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Trigger warning: injury, death, trauma

“Something very bad happened to your father, and it was wrong. I want you to understand that this never sat well with me, and I was very disturbed and troubled by what happened. I am very sorry for what happened to your father, and I wish I could have done more. You shouldn’t have lost your father that day. And I am so sorry that happened.” 

Dusty Miller, “Soldier’s Heartbreaking Journey for Forgiveness After Horror in Afghanistan”

On March 14th, 2012, Dusty Miller, an Australian medic serving in the prestigious Special Air Service Regiment, joined his troop on a helicopter-borne raid into the village of Sarkum, located near the Australian base of Tarin Kowt in Southeastern Afghanistan. Already one month into his rotation, Miller had conducted countless such operations: the force would land several kilometers away from their objective, patrol to the day’s target, conduct their raid, and gather any documents or electronic devices before departing. Only upon returning to the troop’s compound would Miller relax, knowing none of his “boys” or the Afghan civilians they encountered required medical attention.

Mid Caption: The Australian Special Operations Task Group with their Afghan partner force have facilitated a major gathering (shura) of village elders and religious leaders in Chenartu, north-east of Tarin Kowt, as part of their current focus on reaching out to Afghan communities across Oruzgan. During the meeting village leaders and representatives were consulted to gain an understanding from the community of their key needs and ideas for development proposals. With a force including Australian Defence Force (ADF) medics, and USAid representatives (who work closely with AusAID staff in Oruzgan), the Special Operations Task Group explored all opportunities to engage the community.
An Australian Special Operations Task Group soldier invites a local villager to a medical clinic.

That morning’s raid initially followed the same, well-rehearsed pattern, but the situation began to deteriorate when an Afghan farmer and father of seven, Haji Sardar, was wounded in the leg by the Australian force. Miller quickly busied himself with treating the Afghan. Under international humanitarian law, Australian military medical personnel are prohibited from giving any “preferential treatment” to any sick or wounded person and must treat all individuals, regardless of nationality or status, in accordance with medical ethics. As Miller finished treating Haji Sardar and prepared to transfer him to a nearby coalition hospital, however, a senior SASR NCO approached him and took the Afghan away from Miller. When he returned moments later, he simply remarked to Miller that Haji Sardar “didn’t make it”. [1]  

Haji Sardar’s body was found after the Australians had departed, with his son noting the bruises and boot prints that covered his father’s torso. For Miller, the rotation continued, but he never escaped the events of March 14th nor the overwhelming sense of guilt at having failed to protect his patient. Upon retiring in 2018, Miller immediately entered treatment for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and later testified for the Australian Defence Force’s Brereton Report into alleged war crimes in Afghanistan. The need, however, to offer a personal apology to Haji Sardar’s remained the missing link in Miller’s search for peace. And so, a year later and in the midst of a raging global pandemic, Dusty Miller sat in a dark room in suburban Melbourne as Haji Sardar’s two eldest sons, 22-year-old Hazratullah and 34-year-old Abdul, watched him through the computer. The time had come to tell his story. 

Visualising Peace as dialogue, as apology, as forgiveness

What, then, comes to mind when you hear the term “peace”? As the Visualising Peace team learned early in our project, there is no simple answer to this deceptively basic question. From multilateral international institutions such as the United Nations to the picturesque beauty of a natural vista, it is likely that each of us possess entirely different conceptualizations of what peace looks like. My research as part of this project, however, highlighted a common trend in dominant visualisations of peace, particularly in instances following violent conflict: namely, the framing of peace as a tangible end state, achieved through large-scale acts including organized cease-fires, formal treaties, and post-conflict truth commissions aimed at ensuring justice and accountability for victims of violence. This understanding is certainly valid, but I feel that it remains overly committed to the visualisation of peace on a macro level and risks overshadowing the personal experiences and narratives that lay at the heart of reconciliation. 

The effects for Miller of what happened on March 14th 2012 are best described by the term “moral injury”, a phrase coined by psychologist Jonathan Shay to describe the deep pain and anguish felt as a result of committing, or failing to stop, acts that deeply violate one’s moral compass. [2] It is certainly easy to view Miller’s narrative as simply another tragic story of the Afghan War. However, what I find most powerful about it is its ability to capture a deeper notion of conflict and peace: the internal strife that consumed Miller after failing to stop an act that profoundly violated his conception of right and wrong, as well as his subsequent journey towards moral peace, as he tried to come to terms with his actions and sought to offer the truth to the family of Haji Sardar. Miller’s online meeting with Haji Sardar’s family ultimately did little to address the dynamics of the long-running conflict that has done so much damage across Afghanistan. Despite a formal end to the war, following the US withdrawal in August 2021 and the Taliban’s takeover, violence continues, sub-state armed groups still compete for power, civilians remain trapped in the crossfire, and many more are suffering the wider effects of unresolved conflict, manifested especially by a collapsed economy and widespread foot shortages. The meeting between Miller and the sons of Haji Sardar, however, was a powerful step towards establishing a profoundly human peace where acts as seemingly as minuscule as offering an apology or the forgiveness of a family lay the foundations for a lasting reconciliation between victims of conflict. For Sardar’s family, in knowing a little more about the circumstances of his death and having the prospect of some kind of justice, and for Miller in feeling that he has begun to put some things right after a terrible wrong was done, both sides gained a little inner peace. 

What Do You Think?

  • To what extent does the notion of inner or moral peace correspond to your conceptualization(s) of peace? 
  • Can we achieve widespread peace without first feeling at peace with our moral beliefs and behaviours? 
  • Is peace possible without forgiveness? 

If you enjoyed this item in our museum…

You might also like ‘Make me a Channel of your Peace‘, ‘Story #1913‘, ‘Combat Story #28‘ and ‘Padre Steve’s Christmas Journey of Healing‘.

Mathias Katsuya, April 2022


[1] “Soldier’s Heartbreaking Journey for Forgiveness After Horror in Afghanistan”, 60 Minutes Australia, June 28, 2020, documentary video, 9:07, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ztsj5XjZD0Y&t=802s.

[2] Shay, Jonathan, Achilles in Vietnam (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1994): 5.