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)