin Griffin, Ueli Steck – and others too who ventured into high places to meet an early end.

They were the trail-blazers, “earth-shifters”, record-breakers, explorers of the possible when possibilities were thought already established.

Solo ascents of the Emperor Face of Mt Robson and the West Face of Tahu Rutum; mind-boggling ascents of The Ogre, The Eiger, the high peaks of Annapurna. Even an ascent of the hardest single pitch crack-line at Bear’s Ears-Indian Creek – as notable for its pure difficulty as any listed heretofore. These were paradigm-shifting climbs which defined a generation – a series of historical high-points now contracted into a single singularity by the common deaths of their authors.

Alpinism is no different to any other dangerous pursuit. The great tragic historical cycle – the inevitable loss of the best and brightest – will continue on as ever, as happened with Kukuzcka and Loretan, Boardman and Boukreev, Piotrowski and Sveticic.

It happened too with the Lost Generation – those who came of age, who had their baptism of fire, on the killing fields of World War One.

“You are all a génération perdue,” as Hemingway had it put to him. “That is what you are. That’s what you all are.”

Many of Shackleton’s crew survived the ordeals of the Endurance only to later die a chlorine gas-filled death in the trenches. Wilfred Owen died one week before the Armistice was signed.

Dulce et decorum est.

Perhaps even worse, where some young braves survived the Somme and other horrors – as George Mallory did – they took their struggles to the Greater Ranges, recuperating their losses with a death on a high peak, one atmospheric layer closer to heaven. The deadly, mad dash to make sense of it all – eyes wide open, at last, in hypoxic lethargy.

And now, with the names of these latest young dead piling up, the only logical conclusion is that my generation too is doomed – as Hemingway’s was, as Owen’s was. The best of us – the Marc-Andres of Agassiz and the George “Ryan”s of Juneau will be the first to go. Already, it seems, it is written in the cycles of history.

Some, especially outsiders looking in on the world of alpinism, might be wont to condemn wholesale the act of self-extinguishment that is dying on a mountain. The whole thing is abhorrent, they’ll say – an act of incalculable selfishness that disrespects the burden placed upon those who remain.

“How dare a young man so talented, so promising, throw his life away like that?”

“How dare he indeed?!”

In part, it’s true. Our obsession carries a cost. The extra food, the jet fuel, the broken equipment in dustbins, the torn synthetic down jackets in landfills. The flowing tears of the left-behind. These are real-world costs. Familial, environmental – sometimes even political.

As The Globe & Mail’s Doug Saunders, in decrying what he calls the “empty egotism” of our pursuit, writes of Mallory’s decision to climb: “when Mallory made his fateful 1924 attempt on Everest, he not only abandoned his wife, children and academic career to seek some affirmation for his shell-shocked soul, and endangered many Sherpas, but (as Wade Davis brilliantly chronicles in Into the Silence) he also did enormous political damage: outrage over the climb divided Tibetan politics, creating a lasting crisis that weakened the country enough for China to seize control. Indulging one’s obsessions carries a steep price.”

Even within our own community – the tightly-knit coven of international climbers – many among us, upon critical reflection, have found our actions wanting.

As big-wall climber Andy Kirkpatrick writes in his The Normality of Tragedy”, surely the best essay he has ever written:

Is this the story of our age… [The story] of our narcissism and desire to gobble up the pig of life, that life does not matter in the end, that we are at war with nature and there will be casualties?… Bodies and relationships wrecked in pursuit of something of no value at all… a line on a mountain.”

They died doing what they loved yes, but dying wasn’t part of the plan.

This was the game they played. “Climb the mountain, come back alive”. No mention of a death wish in there.

The dilemma for us then – the surviving members of this the latest Lost Generation – is what to do with this information. We know that death in the mountains has happened before and we know that it will happen again. Do we find something else to do – “pull out the needle and walk away”, “take the bins out” as Kirkpatrick suggests?

The weaning process seems unlikely. The mountains are just too goddamned inspiring. The only remaining avenue then is acceptance. To accept the universe for what it is – a series of ends and beginnings, an ever-expanding-then-contracting cycle. We grieve for our friends but we also grieve for ourselves because we know we’ll eventually join them – if not in a bergschrund’s hallowed halls than in a hessian-lined hospice room.

And yet, all the same, the atoms which comprise our bodies will also somewhere, somehow be reconstituted. Into soil. Into glacial run-off. Into grass or goat’s milk. Into something else. Something living and breathing perhaps.

When our kin die, our universe collapses and the sheer shock of it sees our emotions contracted into hopeless singularities. But history is not linear and this same old story isn’t new. Find me a serious mountaineer who has not lost a friend in the mountains. Find me a family tree that has never grieved for the falling of a fruit. None of us are alone in this  – in this, the eternal cycle of history.

Perhaps that knowledge then – the knowledge that the end isn’t really the end, that history repeats itself, and that life like the universe is a great big cycle – provides just enough hope for us to come up for breath in this hypoxic air.

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The Mendenhall Glacier