The Frontier Wars were the most destructive and decisive in our history. The first war we fought alongside ‘New Zealanders’ was not at Gallipoli in 1915 but in the Maori Wars in the middle of the nineteenth century. Yet both wars are ignored by the Australian War Memorial. The AWM promotes myths about the wars it chooses to remember, the imperial wars.
The growing surge of militarism on many Australian fronts today 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 were extensive media campaigns and programs in schools. The PR machines in Departments of Defence, Veterans Affairs and the War Memorial pulled out all the stops. Prime Minister Tony Abbott appointed himself as the Minister for the Gallipoli Centenary. He was keen to strengthen the British link. After all the Australian IMPERIAL Force fought for Britain not Australia.
To help promote the Centenary, the Australian War Memorial was exempted from reducing costs by providing an “efficiency dividend” like all other Commonwealth departments and agencies.
Tony Abbott 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’. But as with so much we do in ‘defence’ it was to please the Americans.
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.
We applaud indigenous soldiers who fought for the British Empire but refuse those indigenous heroes who were killed defending their kith and kin and defending their land.
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. We talk on and on about how our military bravely fought but refuse to ask the critical question of WHY we fought.
Almost all our wars have been and continue to be in service of our imperial masters, first Britain and now America. Few wars were in our national interest and most ended in disaster.
To cover our moral and political failure, we hide behind the valour of our service people. “The sacrifice of brave men does not justify the pursuit of an unjust cause” This hiding behind the valour of others today is a device to hide our slavish adherence to the United States with its militarism and continual violence both at home and abroad . War is in the American DNA.
I have pointed out that the most reliable estimates show that up to 50,000 indigenous people were killed in this country by police,troopers and settlers from the late 18th Century to the early 20th Century. The killings occurred in small and isolated skirmishes over a long period and all across Australia. 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 few monuments for the indigenous people who died trying to stop the occupation of their land. The Australian War Memorial ignores the Frontier Wars completely.
I have also 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 is no mention of these events as we celebrate one war after another usually at the bequest of either the British or Americans. What convenient memories we have!
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 Wars and the Maori Wars.