It was a slow trip up the mountain, made ever so by the never-ending rains that has turned whatever it was the locals had once termed a ‘road’ into a ten-mile long quagmire that had our convoy slipping and sliding and flicking mud into the dense forest that threatened to ensnare us.
It was hot, cramped and crowded in the back of the vehicles, but this wasn’t anything new. We’d been deployed here from Australia’s northern end during a time of the year when the temperature rarely dropped below 30. So, we sat in silence, as trained, our eyes scanning our arks. Left and right. Left and right.
Shots came from the trees to the left of our convoy, so the vehicles skidded to a halt. We were all out and face in the dirt in seconds. In retrospect, it still astounds me how six men, crammed into the back bench seats of a Land Rover, laden with rifles, webbing, Kevlar vests and helmets, switched so swiftly from suffering in stoic silence to a state of tactical readiness with faces in the mud and fingers on the trigger.
It’s borderline psychopathy, but that’s what the system had made us.
Two contingents of men pushed forward as the rest of us held the ground. Seems like what we’d all been waiting – what we’d been sent here for – had finally arrived. We’d been deployed to Bougainville on Operation Lagoon, part of the multinational South Pacific Peace Keeping Force (SPPKF) to provide protection for peace talks between ‘the good guys’ and ‘the bad guys’.
The bad guys, the Bougainville Republican Army, had recently massacred a group of the good guys, Papua New Guinean troops, at a high risk location. We were on our way to this location when we came under fire. Shots continued to ring out in the trees ahead of us as we lay there waiting for orders. No one moved. No one spoke. We simply waited.
Minutes later, the firing stopped and we received the all clear, so we remounted the vehicles and set off up the mountain to the spot where the ill-fated PNG troops had died just days before. When we made it to the top of the mountain I set to work on the task at hand. One of a handful of combat engineers in the peace keeping force, I’d been tasked with getting the water running again to Arawa, the village below us where the peace talks would be held in a matter of days.
Three teams of men formed a perimeter around the dam so I could get to work. I was immediately surprised to learn that the half decade of training in field engineering I’d had, and the boxes of all manner of tools that I’d brought with me, were of little use. The job required little more than me diving into the center of the dam to remove rocks and debris that blocked the dams’ outlet. It seems this is how the bad guys had lured the PNG soldiers up the mountain to be ambushed. That thought didn’t sit well.
Hours later, we set off back down the mountain, job done, water flow restored. We spent the next few days rotating on armed patrols that kept the towns’ perimeter safe, but before they even began, the peace talks failed. So we packed up camp, took down the improvised field defenses and traveled by landing craft back to the Tobruk that rested at anchor safely offshore.
We traveled back to Australia feeling like an opportunity had been missed. We’d patrolled the defensive perimeter around Arawa with weapons loaded and cocked, a round in the chamber, safety catch on, finger by the trigger, ready for whatever came next. Yet, like so many soldiers who’d trained for the worst, nothing happened.
So we traveled home wondering.
Over the seemingly endless hours in transit home we were left to our own devices to wonder: if harm’s way had found us, how would we have responded? Would we have done the job we’d been trained to do? I will never know. But this question has plagued me for years. If placed in an intractable situation where it was them or me, would I have what it took to take another human life?
It took me years to realise that this was the wrong question to be asking.
The question I should have asked if I’d ever found myself in a life or death situation, was ‘did I have a good reason to kill?’