Former Liberal MP Wyatt Roy has come in for stinging criticism since it was revealed he visited a warzone in Iraq where he became caught up in a firefight between Islamic State (IS) and Kurdish Peshmerga forces. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull described Roy’s travel as “very stupid”. Foreign Minister Julie Bishop labelled it “irresponsible”.
Wyatt Roy seemed to have aspirations to live the life of his namesake, Wyatt Earp, deputy sheriff in the Wild West and one of the good guys in the gunfight at O.K. Corral.
The difference is Wyatt the deputy sheriff had the law behind him. Wyatt Roy took it upon himself to look for a gunfight without a cause.
What was he expecting?
Roy claims he was there to meet Kurdish policymakers and industry leaders. But given they are in the Kurdish capital, Erbil, it must have been quite some navigation mistake that led him hundreds of kilometres off-route to Sinjar near the Syrian border.
For those not familiar with the territory, before the war the fastest way to get from Erbil to Sinjar would have taken you straight through Mosul. So, for Roy to get to Sinjar and then further onto the front lines would have had to have been planned, yet he tries to tell us his experience on the front lines:
… wasn’t exactly what I was expecting when I came to Kurdistan.
What was he expecting?
Sinjar has been critical to both sides of the war. When the Kurds retook Sinjar in November 2015 the IS supply routes connecting Mosul and their de-facto capital, Raqqa, were broken. Today it is a critical staging post for an imminent effort to retake Mosul.
The problem with Roy’s sojourn to Sinjar is it offered nothing that meeting Kurdish military personnel in their bases couldn’t have achieved, other than anecdotes for perhaps another crack at parliament and a few likes on social media.
I spent more than three years in Iraq, including leading the efforts to release the first aid worker kidnapped in the country. I took the risks because I had a reason: we were helping to stabilise Iraq and provide humanitarian assistance to the population. The risk, losing a life, was balanced by the reward – saving many more.
When my staff member was kidnapped it became an international issue. Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat intervened. Iranians meddled. Canadian government ministers postured. And secret service agencies advised us.
Journalists, military personnel, kidnap and ransom advisers and tens of Iraqis risked their lives in an effort to get our man out. Sadly, some have since suffered the repercussions of helping “the Americans”. They risked their lives for a humanitarian who was risking his.
Who would willingly have risked their life for Roy? Few.
But many would have been called upon to do their duty and put their lives on the line if he had been captured. In particular, it would have taken many brave Kurdish Peshmerga forces away from the main game of fighting IS, instead focusing on getting a wandering Westerner out of harm’s way.
Little reason to go
Unlike other conflicts around the world, in the Middle East Western hostages have become trading pieces against foreign intervention. We were hunted as prized catches that could shift an entire nation’s foreign policy. A former MP would have been a very powerful bargaining chip.
Clearly, this consideration didn’t rate in Roy’s calculus of the risks he was taking – nor of the commentators egging him on.
This isn’t to say there aren’t justifiable reasons to be on the front lines. Journalists and aid workers need to take the risks to do their crucial jobs, as recognised by the government’s exemptions from prosecution for travelling to the Mosul district. Private contractors who are tasked with training personnel or rebuilding infrastructure are also found with good reason in these environments.
But former MPs who, by their own admission, are there to “see a mate, get a feel for the environment, and talk to policymakers and industry leaders” have little reason.
If Roy wants to experience the front lines, then my advice to him and others looking for adventure is to join the army, become a humanitarian aid worker or a war correspondent. At least then he’ll have the training, support and purpose to put others’ lives at risk when inevitably the situation turns nasty.
Until then, for anyone – in particular a former assistant minister – taking a trip to the front lines is nothing short of irresponsible.
Authors: Denis Dragovic, Honorary Fellow, University of Melbourne