Fiddling While It Burns

Tenth casualty awakens the media narrative | 22/03/2009


Sergeant Brett Till, killed in Afghanistan. Photo: Department of Defence.

As I noted when I posted about the death of the ninth Australian soldier in Afghanistan, since named as Corporal Mathew Hopkins of 7 RAR, to this point the news media have had difficulty forming a narrative around the Australian involvement in Afghanistan. The massive failures of vigilance and intestinal fortitude in the leadup to and early days of the Iraq War still haunts the way Afghanistan is reported, and the urge is to portray Afghanistan as Iraq, a slow grind of mounting casualties and civilian deaths in a faraway nation where we should never have been in the first place.

It’s in that context that we must see the death of Sergeant Brett Till of the Incident Response Regiment. Suddenly the anaemic narrative seems a lot more substantial. The Australian reported the tragedy as the “second Australian fatality in four days”, and gave almost as much depth on the death of Corporal Hopkins as on Sergeant Till, while including a link to a slightly tacky graphic giving dates and locations for all Australian deaths in Afghanistan. It seems News Ltd are letting the difficulty in finding the narrative in Afghanistan get the better of them, since the Daily Telegraph also included a slightly poor-taste touch, a poll to vote on whether Australia should immediately withdraw from Afghanistan.

The ABC reported the story as Australia’s horrific week, and in the follow-up story revealing Sergeant Till’s identity, almost seemed to deliberately rebuke the Telegraph‘s little poll with the dignified words of Sergeant Till’s wife:

“He was not a hateful, spiteful or revengeful man. He was good, humble and honourable with unequivocal, uncomplicated intentions,” she said.

She asked that his death not be used for political agendas or arguments about Australia’s Defence Force.

“Use it as a chance to meet a man, to praise a man who is perfect in so many ways. Who has left me a gift which I will treasure, forever and ever,” she said.

“If people wish to respect the memory of this great man… this brilliant father, this compassionate son, this reliable mate, this wonderful loving husband… then do good things. “

The Telegraph seem to have taken this to heart, since as I write the poll link no longer works.

Worth noting is the strong emphasis placed on both men’s young families. The additional drama of a bereaved family helps in attracting the interest of a public who sometimes have difficulty sympathising with the trained killers who defend them. A strong emphasis on the fact that Sergeant Till died while protecting his mates also runs throughout the coverage, with Chief of Defence Force Angus Houston quoted as saying Till “lost his life trying to make the environment safe for his mates and local Afghans by neutralising the threat the device posed.” It is unclear whether this is to be taken as more or less heroic than those soldiers like Jason Marks or Luke Worsley who died in direct combat action against the Taliban.

The most salient point from all this coverage is the feeling of just how tenuous the support for the Afghanistan deployment is in Australian society. Certainly members of Defence are  nervous about the Government’s ability to stay behind this operation they view as very important, and it is far from clear what the fate of the mission would be in the politically damaging event of a mass casualty such as that suffered by the French in August last year. The irony is that France, whose name has become a byword for irresolute cowardice in right-wing discourse, has remained unwavering after such a tragic blow, while questions are raised in Australia over as many deaths over seven years.

On a final note, this story shows how a tenuous connection to an ongoing narrative can get an event national coverage when it would normally barely make the national papers.

Two Australian soldiers have died since Monday, serving in Afghanistan.

A third died on Thursday evening in a head-on crash on Darwin’s Amy Johnson Drive at Hidden Valley.

High-speed crashes, sadly, are a relatively common cause of death for Australian soldiers. Without making any specific comment on this case, youth, testosterone, alcohol (ab)use and thrillseeking bahaviour are common in the militaries of all nations. Coming in this particular week, however, this soldier’s death becomes national news.


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