We used to think the gravest decision any government could make was to take its country to war. Not any more. Going to war for us has now become almost commonplace. We commit to war after war – Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan – but we are unwilling to contemplate the disaster each of those wars has brought, not only to Australians, but also to millions of other people. But, rather than face up to our mistakes, we hide behind the valour of service personnel who have made sacrifices.
Each of our military adventures in recent decades started with strong political support, but they all turned into disasters.
Our current involvement in war in Iraq and Syria is now so commonplace that the parliament does not even discuss it.
As Henry Reynolds put it:
The threshold Australian governments need to cross in order to send forces overseas is perilously low. Because there has never been an assessment of why Australia has been so often involved in war, young people must get the impression that war is a natural and inescapable part of national life. It is what we do and we are good at it. We “punch above our weight”. War is treated as though it provides the venue and the occasion for Australian heroism and martial virtuosity. While there is much talk of dying, or more commonly of sacrifice, there is little mention of killing and never any assessment of the carnage visited on distant countries in our name.
In modern Australia, the sword has become mightier than the pen.
The supporters of this creeping militarism tell us that, somehow, WWI made us into a nation. It did nothing of the sort. It divided and sundered this young nation. In the conscription debates, Prime Minister Billy Hughes played the sectarian card as hard as he could.
Countries don’t achieve ‘nationhood’ by acting as colonial errand boys, as we did for the British in WWI. Neither do we exhibit our nationhood by being at the call of the US today.
In her blog of 23 April 2014, Marilyn Lake spoke of WWI as ‘fracturing our soul’. And that is what it did.
In the latter part of the 19th Century and in the first decade of the 20th Century, the young Australia did some remarkable things. We forged a federation from six disparate colonies. We established a national parliament, national institutions, and a national capital. We adopted the ‘Australian ballot’ ahead of its time. We introduced universal suffrage. We established the basic wage for a family with two children. We were a world leader in civic institutions and civic virtues. And we fractured it all by allowing ourselves to be called up for the British empire.
Politicisation of ANZAC?
In the lead-up to the calamity of Gallipoli and the years of Anzacery that will follow, we are going to be subject to growing manipulation and militarisation. Anzac Day is already more important than Australia Day, or even than Christmas Day or Easter Sunday. The military drums are growing louder and louder.
Our TV screens and newspapers can’t give us enough about WWI. And there are years of it to come.
The government is funding a great range of programs to highlight our military history. But not our civic achievements.
A particular emphasis of these programs will be school children who are already being bombarded with free books, films, CDs, and posters about our military history. The Australian War Memorial is running children’s essay competitions to send winners to Gallipoli.
In years past, Australian service people who died overseas were buried overseas, and the family was usually advised by a letter or telegram from the Minister for Defence. Now, the body is returned, and we make a major public and media event of the funeral, attended by the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition.
WWII was arguably the most important war for our survival, but it has become almost a footnote to WWI and the call of empire.
Operation Sovereign Borders is an example of how civil policies and programs are being turned over to the military.
We are again appointing military generals as Governor-Generals and Governors.
Lack of accountability over the Iraq war
We have royal commissions on highly political and second-rate issues, but we refused to establish a royal commission as to how and why we became involved in the war in Iraq. That war has produced a bitter harvest in the Islamic State (IS).
Major newspapers overseas, like the Washington Post and the New York Times, have admitted they were wrong in their support of the allied invasion in Iraq. No major Australian media have done the same.
Because it doesn’t suit the military myth creation, we blot out two major wars in our history. There is scarcely any mention of the 30,000 indigenous people who were killed in the Frontier War. We are determined not to admit that the first time Australian and New Zealand forces fought together was not at Gallipoli in 1915, but in the Maori wars in NZ in the 1860s.
And on it goes.
It is becoming easier and easier for Australia to go to war. War is becoming commonplace. Step by step, we are venturing into very dangerous territory.
For incisive commentary on political and economic affairs, see John Menadue’s blog.