The Victoria Cross was introduced during the Crimean War and remains today the highest military decoration in the Commonwealth. It is for conspicuous bravery "in the presence of the enemy", and only 1,357 have been awarded since 1856. The first two Australians to be honoured were Lieutenant Guy Wylly and Trooper John Bisbee of the Tasmanian Imperial Bushmen who were presented with the VC by King Edward VII in July 1901 for action under enemy fire in the Boer War.
Last week, Australia saluted its 100th Victoria Cross recipient, posthumously. The Governor General, Quentin Bryce, presented the VC to the parents of Corporal Cameron Baird, who last June laid down his life for his brothers-in-arms in the Afghan village of Ghawchak. The citation reads:
Soon afterwards, an adjacent Special Operations Task Group team came under heavy enemy fire, resulting in its commander being seriously wounded. Without hesitation, Corporal Baird led his team to provide support. En route, he and his team were engaged by rifle and machine gun fire from prepared enemy positions. With complete disregard for his own safety, Corporal Baird charged towards the enemy positions, supported by his team. On nearing the positions, he and his team were engaged by additional enemy on their flank. Instinctively, Corporal Baird neutralised the new threat with grenades and rifle fire, enabling his team to close with the prepared position. With the prepared position now isolated, Corporal Baird manoeuvred and was engaged by enemy machine gun fire, the bullets striking the ground around him. Displaying great valour, he drew the fire, moved to cover, and suppressed the enemy machine gun position. This action enabled his team to close on the entrance to the prepared position, thus regaining the initiative.
On three separate occasions Corporal Baird charged an enemy-held building within the prepared compound. On the first occasion he charged the door to the building, followed by another team member. Despite being totally exposed and immediately engaged by enemy fire, Corporal Baird pushed forward while firing into the building. Now in the closest proximity to the enemy, he was forced to withdraw when his rifle ceased to function. On rectifying his rifle stoppage, and reallocating remaining ammunition within his team, Corporal Baird again advanced towards the door of the building, once more under heavy fire. He engaged the enemy through the door but was unable to suppress the position and took cover to reload. For a third time, Corporal Baird selflessly drew enemy fire away from his team and assaulted the doorway. Enemy fire was seen to strike the ground and compound walls around Corporal Baird, before visibility was obscured by dust and smoke. In this third attempt, the enemy was neutralised and the advantage was regained, but Corporal Baird was killed in the effort.
Reading tales of heroism in the unforgiving sod of the Hindu Kush, I am always amazed the western world is still capable of producing such men. The road from Sydney to Canberra is Australia's "Remembrance Driveway", begun in 1954 with the planting of two plane trees at each end by the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh. A few years ago, the decision was taken to name the rest areas along the route for posthumous Victoria Cross recipients from the Second World War and Vietnam. The first time I traveled the highway I wasn't sure how I felt about it - the "Frank Partridge VC Rest Area" and the "Edward Kenna VC Rest Area". It seemed too ordinary a way to honour such rare men. But on reflection it's a reminder that men like Corporal Baird are not superheroes, a race apart, but our neighbours - from the same clay as those of us who are butchers, bakers, bookkeepers, software designers. And then, in one bright vivid moment, they found themselves called to do something extraordinary, and they rose to the challenge. In the years ahead, I would imagine that Cameron Baird's name will take its place on that highway, and he will be in the best company.
There is no good news out of Afghanistan these days - over the weekend, the Taliban killed 21 Afghan soldiers, many in their sleep. But the actions of a Cameron Baird remind you of what might have been had his boldness been matched by the political leadership responsible for what passes for "war aims" in this conflict.