Irregular Writings: Australia’s Unnecessary Wars

In early September, their/our ABC reported that 100 Syrian troops had been killed by “Coalition” air strikes – included in the forces involved were Australian planes.

The targets had been identified as ISIS in nature but that identification had been in error. 100 people dead. The conservative news sources quoted 40 deaths. The Prime Minister of our country gave a solemn speech with his best lawyer’s voice, expressing “regret” over the incident and also toward any Syrian military who had been “affected”. Nice word for death.

His chin was out and he rocked back and forth on his heels and toes in a commanding manner. He eschewed his usual flashing of his light spectacles in his free hand. The Minister for Defence stated that Australian forces would be continuing in their role. They would not be swayed from their mission by this unfortunate turn of events. Business as usual. Whoops. At ease – dismissed! More flags!

A perfect scenario for many of the arguments put forward by Professor Henry Reynolds in his new book, Unnecessary Wars.

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He asks why war is such a central, active force in our national story, when they have pretty much all been other people’s wars? Australia has always volunteered its “blood and treasure” to fight for its powerful (hopeful) benefactors. There has been only one war on Australian soil and that was the Frontier War, waged on many fronts over many decades, against the First Australians. There was also a dark moment in 1942 when the 15,000 Australian troops, deserted by Churchill, were captured at Singapore by the Japanese, who were soon menacing New Guinea and bombing Darwin. (Australia then changed its allegiance to a new powerful friend in the USA.)

Every other war, Henry Reynolds argues quite convincingly, was unnecessary. Mostly doing the bidding and the fighting for England and then America.

He writes in the introduction of seeing a ceremony a few years ago in his native Hobart commemorating the Boer War. The ceremony was at a monument he had walked past with his father – also a historian – many times as a youth and it was such an ignoble, forgotten relic that it had never been remarked upon.

Only in the queer fever for war commemoration which coincided with the centenary of the Great War in recent years could this remembering of a pre-federation, colonial conflict have been revived. The public had also been primed with Anzac religiosity during the solemn, water tanked Howard Years.

Six Australian colonies had sent volunteers to the Boer War in 1898. Britain encouraged its colonies to fight for a “wider England”. Returning soldiers and parades by visiting, glamorous British regiments overshadowed Australia’s federation itself. Why do military deeds and events trump all other peace time achievements by men and women which further and improve our civil society, he asks quite reasonably. Why is war seen as a creative force here and nowhere else?

Indeed, how can Brendan Nelson, a doctor, refer to the Australian War Memorial, which he runs, as “the soul of the nation”? Shouldn’t life trump death?

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Is the Australian War Memorial the “soul of the nation”?

Former Prime Minister Tony Abbott commissioned a new “interpretive centre” to Australia’s dead on the Western front at a starting cost of $100 million. “The main reason for the cost was the engineering challenge, to dig into the hill so as not to overshadow the existing memorial, and not disturb the cemetery next to it.” Did someone say unnecessary?

Henry Reynolds was one of the prime voices for the new perspectives in Australian history that began to emerge in the early ‘80s. He made us white Australians look and see “the other side of the frontier”; to consider those First Australians, for instance, seeing white sails on the horizon.

He became a prime target in the History Wars. He inspired John Howard to come up with the term “black armband view of history”. The neoliberals saw wrongness everywhere, even in the then new National Museum in Canberra. They complained (apart from there being too much emphasis on Indigenous Australia) and suggested that the pillars in the grand foyer be painted a colour other than blue as poles of that hue were forever associated with Gough Whitlam.

Well, he must be a tough guy because he’ll certainly cop it for this book.

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Has ANZAC mythology been blown out of proportion?

You can’t actually talk about war or soldiers at all in Australia. There have never been any questions asked about “why” we are actually in the Middle East/Afghanistan/Iraq/Syria and for how long we must be there until “the job is done”. When the troops returned from Iraq, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd ruled out any kind of review into Australia’s involvement in the war as to do so would be to disrupt the troops return to civilian life.

This book asks great questions. Questions that need to be answered. Questions that drive at the flimsy construction of Australia’s “heart”. So much of it is phony-arsed flim-flam about wars that never really concerned us, only our powerful friends.

How different an influence could we have been in the world if we’d been independent?

@davegraney

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