Exit Wounds of an ex-warrior

Today I had the unexpected honour of going to the launch of Exit Wounds by one of Australia's top commanders, retired Major General John Cantwell, in the auspicious Mess Hall at Duntroon, Canberra.

I was there by invitation of support author, Greg Bearup, and my long time friend, Lisa Upton.

For Cantwell to choose the very heart of Australian Defence Force territory - in the company of the Chief of the ADF - to launch his story confirming his long and tormenting battle with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PSTD) was brave indeed.

He maintains a deep respect for men and women in uniform while being vulnerable about the impact of his time in war zones. He fires important questions about Australia's military adventures with its western friends in the Middle East.

The book, written with surprising poise and detail, is a real eye-opener, a rare glimpse of sleep-deprived life, complex and contradictory, on the front line of the so-called war on terror.

He describes the sheer bloody and senseless loss of life in Iraq, and more infuriating, the bias and apathy of Iraq's politicians who allowed their prejudices to fuel retaliatory sectarian violence across Baghdad and beyond.

Why was Australia a member of the Coalition when the Iraqi leadership it liaised with did not lead with the best interests of all Iraq's people in mind? But then having spent as much money on the war effort as Australia has, why has the Government not extended that into meaningful cultural and material trade opportunities since?

The book launch itself did not focus on geopolitics and issues of national interest, but instead on the unseen wounds of war inflicted ‘by stealth’. Exit Wounds is compulsory text for any military cadet and serving soldier. It's also fodder for a speedy departure from a region where it seems locals would not even know or care to know was being protected by Australians, some of whom shed blood for them. The human cost described – physical and mental - is beyond measure. Whatever incremental improvements the decade plus-long war there has brought, you have to wonder if the pain to realise those changes justifies the cost.

Cantwell describes the persistent nightmares that began after his first combat battle in the Iraq desert in 1991. He saw a lone hand reaching out of the sand belonging to an Iraqi man buried alive. Hundreds of soldiers were buried dead and alive in the dark of night during Operation Desert Storm as the Coalition bulldozed enemy trenches. Cantwell carried that stark image and others to come in his mind for decades. The freeze frames ushered intense feelings of remorse, rage and shame. But he would have to be a machine not to be deeply affected. That his humanity (and impatience) grew, rather than shrivel up is truly something.

Cantwell was again in Iraq for another brutal episode post 9/11 (after pleading, inexplicably, with his superiors to return there) and then in Afghanistan, with its beauty as rough as its politics, in 2010-11 for part of what many describe as mission creep. There is some hope when he travels to Baghdad in that time, cautiously buoyed by visible improvements in the city since the first Gulf War. The Americans come across as hard-ball, playing cowboys and Indians whereas the British show a more genteel disposition and philosophy.

As commander of Australian forces in Afghanistan, an ambitious Cantwell paints an interesting picture of the frustrating mechanics between Canberra and the battle zone. He would prepare detailed briefings for his bosses at home, only to find important stories and messages remained invisible to the Australian media. Why? Largely due to the “draconian control of information” by the Department of Defence Public Affairs Office and the Defence Minister's office.

Afghanistan was a war he concludes, not worth fighting for. While touched by the hospitality extended by many ordinary Afghans,there is also among their same villages, compassion and passion fatigue. Cantwell is not impressed by the lethargy of war-weary Afghanistan National Army soldiers (most, only given a veneer of training). But why would they be anything but reluctant and poorly disciplined when they themselves probably live with undiagnosed PTSD and had no real say in the design and implementation of this life-threatening project aimed at defending their country against a Taliban insurgency. It is a project with no obvious end and one that Australia is trying to exit from, one hopes, with some dignity.

Cantwell's book is also a love story that translates well, especially for defence families. While waiting for my copy to be signed (on a gorgeous spring day in the Capitol, the blossoms out, far removed from the stench and fear of war zones) I yarned with the wife of another officer suffering from PTSD. He’d had for many years she said. She bought several copies, including one for her husband's psychiatrist and for their two kids, such was the nature of this significant and untold story (When her husband is having a bad spell, she tells the kids ‘Dad is having an Afghanistan moment’).

She said she devoured the chapters written by John Cantwell’s wife, Jane, about enduring and supporting a husband suffering PTSD. Jane's account made her feel less lonely. Mrs Cantwell had written her life too into the Australian literary landscape for the first time. She cried there in the queue. Her tears were hot, sad and a full of relief but her resigned eyes said 'come what may'.

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