John Menadue. Anzac and hiding behind the valour of our military.

For those who may have missed this. I have reposted this earlier piece about Anzac and hiding behind our heroes.  John Menadue

There is an unfortunate and continuing pattern in our history of going to war- that the more disastrous the war the more politicians and the media hide behind the valour of service men and women. We will see this displayed again on April 25.

The Director of the Australian War Memorial, Brendan Nelson, drew attention to this well-honed way of distorting and excusing our strategic and political mistakes. In the SMH on October 5 last year, he said ‘The more obscene the war, the more inexplicable it seems for us today, the more many [young people] admire those men and women who went in our name’. (See my blog October 11, 2013, ‘The drumbeat grows louder’.)

It is not only young people who have been drawn into this distortion of history. Governments and the media have encouraged us to ignore the disastrous wars that we have been engaged in and learn from our mistakes. Rather than face the consequences of acknowledging those disasters, governments and the media then change the subject to the valour of our heroes. We refuse to face the fact that these heroes have often died in vain

By any measure our involvement in the wars in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan have been disastrous. So what do our governments, the Australian War Memorial and the media do? They avoid examining how we got into such disastrous wars. They do this by dwelling on the heroism of our service people. VC winners are an ideal way to change the subject from a disastrous war to an Australian hero.

There is no doubt that they are heroic, but the wars they fought in were anything but heroic. These three wars were disastrous but we refuse to acknowledge that fact. The consequence will be that in the future we will continue to make foolish decisions about getting into war. That could occur over the dispute between Japan and China over the islands in the East-China Sea.

In this cover up of failed policies, prime ministers, ministers, opposition leaders and the media have attended almost every ship taking Australian service personnel to or from war zones in the Middle East. I don’t think the Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition have missed any funeral of a veteran of those wars. There was even a fly-over in Gippsland for an Australian soldier who had accidentally shot himself.

Our involvement in WWI was disastrous in every way. We acted like a colony at the behest of England But we didn’t spend time dwelling on the catastrophe as a result of our strategic and political mistakes. That hopefully would discourage us from repeating them in the future. Instead we deluged ourselves and continue to do so in the valour of those who served and died in WWI.

WWII was much more a war we had to fight in our own national interest and for the freedom of our region. But the recall of that war and the sacrifices of our military personnel is quite small at the Australian War Memorial compared with the coverage of WWI. We had a strong case for involvement in WWII but not WWI. Yet the coverage at the Australian War Memorial does exactly the reverse. Strategically Kokoda was more important to Australia than Gallipoli.

In his excellent new book ‘Rupert Murdoch’ – a re-assessment” Professor  Rod Tiffen draws attention to the way that News Ltd in the UK covered its mistaken  support for  the appalling  wars in Iraq and Afghanistan . It just changed the subject. News Ltd never attempted to seriously  examine the fiction and mistaken policies which it supported and which led the UK into those wars. It changed the subject by attacking PM Gordon Brown for not looking after the veterans. Rod Tiffen put it this way.

‘In one of the last issues of The Sun edited by Rebekah Brooks, the front page consisted of the faces of the 207 British soldiers killed in Afghanistan, with a large headline across the middle, reading “Don’t you know there’s a bloody war on”. The strap at the top said “Message to politicians failing our heroes” … The multipage splash was accompanied by a cartoon of a wounded soldier with the caption “abandoned”.’

Tiffen added ‘Responsible newspapers such as the Washington Post and the New York Times reflected publicly on their journalistic failings during the period [of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars]’.  

But not News Ltd and Rupert Murdoch.

What the Murdoch papers did in the UK is common amongst governments and media generally. They refuse to acknowledge their complicity in disastrous wars. To cover their tracks they focus on the heroism of service people.

It is unpatriotic and cowardly to refuse to examine and publicly acknowledge decisions about going to war. That is surely the most momentous decision that any government can make. But by focusing on the story and the valour of service people, like successive Australian Prime Ministers, Rupert Murdoch and the Australian War Memorial, we are discouraged from looking honestly at our history.

If we don’t learn from our mistakes we will keep repeating them. We must stop hiding behind our heroes.


John Laurence Menadue is the publisher of Pearls & Irritations. He has had a distinguished career both in the private sector and in the Public Service.

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3 Responses to John Menadue. Anzac and hiding behind the valour of our military.

  1. Bruce Cameron says:

    “We are discouraged form looking closely at our history …”; may I refer to one aspect of military history in which this is most definitely the case.

    I recently read a review of a TV program about Australia’s involvement in the First World War. I did not see the program, however, I understand from the review that it stated that: “officially ‘Pompey’ did not die of war-related causes [he committed suicide in 1931] and thus is not on the Australian War Memorial’s Roll of Honour”.

    The fact that he committed suicide is not the reason hie is not included on the Roll of Honour. There are a number of service personnel who committed suicide on the Roll. Psychological wounds are just as much war-related as physical ones. The reason that ‘Pompey’ is not listed is that his death came after the end of the prescribed period for the First World War (31 March 1921). Such a period exists for each war that Australia has been involved in. Those veterans who die as a direct result of their active service after this period are not officially acknowledged in any way. Is this right?

    Of course not. The official number of Australian service personnel (not servicemen as politicians, including at least on PM, are wont to say) who died as a result of Australia’s commitment to Vietnam, is 521. This is the cost to the nation that is taught in schools and recorded in history books. The real cost, however, is hidden from the Australian people.

    Hundreds of other veterans have died as a direct consequence of their service in Vietnam. Their number cannot be found anywhere. It has always been so. Imagine how many soldiers who were gassed or suffered as POWs lingered on and died as a result of their wounds after the end of the prescribed periods for WWI and WWII. Appeals to the Government and the AWM for the service of these Australians to be at least recorded in a Commemorative Book at the AWM, have gone unheeded.

    This is not the case everywhere. In Washington, the names of those Americans who died as a result of wounds suffered in Vietnam continue to be added to the Vietnam Wall today.

  2. Timely remarks indeed. Hiding behind the heroes and avoiding analysis of why we fight is central to our experience of war. Many of these issues are canvassed at including in a large section of articles and links entitled Anzac analysed. Also Hugh White on the East China Sea, Asia 2014 and Europe 1914. Good search function!

  3. Kieran Tapsell says:

    A visit to Buenos Aires will confirm what you have written that the more stupid and senseless the war, the more the “heroism” of the soldiers is celebrated. There is a large memorial there to the 649 Argentinean victims of the Falklands War, manned 24 hours by two soldiers in 19th century Napoleonic uniforms of the Argentinean liberator General San Martin, and using the same words, “valour”, “heroism” and “bravery” in Spanish. There is not a word about that drunk, Galtieri and his fellow military who started the war to drag up the junta’s falling popularity, or even about the war crime of Margaret Thatcher in sinking the Belgrano, condemning its young sailors to a freezing death. The stupidity of the whole exercise is ignored. And Rupert comes into that as well with his support for the “Gotcha” headline as young 17 and 18 year old sailors floated around the Atlantic or went to the bottom. But I suppose this year on Anzac Day, we will be served up the myth once again that Australia became a Nation by trying to invade Turkey.

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