Less than two years from now, we are set to enter upon a genuinely phenomenal series of commemorations and ceremonies: the centenary of the Gallipoli campaign in 2015. Already the hype is building, already the ANZAC legend is assuming an even more central place in the national consciousness than is usual; and thus, already, it is becoming clear that the 2015 commemorations are going to embody many of the more troubling aspects of the way we remember our military history. As it stands, it seems that the centenary will bring nothing other than an extension and elaboration of current practice. And this is unfortunate, because there are many, many questions that need to be asked about Australian memorial culture.
For example, is it really appropriate or healthy to have young children dressing up in their ancestors’ uniforms and medals, and marching in a military ceremony? Is there not something harmful in the way we increasingly require acknowledgment of the ANZAC “spirit” as an essential component of Australian identity? Why are there now television ads suggesting that it is shameful or unacceptable to fail to attend an ANZAC Day service? Should we be identifying ourselves so completely with the experience of soldiers dead and gone, let alone soldiers serving and fighting today? All these questions deserve more attention, and I cannot address them all here. But I do wish to focus on what I believe is an especially important one. Why exactly is it so important that we “support our troops” – and what do we mean when we say that?
We are all familiar with how the issue is framed: we are asked to attend services or buy badges or whatever to show that we “support our troops,” and we are expected to be shocked and horrified at people whom we are told somehow do not “support our troops”. The big problem here, however, is that no distinction is usually made between supporting individual soldiers who are required to serve and work in a war zone, and supporting the larger project of sending them and maintaining them there in the first place. Personally, I have the utmost respect and sympathy for anyone who works, in any capacity, in a conflict environment. In that sense, then, I support the troops. Crucially, however, I do not believe that this mandates me to show any support whatsoever for the decision-makers responsible for directing those soldiers.
Vietnam-era protesters held up signs that read, “Support our troops – bring them home!”. Nowadays, for many people, that sentiment is unacceptable. If you are opposed to the ongoing commitment in Afghanistan, then you are, by association, assumed to have some kind of personal grudge against the poor men and women who have been required to fight that war. In the current dialectic, you are either an admirer of Australian soldiers and you are loyal to the military projects they are assigned to work on; or you are somehow betraying the efforts of the men and women who are out there working to ensure your freedom and safety. That last bit – ensuring our freedom and safety – is the other most disturbing element of this new militarism. The reason we should support our troops, it is assumed, is because they are fighting to protect us. And if you suggest that this is not true either, then that, too, is an indicator of your appalling national disloyalty.
In fact it is patently inaccurate, by any measure, to assert that those Australians who have been killed in war have died fighting to protect Australia, or that the free and prosperous lives we lead today would not be possible if they had not made this sacrifice. Most of Australia’s wars have been fought to provide support to other, more powerful countries – first Britain, later America – in conflicts that did not directly affect us. Only the Pacific war with the Japanese was fought partially in defence of Australian interests, and even there, we know that Japan never had any intention of fighting Australians or invading Australian territory (the bombing of Darwin and the submarine incursion into Sydney Harbour were both intended as warning signals that Australia ought not to meddle in Japanese business). Above all, the original ANZACs who died at Gallipoli were fighting a campaign that had nothing whatsoever to do with protecting Australia.
Of course, a war that is not fought to defend one’s homeland or protect one’s interests may still be a just war, fought in a good cause. None should suggest that it was wrong for Australians to lend help in the struggle against Hitler, or to assist the Americans in lifting Japanese imperialism from east Asia. But it is important that we remain clear about the causes and motivations that were at work on every occasion when Australians were sent to war. Too often, today, it is simply taken for granted that our military engagements are fought to protect our freedoms and our way of life, and this response is becoming so automatic that many people seem to find it hard to conceive of the notion that our soldiers might ever have been sent overseas for any other reason. This is a dangerous attitude.
War, to repeat the cliched but accurate characterisation, is hell on earth. The decision to initiate or participate in war is perhaps the most momentous, extraordinary decision that any government may ever have to make. It is a decision that should be subject to closer, more rigorous, more stubborn public scrutiny than anything else that a government does. It should not be possible for any government to send soldiers to war without being forced to provide the most comprehensive and convincing justification that it can possibly offer.
This is an ideal – in reality, very few populations ever demand this level of justification from their leaders. In reality, it is tragically easy for politicians to send young men to war. But we do not need to accept this. We should always be striving for a higher standard of accountability from our decision-makers. That means requiring them to explain exactly why it is right to send a soldier to a war zone, every single time that choice is made. Yet right now in Australia, we are moving in the opposite direction. A culture of unquestioning adulation, in which we take it for granted that all our military endeavours are heroic, and anybody who suggests otherwise is labelled an anti-patriot and hysterically shouted down, is a culture that only makes it easier for more and more Australian soldiers to be sent overseas to die.