Lest we forget

Are we taking the right lessons from the ANZAC story? Lest our tribute to those who've given their lives become lip service and flag-waving, it's time for some serious reflection.

By Senator Scott Ludlam
Thursday, April 20, 2017

“Let silent contemplation be your offering.”

Those are the words etched before the flame of remembrance under the shadow of the war memorial on the edge of Kings Park in Perth. On an ordinary day, the space is filled with people milling about the lawn with stunning views across the city, but those words always make an impact on me; a reminder of a certain quiet reverence subtly at odds with the bright surrounds. The memorial itself is a sombre monolith, a tall granite capstone for a small arcade containing hundreds of engraved names. These young men boarded steamers more than a century ago and never came back. Unlike similar places of memory in East Asia or old Europa — Hong Kong and Berlin come to mind — these shrines are signifiers of a peculiarly distant kind of loss.  

Growing up in Western Australia, my only real memories of ANZAC day are consistent with this invitation to silent contemplation. We studied the catastrophic Gallipoli campaign in Primary School, tried to get our heads around the horror of the Somme in High School history classes. One of my earliest memories, as a four-year-old child, was of the brutal dioramas in the National War Memorial in Canberra. War appeared to be something made of mud and death and hopelessness, lest we forget. Mateship, courage and uniquely Australian black humour; I would discover that part much later. But mostly, I remember the guy without a name, in khaki, head in his hands. A broken man in a broken landscape.

The rise of nationalism

Half a lifetime later, things seem to be different. Starting in the Howard era, a new form of nationalism was slowly and carefully injected into ANZAC day and Australia day. A great many flags. Commercial sponsorship; targeted alignment with ADF recruitment campaigns; leverage into an unpopular invasion of Iraq and god only knows what we’re up to in Syria and East Africa. Queasy co-sponsorship of war memorial events by massive US arms contractors.

More flags. Flags on cars, flags as capes, flags as tattoos, flags as fuck-off-we’re-full T-shirts. No irony that our flag is still one quarter composed of someone else’s. Somehow we find ourselves here; coerced into rituals that feel vastly more North American than anything I remember of Australia’s endearingly awkward and self-deprecating piss-take patriotism.

The young men and women don’t leave on steamers any more, they depart on unbranded charter airlines for places like Al-Minhad in the UAE that don’t appear on maps. They traverse moonscapes in unknown parts of Uruzgan and Anbar in near-total secrecy, and only fleetingly appear in the media when something distant and horrifying happens, or when one of them comes home in a coffin.

Having seen — ever so briefly — the degree of focus and professionalism they bring to this work made me even angrier at the garbage politics that continues to put them into harm’s way in the service of catastrophic US foreign policy incompetence. “Support the troops,” the incantation perfected by Prime Minister Howard in the course of having faced down mass public insurrection over his Iraq disaster, was nothing more than deceit; misdirection, but it persists.

Time to get real

If we’re serious about supporting our troops, I feel as though we owe them a few things. First, to never put them into the line of fire without a careful, open and deliberative process that reflects solely on genuine, strategic, legally sound humanitarian imperatives or the actual defence of this island continent. No more expeditionary wars. Never again Gallipoli, never again Baghdad. 

Secondly, to train and equip them for what they will mostly actually do, which in this age will increasingly revolve around disaster relief and multi-national collaboration to cope with the accelerating impacts of climate change and resource scarcity. A nuclear weapons umbrella and a few dozen unflyable Joint Strike Fighters are worse than useless in this context.

And thirdly, to look after them when they come home. The ADF has come a long way in the institutional recognition of the daunting impacts of post-traumatic stress, due in large part by leadership by people like John Cantwell and those behind Soldier On. Nonetheless, the toll of self-harm, family violence and suicide accruing to those we’re meant to be “supporting” tells us that something is still grievously missing.

Former Army Officer James Brown’s important book ANZAC’s Long Shadow puts it like this: “A century ago we got it wrong. We sent thousands of young Australians on a military operation that was barely more than a disaster. It’s right that a hundred years later we should feel strongly about that. But have we got our remembrance right? What lessons haven’t we learned about war, and what might be the cost of our Anzac obsession?”

Makes you think. The kind of thing that could use some silent contemplation this ANZAC day.

Senator Scott Ludlam is the Australian Greens spokesperson on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Veteran's Affairs. Image: By Sam from Canberra, Australia (Australian War Memorial, Uploaded by Parkes) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons