The Prime Minister warned us that we would be in for some shocking reading as the report into Australian war crimes in Afghanistan was released. That there were 39 alleged murders, and 19 Australian soldiers involved, is indeed shocking.
But the report was heavily redacted, sparing us the details. We are told that one of these crimes is the most shocking to have occurred in the whole of Australian military history.
How is it possible that such awful atrocities occurred? One of the explanations, quite apart from shockingly inadequate supervision and leadership from the top down, is the development of a known ‘warrior culture’.
Let us assume for a moment that the development of this perversion of culture contributed to a conditioning of the soldiers involved, enabling the crossing of a line that would otherwise be considered inconceivable. Where does this perversion have its origins? Is it possible that fertile soil exists outside the closed ranks of the military within the myth making of greater Australian identity, especially the ANZAC myth? To a lesser degree, are we all complicit for condoning a particular version of nationhood to the exclusion of other influences which might otherwise temper the dominant narrative?
Now, I am not suggesting for one moment that the ANZAC myth tolerates such shocking behaviour, but I am suggesting that the exultation of the ANZAC myth above all other contributing factors of Australian identity leads to a corruption of the true nature of what it means to be an Australian.
We all know that when politicians are in difficulty, a proven method of distracting public attention from domestic difficulties is to become involved in overseas conflict. John Howard did this, as did Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, Lyndon Johnston, and many others. Equally perverse has been Australia’s recent ambition to be one of the leading exporters of armaments, despite the fact we have a very chequered history in the usefulness or effectiveness of big-ticket items we purchase.
Australia has been involved in almost every conflict involving our ‘allies’ during my lifetime. With the benefit of hindsight, the only morally defendable conflict was World War 2. And yet, around this history of conflict we have woven a myth of nation building that exaggerates the impact of conflict in the business of nation building and leaves room for the perversion of identity through lack of balance and a more considered perspective. If however we are to continue building such a view of ourselves then we should not be surprised that those who are deemed to be the elite of the elite as flag bearers of this identity should consider themselves heroic beyond what might more reasonably perceived to be authentic Australian identity.
Politicians of all persuasions load onto the military bandwagon when it suits them. An iconic example of the disproportionate attention being given to Australia’s military history is the obscene amount of money about to be spent on pulling down and rebuilding part of the Australian War Memorial in Canberra. The venture is quite outrageous when seen against the reduction of money available to other institutions that mark equally important aspects of Australian life and nation building.
I venture the elements that should be celebrated as foundational to Australian identity and nation building are:
- The history, culture, dispossession, giftedness and contribution of Australia’s First Nations people. The history of wars and conflict against First Nations people should have equal priority to remembrance of lives lost in overseas conflict. More Australian First Nations people lost their lives in conflict on this soil than Australians who have lost lives in overseas conflict, with the possible exception of World War 1.
- The life and struggle of the early settlers
- Australia’s multi-cultural migration
- The development of Australian arts in all their forms
- Australia’s involvement in overseas conflict.
While the honouring of First Nations people should be given the highest priority in elements that shape national identity and nation building, the next four are of equal importance. Our involvement in overseas conflict should not be given priority over other elements.
It is a matter of sober thought that those who engage in any form of violence are less likely to acknowledge the point at which boundaries are crossed. Considerable thoughtful work is emerging about the relationship between interhuman violence and violence done to the natural order. The conservative side of politics appears to define as heroic any form of exploitative work, however demeaning to the natural order, that produces short term monetary wealth.
As a nation we must give serious reconsideration to that which we consider heroic. If we consider heroism to be inextricably connected to some form of violence, then we should not be surprised when this comes home to haunt us.
As General Campbell has said, the heroes in this tragic saga are those who have blown the whistle. It is salutatory to be reminded that the Australian government, through the office of the Attorney General, is still pursuing whistle blowers in another context and for too long was doing so in this context.
ANZAC day should be honoured, but it should not become Australia’s national day as it has more recently become by default. Nor should there be a ‘Military Division’ alongside the General Division of the Australian Honours system, a change recommended by the panel commissioned to review Australian honours in 1995 but dropped stone dead by the incoming Howard government.
The soldiers who have been accused of Afghanistan atrocities should face the full impact of the law, nothing can excuse their alleged conduct.
However, Australia and Australian politicians should think again about our propensity to easily send men and women into harm’s way for the most dubious of reasons. Those who fought in Vietnam, The Gulf, Iraq, or Afghanistan must wonder what on earth it was about and what it has achieved.
But more broadly, Australia and Australians should consider more carefully what in our culture and nation building we consider to be most heroic. Drawing on the Sermon on the Mount for a definition of heroic activity, those who deserve this accolade are not those involved in violence, but the doctors and nurses at the front line of the pandemic, refugees who have risked everything to give their children a better life, the emerging generation of indigenous leadership and figures such as doctors Richard Harris and Craig Challan.