RICHARD FLANAGAN. Australians in WWI didn’t die for Australia. They died for Britain. (Part 1 of 2)

And so, the Monash Centre, for all its good intentions, for all the honour it does the dead, is at heart a centre for forgetting. It leads us to forget that the 62,000 young men who died in world war one died far from their country in service of one distant empire fighting other distant empires. It leads us to forget that not one of those deaths it commemorates was necessary. Not 62,000. Not even one.

(The following are extracts from Richard Flanagan’s address to the National Press Club on 18 April 2018. Part 2 will be posted tomorrow.) 

Six days from now, on the eve of Anzac Day, the prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, will launch a war memorial-cum-museum in France. Costing an extraordinary $100m, the Monash Centre is reportedly the most expensive museum built in France for many years. It will honour those Australians who so tragically lost their lives on the western front in world war one and, more generally, the 62,000 Australians who died in world war one.

Would that someone might whisper into the prime minister’s ear the last lines of Wilfred Owen’s poem about those same fatal trenches:

My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

Owen’s last Latin phrase – the old lie, as he puts it – is from the Roman poet Horace: “It is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country.”

Except the Australians didn’t even die for Australia. They died for Britain. For their empire. Not our country. A double lie then: a lie within a lie. 

But, as Tony Abbott asked when, as prime minister, he announced the building of the museum, what was the alternative in Britain’s time of need?

Well, we might answer, staying home for one thing, and not dying in other people’s wars.

And yet the horrific suffering of so many Australians for distant empires has now become not a terrible warning, not a salient story of the blood-sacrifice that must be paid by nations lacking independence, not the unhappy beginning of an unbroken habit, but, bizarrely, the purported origin story of us as an independent people.

The growing state-funded cult of Anzac will see $1.1bn spent by the Australian government on war memorials between 2014 and 2028. Those who lost their lives deserve honour – I know from my father’s experience how meaningful that can be. But when veterans struggle for recognition and support for war-related suffering, you begin to wonder what justifies this expense, this growing militarisation of national memory or, to be more precise, a forgetting of anything other than an official version of war as the official version of our country’s history, establishing dying in other people’s wars as our foundation story.

And so, the Monash Centre, for all its good intentions, for all the honour it does the dead, is at heart a centre for forgetting. It leads us to forget that the 62,000 young men who died in world war one died far from their country in service of one distant empire fighting other distant empires. It leads us to forget that not one of those deaths it commemorates was necessary. Not 62,000. Not even one.

Lest we forget we will all chant next week, as we have all chanted for a century now. And yet it is as if all that chanting only ensures we remember nothing. If we remembered would we 100 years later still allow our young men to be sent off to kill or be killed in distant conflicts defending yet again not our country, but another distant empire, as we have in Iraq and Afghanistan?

If all that chanting simply reinforces such forgetting, then what hope have we now in negotiating some independent, safe path for our country between the growing tension of another dying empire, the American, and the rising new empire of the Chinese? Because instead of learning from the tragedies of our past, we are ensuring that we will learn nothing.

The forgetting extends to the horrific suffering of war. The prime minister who will, no doubt, speak sincerely and movingly of the torn bodies and broken lives of the Australians who fell in France, is also the same prime minister who wants to see the Australian arms industry become one of the world’s top 10 defence exporters, seeking to boost exports to several countries, including what was described as “the rapidly growing markets in Asia and the Middle East”, in particular the United Arab Emirates, a country accused of war crimes in Yemen.

Anzac Day, which is a very important day for my family, was always a day to remember all my father’s mates who didn’t make it home. But it was also a moment to ponder the horror of war more generally. But of late Anzac Day has become enshrouded in cant and entangled in dangerous myth. If this seems overstated ponder the bigoted bile that attended Yassmin Abdel-Magied’s tweet last Anzac Day in which she posted “LEST.WE.FORGET. (Manus, Nauru, Syria, Palestine …)”

I read this as a plea for compassion drawing on the memory of a national trauma.

Most refugees on Manus Island and Nauru are fleeing war, Syria has half a million dead and more than 11 million people exiled internally and externally because of war, and Palestinians, whatever position one takes, suffer greatly from ongoing conflict.

And yet as the attacks on Abdel-Magied showed, some were seeking to transform Anzac Day into a stalking horse for racism, misogyny and anti-Islamic sentiment. For hate, intolerance and bigotry. For all those very forces that create war. The great disrespect to Anzac Day wasn’t the original tweet but the perverted attacks made on it, in, of all things, the name of the dead. Those who think they honour Anzac Day by forgetting contemporary victims of war only serve to make a tragic mockery of all that it should be.

Richard Flanagan is an Australian novelist from Tasmania.  He was described by The Economist in the following terms “Considered by many to be the finest Australian novelist of his generation.”  He has received numerous awards and honours. He won the 2014 Man Booker Prize for The Narrow Road to the Deep North.  

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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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