Remembrance Day through the lens of Gaza and Ukraine

Nov 11, 2023
Red poppies at Australian War Memorial.

This Remembrance Day, the great juggernaut of war is crushing thousands. In Gaza and the Ukraine. In that context, we may reflect today on Australia’s role in the Great War.

In that period, then, as now, Australia was devoted to the twin dogmas of almighty deterrence and unwavering alliance. Did they serve us well?

Then, as now, in the decade before the Great War, Australian politicians, in thrall to imperial loyalties, promised unswerving support to a powerful friend – back then, to Britain and its Empire.

Then, as now, the quest for deterrence sparked a pre-war arms rivalry, marked by corruption and price gouging. Military lobbies and leagues (today’s ‘think tanks’), funded by arms companies and financiers, promoted deterrence as indispensable. Ex-politicians, military wonks, and Defence public servants crossed over to lucrative jobs with the military lobbies and arms companies, and promoted deterrence as indispensable. And deterrence failed.

Then, as now, Australia purchased the latest in weaponry from our great imperial protector. A costly new fleet was built, mostly in the UK and along lines recommended by London. Its flagship, the battle-cruiser HMAS Australia, arrived in Sydney in 1913. Only such naval power, most loyally believed, could achieve regional superiority, avert war, and guarantee peace. It didn’t.

Then, as now, Australian politicians promised to prioritise our own defence. But the new Australian fleet had a British commander and a majority of British officers. Then, upon the outbreak of war, as had long been promised behind the scenes, the new RAN was placed under the British Admiralty’s command.

Then, as now, politicians competed in a love-of-allies auction. When European war loomed in early August 1914, a rump of the Australian cabinet of Joseph Cook publicly offered an expeditionary force of 20,000 troops, even before London had declared war – a force for any objective, under British command. Dissident voices were shouted down. Then, as now, the deployment was neither debated nor approved in advance by the parliament.

Then, as now, we promised absolute loyalty. So, from 1914 to 1918, Australia had no control over where our forces fought, and no control over the ever-enlarging war aims. We fought in Gallipoli from 25 April 1915, so that Russia could swallow Constantinople and Britain double its ‘sphere of influence’ in oil-rich Persia. We dug in at Gallipoli on 26 April, so that London could lure Italy into signing up on that very day to enter the war, with promises of Ottoman and Hapsburg spoils. We fought in the Middle East to parcel up the Ottoman Empire, as secretly agreed between the UK, France, Russia and Italy. It was a war to liberate subject peoples, of course. It didn’t.

Then, as now, when war erupted, civil liberties shrivelled. Under the War Precautions Act, hundreds of publications were forbidden. Even pamphlets based upon critical parliamentary speeches recorded in Hansard were confiscated. ‘Enemy aliens’ and critics were jailed. Twice the Australian government sought to conscript for the industrialised barbarism. And failed.

Then, as now, the propaganda battle for moral ascendancy rested upon lies – peddled on all sides – that the enemy were all monsters and our allies avenging angels. The war, trumpeted as a defensive war, waged only for Belgium and northern France, became a war of imperial expansion. It was a war to end war, and to make the world safe for democracy, of course. It didn’t.

Then, as now, political leaders, gambling with war to save their own political skins, repelled every opportunity to end the war by neutral mediation or negotiation, and demanded that there be no ceasefire, no premature peace. The vile enemy could never be trusted. Any pause would only give them ‘a breathing space’. Only a crushing victory could achieve ‘a lasting peace’. It didn’t.

Then, as now, civilian deaths mounted. All sides pleaded that there was no alternative – to the Belgian deportations, to the Lusitania horror, to the forced marches of refugees, or to Britain’s starvation blockade of Central Europe. That blockade by 1918 had swept three-quarters of a million malnourished Germans and Austrians to an early death. It was all done ‘to crush Prussian militarism’, of course. It didn’t.

Then, as now, mega-rich press moguls abused their power, turned their presses into name-calling mills, denouncing ‘white-flaggers’ and ‘wobblers’, and portrayed every plea for restraint and negotiation, every attempt to understand the deep causes of the disaster, as an evasion of ‘moral clarity’. Only war could safeguard civilisation. It didn’t.

Then, as now, fanatical religious zealots deployed the rhetoric of martyrology, promising immortal fame to the fallen fighter in the cause of the tribal deity they imagined was God, and peddling the fantasy of national salvation through blood, through ‘the supreme sacrifice’ – as if soldiers were not sacrificed by the war-makers but rather chose to sacrifice themselves. They didn’t.

And when in 1918-19 the orgy of mechanised mass killing was over, the latest research suggests that 72,500 Australians were dead. The corpses, if lined up head-to-toe, would reach from the steps of the Sydney GPO to Mount Victoria in the Blue Mountains.

So, today a National Ceremony in remembrance will take place at the Australian War Memorial, currently being expanded at huge cost. Long faces, ancient hymns. Respect for the dead – but easily confused with respect for the war, and all the good it supposedly did for us. The setting will remind us: it costs millions to sacralise war, and it takes every cent.

But what might we learn if we think harder about the present and see through the veils of naïveté to a deeper understanding of the disasters of past?

That, for the generations that come after, war is not a matter of pride or shame. It is just a matter of fact.

That Australia clings to its great and powerful friend like the moon Phobos clings to its planet Mars.

That war is a black hole, that sucks in everything – rationality, proportionality, and humanity itself. That war is a black hole that sucks in everybody – the courageous and the cowardly, the virtuous and the vengeful, the innocent and the guilty. All buried.

And thus, that whoever wins the war, the war always wins.

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