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Australia's humanitarian peacekeepers

Launch by Professor the Hon Gareth Evans AC QC of Steven Bullard, In Their Time of Need: Australia’s Overseas Emergency Relief Operations 1918-2006, Vol VI, Official History of Australian Peacekeeping, Humanitarian and Post-Cold War Operations, (Cambridge UP, 2017), Australian War Memorial, Canberra, 9 August 2017

This is an admirably comprehensive and lucidly written work of history, reference and tribute, in the finest tradition of all the War Memorial’s official histories, and taking its place proudly as Volume VI of the Official History of Australian Peacekeeping, Humanitarian and Post-Cold War Operations.

It focuses wholly on humanitarian relief operations not related to conflict – the offshore emergency relief operations which began with a medical response to the impact of Spanish flu in the South Pacific in 1918, were followed by responses to volcano eruptions in Papua New Guinea in 1937 and 1951, but only really took off on any regular basis after 1960, with dozens of significant interventions around the Pacific and South East Asia, and occasionally further afield, since then.

In doing so, the book gives overdue recognition to a hitherto insufficiently-noticed and very much under-appreciated dimension of the role of Australian Defence Force personnel and the civilians who sometimes accompanied them.

It is as comprehensive a work as one could possibly wish for:

Comprehensive in its description of the policy background and framework within which relief has been delivered, both internationally – mainly through the United Nations – and domestically, as those contexts have evolved over the years.

Comprehensive in its meticulous description of each relief operation – the initiating event; the planning of the response; the detailed way in which the response was delivered, with all the hazards and hardships encountered along the way; the way each withdrawal was managed, which often involved navigating a whole new set of local sensitivities; and the overall impact of the operation.

And comprehensive also in capturing superbly not just the letter but the spirit and flavor of these operations: how they impacted not only physically but emotionally on the individuals involved. No one could remain unmoved reading how the death of nine ADF personnel in the crash of the Navy Sea King helicopter Shark Zero Two in the Nias Island operation in 2005 – beautifully commemorated in the book’s cover painting – affected so profoundly everyone involved.

While these have been the only such fatalities in the long history of Australian humanitarian relief operations, conditions experienced by the emergency teams were sometimes almost indescribably grueling and harrowing, as one immediately appreciates reading Steven Bullard’s incredibly graphic and moving Prologue, describing the aftermath of the Banda Aceh tsunami in 2004. Some extracts:

The morning triage round was often the hardest…Here lies a young woman, her breathing laboring through lungs filled with contaminated water and pus, a vacant stare and the foul odour of infected flesh betraying her slim prospects for survival. Nearby on a makeshift stretcher a man grimaces in pain, his body taut and rigid with tetanus. Further on a young boy barely clings to life, his gasps for air increasingly shallow as his body succumbs to aspiration pneumonia, the result of breathing in water contaminated with sewage, filth and dead bodies … his prognosis was poor – he would die within the hour.

…The operating room was cramped and hot, with hordes of flies attracted to the pile of rotting flesh cut from limbs and the pools of blood on the floor. Rows of body bags and medical waste thrown into the courtyard were visible through the open doorway, a constant reminder, if one was necessary of the primitive conditions at the hospital…Layers of plastic sheeting were draped over the two operating tables in the room to keep them free of bodily fluids, and were then used to scoop up patients and their mess after surgery ready for the next case.

As Steven records, and I’ll quote him again in full because this passage tells us so much about these operations:

For survivors of the 2004 tsunami, their lives would never be the same. So it was for those who left their comfortable lives in Australia to help. Many would suffer for their generosity of spirit with signs of post-traumatic stress disorder, manifest in changes of behavior, attitudes and relations with family, friends and colleagues. Although the experience of the [Aceh surgical team] was perhaps at the one end of the scale of horror faced by Australians who contributed to disaster responses overseas, they are representative of an attitude that manifest throughout this book, from the first operation in the South Pacific down to the present.

It is an attitude summed up by David Scott, one of the [Aceh] anaesthetists. In answering the question posed by an Indonesian patient, ‘Why are you here’, Scott replied it was because ‘we are neighbours, and neighbours help each other’.

One of the themes running through all the narratives, which makes one pretty proud to be an Australian, is just how often, in how many different environments, the Australian relief teams distinguished themselves from so many others – and were so often recognized for doing so – for just plunging in, rolling up their sleeves and getting on with the job, however demanding, difficult, dirty or outright disgusting, if that job cried out to be done. Cutting through in the process whatever bureaucratic or procedural obstacles that were piled in the way. And doing so in a way that endeared them, if not always to the officials, certainly to the locals they were there to help.

This is consistent with my own observations, as Foreign Minister and then later as head of the International Crisis Group, not so much of disaster relief operations but peacekeeping operations in which Australians have been involved. One of the things that has constantly delighted me is the extent to which, as I have moved around, I have found that Australian peacekeepers are the toast of just about every local community in which they have ever served, and win us the plaudits of professionals around the world. There just does seem to be something instinctively egalitarian about Australians, whatever their background, education or life experience. There is an absolute willingness to take others as they find them, neither sucking up nor kicking down, responding to the way others behave, not the way they look, or dress or talk, and whatever their station in life. Of course there will always be exceptions, but this culture does seem to overwhelmingly prevail when Australians are serving in community situations abroad, and it makes me for one feel very proud.

One of the things I found interesting in the book was how often those responsible for mounting these operations nevertheless seemed to struggle to find a policy rationale for them. Clearly not everyone in high Defence places has always been persuaded that disaster relief is a mainstream ADF role. Providing a real-world training opportunity maybe. But defence and foreign affairs policymakers have often strained to find a hard security rationale, particularly for expensive operations conducted in areas far away from perceived defence priority zones, where no obvious threat to traditional Australian interests was involved.

My own answer to this problem has always been that virtue is not only its own reward, but brings other national rewards. Acting to respond to the crying needs of our fellow human beings, like the pursuit of other global goods that may not involve any immediately visible or direct security or economic return, is itself in the national interest. We should think of our national interests as involving not just the familiar and traditional duo of physical security and economic prosperity, but as having a third dimension – our national interest in being, and being seen to be, a good international citizen.

The clincher for me is that good international citizenship doesn’t just mean boy -scout good deeds, behaving selflessly because that’s the morally right thing to do. In my experience, it also has a hard-headed practical dimension – behaving like a good international citizen reaps real rewards in the diplomatic marketplace, partly because of the reciprocal support it tends to generate for our issues from those we help with theirs, but also because of the real reputational rewards that are then there to be cashed in. Think of those squeaky clean Swedes, who just happen to be one of the world’s biggest arms suppliers, because nobody anywhere has any hesitation in dealing with them…

There’s no doubt that, as low profile as many of these operations have been to many Australians – something that this excellent book will now help to remedy – they have added immensely to our national reputation for generosity and decency, and we should all be very proud of, and grateful to, those who have contributed to them, not least those who contributed, tragically, their own lives.

I offer my warmest congratulations to the author Steven Bullard for his obviously heroic labours – this is a very big book, involving an immense amount of research; to the series editor, David Horner, for his fine orchestration of the whole enterprise; and to Cambridge University Press and the Australian War Memorial for their joint publication of this impeccably produced final product, which I am happy to now declare duly launched.