Commemoration is the second casualty of war

Aug 10, 2021

The Australian Government is very, very slow to address veterans’ problems – witness the tardiness on the veterans’ suicide issue – yet it is always quick off the mark to dream up some new commemoration of conflict.

The latest is to be a commemoration of our participation in Iraq and Afghanistan. Ostensibly it is to acknowledge the service and sacrifice of Australians but between the Defence Department and Peter Dutton, one can expect an awful lot of forgetting, not much remembrance and lots of glorification of things military.

In a new wrinkle, it has asked for comments from the public and veterans about when it should be and what form it should take. As a veteran, the author heard about the proposed event and consultation from IPAN (Independent and Peaceful Australia Network) of which he is a member – not through Veterans Affairs which would have seemed more appropriate.

The preamble to the survey lacks some nuance, to say the least. It states: “The terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 prompted a significant global response in the fight against terrorism. Australia and our allies went to Afghanistan in a joint effort to deny terrorist organisations a safe haven.

“Military personnel and civilian staff from various agencies took part in campaigns across the Middle East Area of Operations from 2001.

“Australia’s participation came at a terrible cost; 41 lives were lost in Afghanistan and two lives were lost in Iraq and Kuwait. Their service and sacrifice have helped to save Australian lives from terrorist attacks on our own soil.

“As we mark the end of our military operations in Afghanistan, it is important to recognise the service and sacrifice of Australians. A national day of commemoration is proposed to acknowledge the service of Australians in the Middle East Area of Operations, those who supported at home, and to honour those who lost their lives.”

As for denying terrorists a safe haven the interventions created more terrorists than it deterred as well as unleashing decades of violence which have killed, displaced and impoverished the people of the countries we invaded.

And if we are to honour those “who supported at home” what about the tens of thousands who demonstrated against the folly of invading Iraq and protested against the fraudulent claims that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction?

Even Mark Latham might be honoured for his one great moment – calling out George W. Bush.

In the invitation to share your views you are asked to identify which group you are part of. Peter Dutton is totally opposed to identity politics so naturally the choices are a bit limited: veteran of the Middle East area of operations since 2001; veteran of other campaigns; current serving ADF member; family member of a veteran; general public; ex-Service organisation or other. Whether ‘general public’ covers refugees from the violence, or the Afghan interpreters and staff who supported the troops, is not specified. One can assume the commemoration will not devote as much time to them as it does to the 43 Australian troops who lost their lives.

You can also nominate what your preferred date for commemoration is; what form it should take – national event in Canberra, local events across Australia or other.

You then get to submit anything else, in under 100 words, you think relevant. That’s a bit limiting when you want to remark on the fact that a national event in Canberra could hardly be near the War Memorial which the Government is in the process of destroying; that perhaps a day of mourning would be more appropriate; some apologies from John Howard for getting us involved on false pretences would be great; or, some discussion of just how much money we have spent there.

The Government is not as enthusiastic about costing the wars as it is about nickel and diming the arts and the unemployed but an estimate north of $10 billion – possibly close to $20 billion when you consider the ongoing costs – seems reasonable. Moreover, any cost-benefit calculation for Australia would inevitably find the spending was wasted and many Iraqis and Afghans would conclude it was counter-productive.

The veterans witnessed the truth; being the first casualty of war – commemoration is now the second casualty. Commemorations are also a reminder of the great wisdom of Alan Bennett in his play The History Boys. “It’s not so much lest we forget, as lest we remember … there’s no better way of forgetting something than by commemorating it”.

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