Are We Celebrating War?

Every year, as the ANZAC ceremonies come around again and seem to exponentially grow in stature and public awareness, I ask myself, is the message we are sending our children the right one? Celebrity status to the young is accepted generally without much analysis and the glorious stories of these young men who unwittingly sacrificed their lives may be generating the wrong signals. As a father of two young children I am hopeful that my own abhorrence of war, and more importantly its causes, are still paramount in the minds of my children, and in the greater community. Are we focusing on the resultant individual consequences of great wars to the detriment of understanding and condemning the reasons why we find ourselves at war with, other members of the human race?

As a historian I spend a considerable amount of time analysing past conflicts between nation states and I am amazed at the general ignorance amongst the population about the political causes of the wars Australia has been involved in over its short history. ANZAC day, in my opinion, is an opportunity for all of us to spend some time thinking about these conflicts and the factors that contributed to their emergence. In some way this new found reverence for the fallen participants in Gallipoli, in particular, reminds me of what used to be far more keenly felt about the Christian religious festivals, which also reflects a similar ignorance of the actual historical details by the general population. Many people say they find the study of history boring and or a waste of time but it is an understanding of our past actions and policies, which will save us from repeating horrendous mistakes costing the lives of millions.

Some would say that the commemoration of ANZAC day is precisely about an awareness of our history as a nation, but to me its focus is sentimental and iconic. ANZAC day is creating symbols of nationhood, the sacrificial soldier on the altar of freedom, but isn’t the question why we were fighting in the first place equally deserving of gross public recognition? Why do we send the very youngest men into battle? It is a historical and universal social policy practiced by ancient to modern civilisations to commit young men into the violent service of their state’s militaries. Young men seek glory and fame. Young men act first and ask questions later. Young men are more likely to obey their commanders over their own consciences, than older and possibly wiser men or women. History is littered with nations and kingdoms that have spent the lives of their young men, often cheaply, in search of conquest.

The ANZACS and Australian soldiers in WWII were, we are told, defending our country rather than in search of conquest. Australia in the First World War was tied culturally to mother Britain and it was expected that we would send troops to support Britain’s involvement in this highly dubious, in my opinion, global war. WWI was the catastrophic crowning glory of the Princes of Europe, the egos of Kaisers, Czars and Kings combined with new technologies to fertilise the battlefields with an entire generation of young men’s blood and bones. The resultant victory of the Allies led to the onerous Treaty of Versailles, which impinged greatly on Germany’s future; creating Hitler and WWII. A rather brief surmising of events but true enough in essence; look at how the US handled post war Germany and Japan after their WWII defeats to see how useful the lessons of history are.

Australian soldiers in more recent conflicts are now acting, with other soldiers from developed nations, as more like global policemen in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, supposedly engaging and defeating the forces of tyrants and terrorists. The world is a complex place and the reasons for war are multiple, actions can be both right and wrong, can achieve good and bad outcomes; just look at Iraq. The media coverage of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq has been micromanaged by the military to avoid the antiwar reaction engendered by the very visual conflict in Vietnam. Countries like Australia, Britain and the US are controlling what their citizens are allowed to see on their television and computer screens when it comes to military actions. Orwell’s 1984 is merely set a few decades early when we consider today’s public presentation of war and the controlled perceptions these governments wish to oversee.

We seem unflinching in our fictional reimaginings of the horrors of Gallipoli on our viewing screens, but it is easy to empathise with the affects of atrocities committed a hundred years ago upon distant relatives or strangers. Real war doesn’t currently touch the majority of Australians, as we are turned away from confronting its direct images by government policy, and only a minority of us have a connection to it through family or friend, or have experienced it ourselves. The Australian identity is linked to that of the iconic ANZACS by the fact of their almost universal presentation as Anglo-Saxon Aussies. The real effects of war upon refugees from Iraq, Afghanistan and Sri Lanka make little impact on the hearts of Australians, despite the fact that these have just happened or are maybe still happening right now. Our great public sadness is reserved for the ghosts of men and women who died up to a hundred years ago. We are authorised to feel greatly for these mainly white ancestors but actively encouraged to despise and be indifferent to the suffering of men, women and children who are clearly not Australian and thus not deserving of our sympathy. Real war is happening in Africa and the Middle East right now, people being killed and blown up, slaughter and rape everywhere. It is interesting how we rationalise and fit these realities into our ethical positions on what deserves our attention and empathy. Lest we forget.

©Robert Hamilton