Australians & war: Anzac Day

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Bill Frilay

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ANZAC. Two elderly citizens leaving flowers at the ANZAC Memorial in Torquay. William Ng, flickr cc.

Anzac Day is nigh. We are 99 years on from the original Anzac Day, yet crowds at the Dawn Service seem to grow, as do young people ‘on pilgrimage’ to Gallipoli and the fields of northern France.

What is our attitude to war?

Hugh White, Professor of Strategic Studies at the ANU, has written and spoken about our attitudes. David Stephens, secretary of the Canberra-based group, Honest History, has put together a short appraisal of Hugh White’s themes on Australia’s attitudes to war:

  • How ‘soft’ wars have made Australians more bellicose than ever
  • How the perceived need to preserve the American Alliance makes most wars acceptable in Australia
  • How Australians are reluctant to focus on the purposes of war
  • How Australians celebrate the experience of war while downplaying the reasons for particular wars: the centrality of ANZAC
  • How romanticising war increases the likelihood of future wars
  • How these chickens might all come home to roost in the East China Sea in the not-too-distant future.

I can only give personal reactions to some of these issues.

Anzac Day has become embedded in our culture. It is a quasi-holy day in Australia. Without denigrating our soldiers, I do think we tend to overlook the purpose of the war – why we were there in the first place. This is a point John Menadue has made in a recent blog. There are phrases wheeled out such as “saved Australia”, and so on. I think this was right in 1941, but not necessarily so in some other instances.

I recently read some books, including Margaret MacMillan’s The War that ended Peace, on the causes of WWI, which I had always thought was a pointless human catastrophe. The complete failure of government and diplomacy over a sustained period led to this war and its terrible consequences at the time and for the following 30 years. The fate of Europe was decided perhaps by just a dozen men!

However, having reached August 1914 and the start of the war, Max Hastings, in Catastrophe 1914: Europe goes to War, argued as I recall that it was then worth fighting, because if Germany had not been opposed, it would have treated the rest of Europe as vassal states much as Hitler did. At the end of his book, Hastings makes the point that Germany was a surging power in 1914, and they would have achieved all they wanted in terms of economic power if they hadn’t gone to war!

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Anzac Day. Jean-Jacues Halan, flickr cc.

But that is looking at it through a European lens. Looking at 1914 from Australia’s point of view, I think we were very swift to support the ‘Mother Country’ without thinking too much about it. And jingoistic.

My long-deceased aunt told a story about a cake shop run by a highly respected family of German background (I think it was Plarres in Puckle Street, Moonee Ponds). Word spread that a mob was going to do their own Kristallnacht on the shop. My grandfather and others went there to prevent it happening. By 1916, however, a more considered opposition had emerged led by Dr Mannix – to proposed conscription.

I do not think we are becoming increasingly ‘bellicose’. I think that’s the wrong word. Australians are only too aware of the awfulness of war – you just have to switch on your television. But in some instances I think we accept that some military intervention is justifiable, as in Timor L’Este, the Solomons, Gulf War 1, and possibly Afghanistan initially. The Iraq War wasn’t, notwithstanding Saddam’s odious regime. At the time I thought Saddam had weapons of mass destruction and that war was justified. I have felt conned ever since finding this was not true.

I’m sure the American alliance has influenced several of our decisions. Nevertheless, this has been and continues to be, our most important alliance and will remain so, for the present at least. If we had not had this alliance, our defence budget would have been much higher than it is. Yes, the US has made big mistakes, but it has for the most part been a force for the good (eg the Marshall Plan), and does not often receive recognition for that.

I wish there were no wars. But despite all the efforts of many including the United Nations, the world remains a dangerous place, and the use of force has not gone away. Power, and the threat to use it, is ever present, as we have seen in Crimea. There does need to be an effective defensive capability. But it is noteworthy that nobody else has stepped into Syria or Crimea or Libya – perhaps we learned something from Iraq and Afghanistan.

Are we heading for trouble in the East China Sea? Not necessarily. In recent times, the powers have shown caution rather then enter into conflicts. And we may have a minor role to play in reducing this tension. Tony Abbott’s invitation to engage in joint military exercises with China – and also possibly with the US – is a move from left field. But it might help in a small way. Australia is a middle power, non-threatening, and with good relations both with the US and with China. We have a contribution to make.

Coming back to Anzac Day, I am all for celebrating it, if that is the right word. I am of the generation of Vietnam and my contemporaries went there. Many of them were and remain damaged. And how shamefully did we treat them! It is a stain on our collective conscience.

The Defence forces have an important role. Partly driven by the negativity of our reception to the Viet veterans, I respect the work of the diggers and respect Anzac day. And I support prime ministers of both sides giving all the support our troops need in the field.

Bill Frilay is a regular contributor to SPC News, Social Policy Connections monthly newsletter.

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