MICHAEL MULLINS. The politicisation of remembrance

In Australia there is a highly selective regime of remembrance that chooses to exclude the Frontier Wars that killed large numbers of indigenous Australians, and also the many unsavoury aspects of war such as the mistreatment of women by our ‘heroes’. My view is that communal war remembrance should be more nuanced. It needs to include an element of contrition for the shameful actions, alongside legitimate pride for actions that went towards achieving what must be the greatest degree of global harmony in the history of humankind.

Today is my last day in Paris until March. It’s around 11:00 am and I’m sitting in my room a few kilometres from the Arc de Triomph, where world leaders are gathered to commemorate the Armistice that ended World War One.

While I can’t avoid the sound of the jets that I can hear flying overhead, I’m not watching it on TV and don’t feel inclined to go anywhere near the event itself.

I don’t have much time for communal war remembrance as it is most commonly practised. I’ve been disturbed by the politicisation of war remembrance that has accompanied the disproportionate promotion of the Anzac myth since the Howard years.

In Australia there is a highly selective regime of remembrance that chooses to exclude the Frontier Wars that killed large numbers of indigenous Australians, and also the many unsavoury aspects of war such as the mistreatment of women by our ‘heroes’.

My view is that communal war remembrance should be more nuanced. It needs to include an element of contrition for the shameful actions, alongside legitimate pride for actions that went towards achieving what must be the greatest degree of global harmony in the history of humankind.

Yesterday a cousin of my mother’s sent some information and photos of Great-uncle Hugh, who volunteered for military service as a 44 year old in 1915. He was killed in action as a Driver in the Australian Field Artillery in northern France in September 1917.

I’ve always known about my grandfather’s service in these parts during this war, but the detail about Great-uncle Hugh was new to me. The electronic album included a clipping from a regional Victorian local newspaper.

It describes him as a farmer and member of the local Agricultural Society who was ‘held in high esteem for his sterling character and industrious habits’. He was a single man who left Australia as a gunner with the artillery and was subsequently appointed as a driver.

Great-uncle Hugh was buried in Godewaersvelde British Cemetery, which is located near the Belgian border in northern France. That gives me the opportunity to go there – perhaps on Anzac Day next year – to engage in my own act of private war remembrance.

As a single man myself, I will contemplate his leaving Australia on the adventure of his lifetime without having to be mindful of fidelity to a partner and possibly children back home. Having seen mention of his ‘sterling character’, I will take that on face value and imagine him resisting temptation to take advantage of vulnerable local civilians he comes across during the course of his service and recreational downtime. As family, I will share ownership of any lapses.

I will be paying respect and hoping to establish a connection that includes a degree of familial affection and solidarity. I will not regard him as a demigod, or even a ‘hero’ as such. For it seems to be that he was just a man of his time doing what men of his time did, and that his time happened to be a particularly dangerous one.

Would I have done what he did? I don’t know. The nearest I came was going to East Timor to join Caritas Australia’s relief effort following the destructive events of August 1999. There were known threats to our security.

Some time later I received a mass produced certificate of appreciation from Prime Minister John Howard that implied I was some kind of minor war hero.

I wanted to toss it in the bin but my mother framed it and put it on her wall, potentially establishing a myth that I was in fact some kind of hero. When all I doing was saying yes to adventure that was being offered to me. There may have been something worthy about it, but essentially it was adventure and I wasn’t a hero.

Michael Mullins is a former editor of Eureka Street.

print
This entry was posted in Defence/Security. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to MICHAEL MULLINS. The politicisation of remembrance

  1. David Macilwain says:

    The “selective regime of remembrance” also includes an extraordinary blindness to the actions of our contemporary governments on foreign battlefields where, as President Macron noted there is a “nouveau desordre”. This makes the author’s description of this disorder as “the greatest degree of global harmony in history” more than bizarre; a truly selective perception of reality, or extreme sarcasm. The “Peace Forum” was shunned, apparently intentionally, by both the US and Israel, whose combined actions continue to be the greatest threat not just to “peace” but to our very survival. The absence of UK and Australian leaders from both Armistice commemoration and peace forum highlights our unstated position on this most important event of the whole Centenary occasion.

  2. Jim Kable says:

    What a lovely quietly nuanced reflection on what is not heroism – and a well-aimed serve at that mass-produced certificate of heroism from PM John W Coward himself. Ugh!

Comments are closed.