Tony Smith. Dubious celebrations of war.

Jul 25, 2014

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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