David Stephens. The children suffer.

Aug 11, 2014

Osbert Sitwell’s The Next War, published in 1918, depicts some plutocrats deciding what would be an appropriate war memorial. The senior plutocrat puts a suggestion which his colleagues eagerly take up.

“What more fitting memorial for the fallen
Than that their children
Should fall for the same cause?”

Rushing eagerly into the street,
The kindly old gentlemen cried
To the young:
“Will you sacrifice
Through your lethargy
What your fathers died to gain?
The world must be made safe for the young!”
And the children
Went . . .

Are we in Australia just as keen on roping children into war as Sitwell’s plutocrats were? We do not explicitly say to them, ‘you must fall for a cause’ but we sanitise and normalise and proselytise ‘sacrifice’ in war in a way that cannot fail to be attractive to some children, even while we protest that we abhor war and wish to save future generations from it. Teaching children about war can so easily become teaching war to children.

Politicians keep track of the involvement of children in war remembrance. The then prime minister, Julia Gillard, said last year that she always looked for the number of children at Anzac Day services and noted there were ‘more and more’ and that parents admitted they had been ‘dragged’ along by their children.

So it’s actually the children who are driving the next level of engagement and I think that that means that for all of time, we will commemorate Anzac Day and think about who we are as Australians on that day.

This attitude is bipartisan. The current Minister for the Centenary of Anzac, Senator Michael Ronaldson, said to the New South Wales Branch of the RSL earlier this year that

2014 to 2018 means that you and I have another opportunity to teach another generation of young Australians what their obligations are. And if we do not do so ladies and gentlemen, then we have failed them and we have failed ourselves.

When I asked the Minister’s office what sort of obligations he was referring to (social? moral? legal?) the answer was non-committal. More recently, the Minister told Sydney Legacy that he wanted by the end of 2018 to have

the next generation of young Australians doing what you and I are doing at the moment. They will be carrying the torch …

And when they hop on a school bus, or they walk home, or they go shopping, or they go out at night with relative freedom – that they realise in many instances that freedom has been paid for in blood. And they must understand that.

The Minister’s department, Veterans’ Affairs, runs an extensive education program, with booklets, posters and teaching aids flowing to schools or downloadable without charge. Marilyn Lake and others have questioned the appropriateness of this activity and have suggested it is government-sponsored indoctrination. Some teachers, nevertheless, say the DVA material is ignored, thrown away or balanced with other resources. Honest History’s research suggests that another flagship commemorative program, the Simpson Prize, is very much a minority activity and is, in any case, tentatively moving from civics education with a military flavour towards a genuine history activity.

On the other hand, children are referred to the jingoistic tosh of retired Colonel Arthur Burke OAM, who wrote of the torch of freedom being passed from dying hands on the beach at Gallipoli to children today, or they sit through Anzac services with scripts downloaded from the Australian Army website. The Australian War Memorial encourages primary school age children to write messages on little crosses to be planted in the graves of dead soldiers in war cemeteries in France and Belgium. The Memorial has also commenced the Roll of Honour Soundscape project, where thousands of children are being invited to recite names from the World War I Roll of Honour for replaying in the Memorial’s cloisters continuously for the next four years. Questions about whether this is a sensible activity for 12 year-olds are brushed aside with rhetoric about helping children ‘connect’ with the dead.

Meanwhile, school visits to the Memorial continue to be subsidised and perhaps half a million children a year visit. The Memorial continues to offer its mini-theme park ‘Discovery Zone’ (‘touch, listen and smell’ but no corpses in the imitation World War I trench), its Memorial boxes, and various other resources and activities, at minimal charge. Projects in schools feature prominently in the Anzac Centenary Local Grants Program and schools compete for the Commonwealth’s Anzac Day School Awards and many similar Anzac-themed competitions and events in the States and Territories.

When you question teachers or resource providers about the ethics of teaching children about war, the answer is often along the lines of ‘we give the children something that is appropriate to their age’ or ‘they get a nuanced view when they are younger and then more details later’. That this process may never work its way towards honesty is indicated by the continuing tendency of adult, official spruikers of war commemoration to use euphemisms like ‘fallen’ and ‘sacrifice’ in relation to dead soldiers, to avoid terms like ‘eviscerated’, ‘decapitated’, or ‘blown to bits’ to describe the circumstances of those deaths, and to continue to peddle overblown rhetoric about ‘dying for freedom’. What is involved in the rather nebulous concept of ‘connecting’ with the dead is never really spelled out. Connect with what purpose?

We adults are champions at ‘nuance’ in relation to war so it is no wonder that children are fed loads of it. The essential message that war requires soldiers to kill or be killed is lost in nonsense about connecting or ‘understanding’ or smothered by sanitised collections of war memorabilia and dress-ups.

I saw the Anzac Day march in Lismore, New South Wales, this year. There were lots of school children there in uniform, some of them marching in step, like soldiers. I wrote to the local RSL afterwards, suggesting it was wrong for children to imitate military practice. Had the gentleman replied, I’m sure he would have said something about ‘not glorifying war’. He would also have avoided the question of whether relentless, ubiquitous, sentimental commemoration gives children a rosy impression of war. He would have skirted the implications for future generations of their ‘obligations’ to carry the torch of remembrance.

This torch carries many messages – has many ‘nuances’ – including the usually unspoken one that freedom, allegedly ‘paid for in blood’, may have to be redeemed in similar fashion in the future. Meanwhile, there is a club in Lismore, a club where old Diggers go after the Anzac march. It has a neon sign, ‘The price of liberty is eternal vigilance’ The vigilant are getting younger every year.


David Stephens is secretary of Honest History (honesthistory.net.au). Honest History is a broad coalition of historians and others, committed to frank debate and expressing a diversity of opinions on specific issues. Views in this article are the author’s own. The Honest History website contains a version with links.


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