SUE WAREHAM. Honouring the war dead means learning from the horror.

This Anzac Day, as on every other, we will hear of the horrors of war to which many of our service people have been exposed, horrors that certainly call into question any notion of us assuming the title “homo sapiens”.  We will “honour the fallen” and utter the hallowed words “lest we forget”, as we carefully forget every lesson that the last century and more of bloodshed could teach us.

Absent will be any reflection as to how the slaughter and maiming of a young generation came about over a century ago, how it could have been prevented, the lost opportunities for peace between 1914 and 1918, and the measures that could be put in place now to help prevent yet another descent into global conflagration, this time with perhaps more terminal consequences.  It’s as if those things don’t matter, on Anzac Day or on any other day of the year.

Warfare appears unique among human catastrophes in being exempt from any thorough process of official review (apart from possible military reviews of operational details). Our critical faculties are suspended as we refuse to learn from grave errors of the past and therefore, as the old adage so correctly tells us, are doomed to repeat them.

In the introduction to his book “In the Shadow of Gallipoli”, Robert Bollard poses some of the key questions that are missing from our official narrative about World War 1, such as “What did the Turks ever do to us?  How did they threaten our ‘freedom’?”  They, and many others, are not flippant questions, and yet, even if there were good answers, one senses that most Australians would be very hard pressed to provide them.  Discussion of questions that stray outside the official narrative of heroism and personal sacrifice is not encouraged.

Speaking at the Cenotaph in Hobart on Anzac Day 2012, the then Governor of Tasmania the Hon Peter Underwood AC, said “We need our youth to do more than simply recount or report the wars and conflicts in which our country has been involved and describe the heroism of our servicemen and women……To make the sacrifices that were made in those wars meaningful we should be ascertaining the causes and outcomes of the fighting.”

Governor Underwood quoted Professor Grayling, former Professor of Philosophy at the University of London, who wrote “Why in general do wars happen?  What folly, greed, selfishness, madness, stupidity or wickedness starts them? How can a few fat old men who stay at home in offices send thousands of youths to be maimed and killed in the process of maiming and killing other youths?”

As an example of our failure to learn, the 2003 invasion of Iraq is widely acknowledged to have been one of our greatest foreign policy disasters, possibly our greatest ever.  And yet calls to examine how we got into the war, or even the democratic notion of debating proposals for war in our parliament, have thus far been ignored.

Jonathan King, in the 2014 edition of his book “Gallipoli Diaries: The Anzacs’ Own Story Day by Day”, brought to light diaries written in the trenches of Gallipoli by Australian soldiers, writings which paint a very different picture from the rosy official version of the time. In discussing his book, and conversations he had with the last of the Gallipoli veterans, on The World Today on 7 October 2014, King said “The last 10 Anzacs say we learned nothing from Gallipoli and they actually said we shouldn’t have even gone to Vietnam because we were fighting again under a foreign power on a far flung shore..”

Alec Campbell, a Tasmanian and the last surviving soldier from all nations fighting at Gallipoli (who died in 2002) said “For god’s sake don’t glorify Gallipoli – it was a terrible fiasco, a total failure and best forgotten”.

Yet glorify it we do, all in the name of honouring our war dead.

But are we really honouring our war dead?   Are we honouring them as we attempt to ramp up our arms exports so that Australia will profit from wars and threats of wars, and have a vested interest in them?  Are we honouring our war dead as we allow our pre-eminent place of war commemoration, the Australian War Memorial (AWM), to accept funds from weapons makers, that same industry that made such a killing from the unspeakable atrocities of World War 1 and every war since and now pretends that they share the grief of it all?

Are we really honouring our dead from wars past as the AWM prepares to spend possibly half a billion dollars on a huge expansion, with streaming of Defence Department material on current operations, or is our commemoration becoming propaganda for the next war and the one after that?  Meanwhile, our spending as a nation on diplomacy, mediation and conflict resolution skills – all the tools that can help prevent armed conflicts – has dwindled to virtually nothing.

Despite Australia’s enormous expenditure on war commemoration (our World War 1 commemoration costing more than that of any other nation), there is one group of people who bear the bulk of wartime losses but whose suffering gets very little official attention: civilians.  The Australian government keeps no official estimates of the numbers of civilians killed, injured or displaced – and there are millions of them – in the wars we support. Those who are not officially counted can more conveniently be ignored.

And there is another very significant omission from our official war commemorations, one that goes to the heart of much suffering still in this country: the struggle of the original inhabitants as their land was stolen. They defended their land every bit as valiantly as Australian diggers fighting in far-off places.  Until that struggle is officially recognised, we will not be a country at peace with itself.

Let us genuinely honour our war dead by doing the hard yards of learning, rather than selectively remembering.

Sue Wareham is the President, Medical Association for Prevention of War (Australia)


Sue Wareham has spoken and written widely on peace and disarmament issues. She is President of the Medical Association for Prevention of War (Australia) , a board member of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, and a board member of ICAN (the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons) Australia. Dr Wareham is a former Canberra GP.

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7 Responses to SUE WAREHAM. Honouring the war dead means learning from the horror.

  1. Avatar Michael Flynn says:

    Australia attended at Geneva the Prep Con for the 2020 review of the NPT. The state submission we filed was a single page like the US that was about North Korea and its legal position after exit from the NPT. The statement by NZ was excellent: a must read.

