Wednesday, April 25, 2012


Anzac Day to me, is and should be a day for reflection, reflection on the meaning of war, why we fight wars, what they achieve, and is the sacrifice of all those young lives worth it. It is a day for reflecting on why we are fighting our current wars and what they are achieving.

The first casualty of war is truth and we need to take account of that when remembering past wars. I am impressed that so many of the younger generations are turning up to Anzac Day ceremonies, but what are they remembering? What they are taught at school and university? Family folklore about a family member's contribution to a war of the past? Tales heard while sitting on a grandparent's knee? Perhaps all of the previous. But what they also need to add into the balance is the antiwar message of many veterans. Alec Campbell, one of the last soldier survivors of World War One was a committed socialist for most of his life. Even in his later years, (he lived to 103) he wrote and spoke about the evils of war and what it did to the men who fought in them. The young also need to be aware of the often dirty politics that went on behind the scenes . Gallipolli is remembered in British Politics as "Churchill's folly". The ultimate failure of the Gallipolli Campaign to open up a route to Constantinople was held against Churchill for many years, and it wasn't until the the years immediately preceding World War Two that his voice in British Politics came into its own again because this time he was right, Hitler was preparing for a second war, and appeasement was never going to satisfy him.

Much of the roar around Anzac Day is that we answered the call to defend our British heritage when we were needed, and I note that at many Anzac Day ceremonies the British flag is still held alongside the Australian flag. But in the time of war, when we needed the British, they did not answer the call to defend Australia. Churchill, needing troops at home to defend the British mainland, abandoned Australia to its fate. Fortunately, Curtin, our war time Prime Minister took the necessary steps and cemented a relationship with Americans who we needed to fight alongside us in defeating the Japanese. But that abandonement by Churchill and the British should be seen as the end of any illusions of Empire and Commonwealth as some sort of defence commitment in time of war. We may be of British heritage (well, some of us) and grown up as a nation with this heritage, but we are an adult nation now, and need to establish our place in the world as an independent nation. Since the Second World War we have fought alongside the Americans in the Korean War, the Vietnam War, Iraq and now Afghanistan. We are grateful to the Americans, we are locked in ANZUS Treaties with them, but is that all there is? Do we have to subscribe to the politics of American imperialism? Aren't we just replacing the British with the Americans, and not really being adults at all in the world? Can we guarantee that an America that is broke, under seige internally and or externally, will come to our aide when we need them? Or are we happy to be one sided in our relationship with the Americans as we were with the British, we gave, they took, and did not give back when we needed them most?

It was pleasing to see this Anzac Day, a national debate taking place about the rightful place of aboriginal warriors in Anzac Day ceremonies. Aborginal warriors are made up the survivors of the frontier wars in this country, the participants in the World Wars and other 20th century conflicts. For the first 50 years of my life they were invisible on Anzac Day, but then a couple of years ago when Peter Cosgrove was Chief of Defence Force, I saw them take part in the Canberra Rememberance Ceremonies on Anzac Day, and thought, at last, some recognition of them as proud warriors and contributors to this country, and its freedoms. There is much much more of the story of aboriginals as soldiers to be told in this country, some of it won't be pleasant , because it will be about institutionalised racism and discrimination, but we cannot mature as an adult nation until we really understand our identity and our true history.

It is also pleasing to see old diggers marching in marches alongside former enemies, the sons and daughters of Turkish soldiers from the First World War, and the Japanese survivors and their families of the Pacific conflict. War is like that. 70 years on you can't remember why you hated these people so much. And what were we fighting for anyway? The common experience of soldiering is what is remembered and shared.

In the 1970s Anzac Day fell into a bit of disrepute with the picture of the drunken veteran hanging out of the pub louding telling war stories in which he was the hero. The play "The One Day of the Year" depicted this veteran. But veterans have changed. Times have changed. The mood of the people has changed. We now live in a world facing terrorism. Many of the young feel compelled to answer the call to participate in the fight against terrorism. In entering that fight, the young need to do so with open eyes and minds, fully understanding the complexities of the world for which they may sacrifice their lives.