In the lead-up to the centenary of Gallipoli in 2015 the military drums are growing louder. We are expected to cheer it all. In the process we will be encouraged to engage in a lot of mindless myths. Amnesia will also play a large part.
In an interview published in the SMH on October 5 this year, Brendan Nelson, the Director of the Australian War Memorial, former Minister for Defence and Parliamentary Leader of the Liberal Party, said: ‘The soul of the nation is embedded in many ways in the [Australian War] memorial’. Is it? I certainly hope not. He then added ‘the more obscene the war, the more inexplicable for us it seems today, the more many [young people] admire these men and women who went in our name.’ What an extraordinary thing to say! In short, he is saying that the more ‘inexplicable’ or dubious the war, the more young people admire the values of those that served in those wars.
Inexplicable or dubious wars must surely include our involvement in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. What is the SAS really doing in Afghanistan, in our name? Even the worst of wars like these seem to be an opportunity to burnish the Gallipoli and Anzac legend. In this interview with Brendan Nelson, the correspondent Mark Dapin commented that the kind of ‘rhetoric that you hear today [from Brendan Nelson] lay dormant for decades after the Vietnam War. So there has been a recent militarisation – or a re-militarisation – of the Australian imagination.’
This growing surge of militarism was triggered by the campaigns of the Hawke and Keating Governments to revive Anzac Day with highly publicised visits and commemorations of the Anzacs at the battle and grave sites in Turkey and France. Interestingly, this campaign to revive Anzac Day did not highlight Australian sacrifices in the Pacific where we live.
This surge of interest in Anzac has continued. John Howard was proud to note that Anzac Day had been successfully revived.
In the lead-up to the Centenary of Gallipoli there will be extensive media campaigns and programs in schools. The PR machines in Departments of Defence, Veterans Affairs and the War Memorial will pull out all the stops. Prime Minister Tony Abbott has appointed himself as the Minister for the Gallipoli Centenary. Michael Ronaldson will be the Minister Assisting for the Centennial.
To help promote the Centenary, the Australian War Memorial will be exempted from reducing costs by providing an “efficiency dividend” like all other Commonwealth departments and agencies.
Tony Abbott has committed Australia to raise its defence expenditure to 2% of GDP. This can only be directed at deterring China. How absurd it is to suggest that Australia could build a military capacity to deter China. As Mike Scrafton has commented, this is ‘naïve militarism at its worst’.
World War II was the most critical this century for our future, even survival. But it remains quite secondary to the myth-making about World War I and our service to Britain.
In World Wars I and II, the fallen were invariably buried overseas and the family notified by telegram or letter from the Minister for Defence. Now the bodies are returned to Australia and their valour acknowledged in a funeral, usually attended by both the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition. One deceased serviceman who accidentally shot himself in Iraq was buried in his home town in Gippsland with full military honours, a three volley gun salute and even a fly past. The Prime Minister and Minister for Defence attended.
In all this honouring of the valour of service people, we refuse to acknowledge that successive Australian governments have involved us in “inexplicable” and dubious wars. To cover our moral and political failure, we hide behind the valour of our service people. Who was it who said “the sacrifice of brave men does not justify the pursuit of an unjust cause” This hiding behind the valour of others is also a device to hide our slavish adherence to the United States with its militarism both at home and abroad which President Eisenhower warned about over sixty years ago
In my blog of September 19 ‘Frontier War and asylum seekers’, I pointed out that the most reliable estimates show that over 30,000 indigenous people were killed in this country by police and settlers from the late 18th Century to the early 20th Century. The killings occurred in small and isolated skirmishes over a long period. It was an epic war for control of a great land mass. In proportion to our population more people died in this war than any in our history.Many more died of disease and a broken heart. We ignore it like the Turks refuse to acknowledge the Armenian genocide. We have memorials all over our land for those that fought against the Turks and Germans in World War I, but not any monuments for the 30,000 indigenous people who died trying to stop the occupation of their land. The Australian War Memorial ignores the Frontier War completely.
In my blog of April 22 this year, I highlighted that Australia and New Zealand did not first fight together at Gallipoli in 1915. As the State Library of South Australia records ‘between 1845 and 1872, just over 2,500 Australian volunteers saw service in New Zealand. … It took many steps including a local militia and troops rushed in from Australia … to conclude the first Maori war .. In 1860, the grab for land sparked further conflict between Whites and the Maoris … again the Australian colonies were asked for urgent assistance. The colonies rallied and sent troops. The colony of Victoria even sent its entire navy which comprised the steam corvette HMVS Victoria. NSW also sent gunships to support the troops.’ There was no mention of these events as we celebrated the Centenary of the Australian Navy this month. What convenient memories we often have.
As we listen to the gathering drum beats that lead us to the Centenary of Gallipoli, we should be careful not to be swept away by militarism and patriotism. We have much to be proud of in our history. We also need to be honest with ourselves.
As Professor Henry Reynolds put it, we are encouraged to intone ‘lest we forget’ in memory of the fallen For many of our wars the public mood is ‘best we forget’. .like the Frontier War and the Maori Wars.