The book excerpts and some of the interviews have given a very depressed impression of the General, but he was a lively and entertaining speaker (he should do well on the US speaking circuit). The talk got more serious as he talked about his experience in the first gulf war, when attached to US forces.
The technique used by the US 1st Infantry Division
for the Iraqi breakthrough
was to use tanks equipped dozer blades to fill in trenches, burying the enemy troops in them alive. This is a valid and lawful military tactic, but appears to have affected the General deeply. He made the point that as well as being a soldier he is a person and the experience of war takes a toll.
General Cantwell traces his "demons" to this experience and points out that any normal person would naturally be effected. Returning to Australia, the General was one of few in the ADF who had experienced combat. There was little sympathy or understanding of behaviour such as jumping at noises.
I have some understanding for this, after the Canberra 2003 Bushfires
. On that day I was at the Belconnen Library when a state of emergency was declared and made my way home seeing water bombing helicopter against a sky which looked like one of the lower levels of hell. Some weeks later thinking I was fine, I went to the library but had an attack of sheer panic when the PA was used to announce the normal closing time. this may sound silly, to anyone who has not had the experience.
General Cantwell explained that he went back to Iraq, despite his condition, as he thought he could make amends for the destruction of the first gulf war. Unfortunately this coincided with more sectarian violence. The General was head of operations in a headquarters much of the time, but receiving detailed graphic reports of the causalities. The situation was made worse by the casual attitude to violence by many involved. He also described in graphic detail witnessing the effects of improvised explosive devices on the civilian population. He described the agony of having to make decisions over the allocation of resources which resulted in deaths.
After his Iraq experience the General wanted to command in Afghanistan. A professional soldier, he explained that this is what soldiers live to do. He explained that he thought he could be "tough", bury his demons and do his job. He described how Australian soldiers went out every day, in the face of casualties.
After twenty years General Cantwell was admitted to hospital to be treated for posttraumatic stress disorder
and is still recovering. He explained at question time that those who operate remote pilot-less aircraft (UAVs) and other remote equipment can also be affected by the experience.
One of the privileges, perhaps obligations, of former solders is to point out the cost of war and General Cantwell does that well. However, potential enemies of Australia should not take this as weakness. He does not advocate a rushed withdrawal of Australian forces from Afghanistan and supports those who are ready to step forward to risk wounds, both physical and physiological, to defend their country.
General Cantwell received a standing ovation at the end of his talk, which I have not seen at ANU before.
The one sentence from Exit Wounds that sums up retired Major General John Cantwell as a commander is: “As much as possible I shield the unit commanders in Afghanistan from the deadening touch of defence bureaucrats and political wrangling, but not always successfully”. John has demystified, in my view, one star rank and above. The Australian generals of the 70s and 80s who influenced my early army career, and dare I say John’s, still mostly displayed the British “stiff upper lip” attitude of show no emotion. John has shattered that myth forever. He has also reminded me about the positive aspects of army mate ship and camaraderie, which have been and will be evident for time immemorial. John has provided a fascinating insight into the policy and decision making at senior officer level, and shown that even at his level, an army general on leave is still at the mercy of policies of “the muted defence public affairs machinery.” While every combat death is sad, the saddest incident for me was the one involving the two soldiers who detonated a buried improvised explosive device while doing pushups in their platoon over watch position. As I finished John’s story I was left with a strong wish that his mates from the first gulf war, Steve and Pete, who John said he has not been able to reconnect with, will get to read this moving account of the unique experience they shared together on the battlefield.
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