Tony Smith. Dubious celebrations of war.

On 28 July 1914, the world was thrown into a terrible conflict. On that day, a Serbian nationalist assassinated an Austrian archduke and his wife. Because European states belonged to alliances which were heavily armed and many countries on other continents belonged to their empires, the war spread until it had consumed over a million lives. Between 2014 and 2018 those terrible events will be remembered in various ways. Some of those commemorations might be regarded as neutral, but inevitably, many will be matters of controversy. While Australia’s events will start in earnest around the centenary of the Gallipoli landing next year on 25 April, the screening of a television series on Anzac nurses suggests that one theme will be the evocation of sentimental responses in admiration of those who enlisted.

The Anzac legend has been exploited cynically by politicians over the last 100 years. In all conflicts, there is a distinct pattern that most of the population opposes Australia entering a war until such time as troops are committed. Then people understandably feel an obligation to support the ‘diggers’ as they engage in their dangerous tasks. There is a desire to get the fighting over with and then return to normal politics.

This leaves opponents of war in a difficult situation. During times of conflict, the expression of any doubts about the wisdom or correctness of engaging in military action is construed as disloyalty to the troops and to the country. At other times, however, the issues do not have the urgency to grip the popular imagination and so opportunities to discuss matters of war and peace are limited. It is understandable that people do not want to be forced to discuss such matters when they are enjoying peace. They want to get on with the ordinary everyday things that help them to develop their lives – work, play and building relationships.

Over the next five years the nature of the commemorations could mimic either war or peace. It is important to discuss the issues critically. As the shooting down of a Malaysian airliner over Ukraine shows, the world is over armed today, and the situation is more serious than it was in 1914. Alliances still cause blind responses to crises. Russia has been reluctant to condemn the Ukrainian separatists and the USA has been weak in its response to Israel’s military actions in Gaza. The international agencies which could assist to ameliorate the problems are weakened by states which refuse to compromise on matters of national sovereignty. The archduke’s assassination may have been the spark which ignited a conflagration in 1914, but the background conditions of war are just as dangerous in 2014. This suggests that merely contemplating earlier tragedies has not enabled the world to progress in its thinking over the last century.

An alternative explanation for the failure to learn from the 1914-18 war is that discussion has been stifled by cynical forces. Patriots have been reluctant to allow a focus on the folly, waste and evils of war because they are afraid that our veterans might be dishonoured. They fear also that if killing in war is condemned as evil, then the stories of Australia’s wars might be revised. By most popular interpretations, Australia has prevailed in its wars because its cause has always been just and its engagement reluctant. The controversy over the Vietnam conflict shows that veterans can indeed be hurt when the political motivation behind a commitment is questioned. We do however have a duty not to despatch the military for dubious reasons such as the call by a powerful ally.

Recently deceased Tasmanian Governor Peter Underwood caused some controversy in an Anzac Day address this year when he questioned the importance of studying Simpson’s donkey rather than scrutinising the reasons for Australia’s lengthy involvements in Iraq and Afghanistan. During the election campaign, the Coalition suggested that Gallipoli was not studied enough in schools and critics immediately argued the desire to include more about the Anzac legend in education programs was a part of the broader ‘history wars’. Formerly this cultural controversy has focussed in on the treatment of Australia’s Indigenous peoples. Despite some positive statements about Indigenous policy, the Prime Minister recently attracted the criticism of Labor’s first female Indigenous parliamentarian when he suggested that Australia was undeveloped until the British arrived in 1788.

Over the next five years, all thinking Australians should regard it as their duty to look critically at First World War commemorations. They should be very sceptical about any events which could make it easier for a future Australian Government to commit the military to conflicts overseas. In particular, they should scrutinise the statements of current politicians who, unfortunately, are likely to cynically exploit every occasion to enhance their popularity.

Tony Smith is a former academic and regular contributor to Eureka Street , The Australian Review of Public Affairs and the Australian Quarterly



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4 Responses to Tony Smith. Dubious celebrations of war.

  1. Bruce Cameron says:

    One of the values at the heart of my comment above is that of ‘doing the right thing’. In this context I believe the Australian War Memorial Council should initiate action to change the AWM Act so the sacrifices of indigenous Australians, made in defending their people, land and values against the forces of colonialism, can be commemorated alongside those of later Australians.
    It would be something worthy of the sacrifices of all Australians in war, for this to done before Anzac Day, 2015.
    I hope this will not be thought of as cynical exploitation of the Anzac Centenary.

  2. Good points raised, particularly about the unwillingness of most of us to confront war-related issues during ‘the piping times of peace’. But the Anzackery industry keeps on plugging away, ever strengthening the links between military exploits and what it means to be Australian. The next few years will be very important, particularly in the impact on the younger generation, to whom ‘the torch of remembrance’ (favourite Anzacker phrase) will be offered. Of course, Anzac is an important part of our history (although more for what war has done to Australia and Australians than for what Australians have done in war) but there is a whole lot more to our history than Anzac that is worth celebrating. The Honest History coalition is working towards these objectives:

  3. Bruce Cameron says:

    I think that there is much more to the Legend than touched on by Tony.

    The ultimate failure of nation states has been their inability to learn from the past … desirably from the mistakes of other states, but even more crucially, from their own.

    Threats will continue to arise across all facets of society, from both internal and external sources. These will include financial, environmental, medical and military threats.

    If the military sacrifices of the past are to have meaning, we must reflect on the values we hold to be important today and the extent to which we would be prepared to defend them. The individual and collective values of our nation must be the things that lead us into the future. They will not be free and they may well require the same strength of character, commitment, and sacrifice as shown by Australians 100 years ago.

    Bruce Cameron

  4. John Thompson says:

    James Brown’s book, ‘Anzac’s Long Shadow’ provides an excellent perspective on our (or at least our politicians’) obsession with Anzac. At a time when the Abbott government cries poor, vast sums are being splashed around on a four year commemorative Anzac binge. Brown reckons government spending will be about $325 million with another $300 million contributed by private donors.
    Politicians at local, state and national level will be fronting all sorts of commemorative events in what Brown refers to as ‘a discordant, lengthy and exorbitant four-­year festival for the dead’ that will cost more than three quarters of a billion dollars.
    In an interview on ABC radio, Brown made the point ‘We’re commissioning new histories about the soldiers at Gallipoli when we haven’t even begun writing the history of soldiers at East Timor, in Iraq or in Afghanistan. We’re spending three times as much money on ANZAC Day ceremonies over the next four years as we are on the problem of mental health for those soldiers coming back with post-traumatic stress disorder. And for me, I can’t understand it. If we really believe what we say about ANZAC, then why aren’t we spending that money looking after the soldiers right here and now?’
    Simple, James, the politicians would not get the profile…..

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