  2. Avatar Michael Flynn says:

    I agree Sue with your wise words and the comments. We have to build a movement that implements good ideas like a parliamentary debate before the PM acts like an absolute European monarch before parliaments evolved. Activists next Palm Sunday 2019 in Canberra could march for peace and refugees. ICAN is moving but ignored.All MPs should read what ICAN and the ICRC said this month at the Prep Con for the NPT Review in 2020. I fear Australia may have stayed away on “advice ” from the US as displayed and reported by ICAN on its web site on the nuclear weapons ban treaty.

  3. Avatar Tony Mitchell says:

    Terrific essay Sue…………….as evidenced by the thoughtful responses above.

    You are the voice of peace and reason for many . Particularly like Simon Warriner’s innovation re compulsory military service by the offspring of politicians ! We can only hope.

  4. Avatar Simon Warriner says:

    How do we get to war? Dead simple. We keep electing politicians who clearly do not understand conflicted interest. If they did, they would not be conflicting their interests between the party and the common good of the electorate ate large. That common good is NEVER served by engaging in wars of aggression, or in wars fought for any reason other than defense.

    Our politicians take us to war because it suits the interests of a small select group of individuals. They are able, along with the mainstream media they control, working hand in glove, to put pressure on our politicians who cave with monotonous predictability and manfully (sarc) march our children off to fight their wars, and proudly (more sarc) greet them if they return. They even have the gall to mouth platitudes at the funerals and at the memorials where the stupidity of it all is recorded. The current media circus over alleged Syrian “gas attacks” where dissenting voices providing evidence based rebuttals are being subjected to childish denigration absent any factual basis by the mainstream media is a masterclass in this gaslighting behavior.

    I will campaign vigorously for any politician who runs for office on the platform that they will introduce and/or support a law requiring the children of all politicians to do five years of active service in combat positions in the armed forces. That should bring some sober reflection to the process of war making. Lets see if they manage to sort out that conflicted interest.

  5. Avatar David Macilwain says:

    Thanks Sue, very well said to many who don’t want to hear it. As we watch the annual spectacle of commemorations and genuine emotion over the deaths of poor soldiers 100 years ago who laid down their lives unwillingly for British imperialism, it appears that we have long forgotten what this war was about. And in fact it is the problem of forgetting how that war began that prevented its being ‘the war to end all wars’.
    But there’s another problem now – we can’t forget that which we never knew! If we survive the next decade, such that some sort of history book may be written, will it record that Australia’s involvement in defending “freedom and democracy” by supporting violent conflicts in poor foreign states has been a fraud? That Australia played an integral role in fomenting and supporting the destruction of Syrian society on behalf of its Imperial partners, and their local allies – the Gulf States and Israel?

    As if to highlight this conflict between the appearance and the reality, the day before Malcolm Turnbull’s brave words beside the French PM in Villers-Brettoneux, he was talking to NATO chief Jen Stoltenburg in Brussels on the joint strategy to address the threat from Russia and the war in Syria. Given the new commitment to supporting weapons manufacturers, his commitment to finding a peaceful resolution to the world threatening situation looks more than dubious. It looks more like strategic planning for ongoing war, and more “provocations” to enable it.

  6. Avatar Tony Kevin says:

    Thanks for this timely essay, SueWareham and P and I . I honour the sacrifice of our parents’ and grandparents’ generations. I abhor the terrible risk and waste of it all. The last time we fought a just and necessary war was in 1939-45. It should have been the last war ever fought.

    Now we are being preyed upon and our minds distorted by fat- cat war profiteers, Sinophobes and Russophobes. All completely unnecessary: these countries in no way threaten us or their own neighbours. We need a wiser diplomacy . We need our politicians and armchair strategists to shut up and leave it to the professional diplomats, of whom we still have more than a few , thank goodness.

    And somebody needs to get rid of Brendan Nelson, fast. A shallow man who has no understanding of his sacred trust as AWM Director. Go, man – you have long outlived your usefulness to your country . The AWM is not a circus or a Weapons sales fair . It needs a new leader to rebuild its original vision to honour the fallen in war.

  7. Avatar David Maxwell Gray says:

    Sue: you say: “Meanwhile, our spending as a nation on diplomacy, mediation and conflict resolution skills – all the tools that can help prevent armed conflicts – has dwindled to virtually nothing.”

    Many of our Federal politicians display very poor skills in diplomacy, mediation and conflict resolution. Indeed, one’s impression is that those who struggle to “leadership” positions display wannabe alpha-male behaviours, seeing all matters they address as zero-sum games. Small wonder they just do not really understand why these skills should be prioritised. Small wonder they do not.

    Two things our nation needs:

    first, alternative narratives built on those aspects of history our conservative politicians are so keen to hide or minimise, but also on highlighting achievements of our past. One might be how we forged one of the earliest examples of a relatively fair society, sadly diminished progressively over recent decades. Another might be the amazing contributions of migrant communities to modern Australia. And we have the living reality of indigenous art, music and culture held out before us in plain sight. The oldest living continuous culture has much to teach the rest of us.

    second, proper public debate on the question of why we go to or stay in any given conflict. We need to break down the bi-partisan conspiracy of turning away our eyes from the question: why are these sacrifices being undertaken by these young men and women of the defense forces whose lives at risk? The cost to our nation as well as to them and to their families is huge: about 30% of war survivors displaying PTSD, for example and the loss to our workforce of those while they are away. Let us find new ways to stimulate this debate.

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