Imagine yourself standing in a field surrounded by more than 60,000 dead bodies.
These people have been suddenly and violently killed, but you are not sure why. Their limbs, torsos and faces are bloody, distended, twisted, burned and scorched. They are civilians, many of them children.
There are people in Canberra, Washington and London who think they know why they are dead.
Perhaps the setting is imaginary, but those dead are real. You might think this ugly picture is an emotive one. It is intended to be emotive. Those 60,000 are dead, families are grieving, and the war we helped to start is still killing.
I will not deny that I feel an emotional response when confronted with the hellish impact of war. And it can be difficult for us here in Australia to imagine and feel empathy for the 60,000 civilians the US military is confident have died as a result of the invasion of Iraq.
These are the things I had in my mind as I sat in the audience of ABC’s Q&A program on Monday night. I remembered how I felt when former prime minister John Howard launched our country into an aggressive war on a foreign nation. I thought how outrageous it is that only now, nine years after it began, is our involvement in Afghanistan the subject of parliamentary debate.
Political leaders must be held accountable for their actions – this is a neglected yet fundamental part of the democratic system of which we are justifiably proud – but Mr Howard’s election loss does not constitute anything like a full measure of accountability.
Mine is not a lone voice calling for justice for the Middle East, and my expressed opinion that Mr Howard is guilty of war crimes is shared by many. Former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan in 2004 declared the invasion illegal.
My actions on the set of Q&A upset a lot of people. Mr Howard’s actions killed a lot of people. I will remain unapologetic, and it appears he will do the same. I encourage everyone to express their own views on the wars in the Middle East, their views on Mr Howard, and their views on my actions, but I would ask that everyone take a few moments to really try to imagine the reality of war.
It’s something that was drilled into me as a child; maybe others missed it somehow.
The Iraqi journalist who threw his shoes at George W.Bush went to jail for nine months. I am well cognisant of the freedoms that allow me to make my protest, and though I still may be criminally charged for my actions, I don’t expect such a harsh penalty. It is important to remember that these political freedoms were hard-fought for, and that if they go unused they will be taken away.
I had an opportunity to express something that I believe many of the victims of the war would have wished to express themselves, and felt a moral responsibility to do so.
It’s easy for us here in Australia to think of the Iraq war as a bit of an unfortunate mistake, best forgotten. For those left alive in Iraq, the legacy of leaders like Mr Howard will haunt them for whole lifetimes, and for generations to come. Iraq is a country in ruins, and thanks to Mr Howard, we share the blame.
Newcastle peace advocate Peter Gray is a member of Rising Tide. He threw his shoes at John Howard on the ABC’s Q&A program this week.