The Guardian May 7, 2003


Martial love

by Rowan Cahill

I found Anzac Day 2003 disturbing. The theme was "From Gallipoli to the 
Persian Gulf". From the Returned Services League (RSL) came the message 
that War is the price we pay for Peace. From Prime Minister John Howard we 
heard that the Anzac tradition is the most powerful force shaping 
Australian history. From the mouths of selected youngsters interviewed by 
the mass media came the nonsense that Australia's political freedom is due, 
historically, to Australia's battlefield prowess.

In all of this there was no acknowledgement whatsoever that only during 
World War II was Australia's freedom ever threatened; no recognition that 
War should be the last resort, signalling the tragic failure of diplomacy 
and politics; no awareness that the impetus to establish Anzac Day began 
with the Christian Churches in Queensland in 1916, an expression of 'war 
theology', the widespread belief of non-Catholic clergy at the time that 
War gave the British Empire the God-given opportunity to spread the 
Christian Gospel to some dark heathen places.

Anzac Remembrance 2003 was highly selective. So, for example, there was no 
reference to the tactical and strategic stupidity that Gallipoli 
represents; no reference to the abattoir slaughter of the Western Front in 
1916; no reference to the way Robert Menzies lied to the Australian people 
and Parliament to manipulate Australia into the Vietnam War.

Scant attention also to the fact that during the 20th century some 102,000 
Australians died as the direct result of War.

Part of the Anzac Myth is the proposition that Australia is a Peace-loving 
nation, that Peace is the preferred option of the Australian people, that 
as a nation, Australia only reluctantly goes to War. Sadly, and 
disturbingly, history suggests otherwise.

Australia's military history begins with colonisation. The European 
occupation of the continent did not go unchallenged by the Aborigines. A 
state of war existed from Governor Phillip's time, right through the 19th 
century, as the invaders met with Aboriginal resistance.

The defenders strategically employed guerilla type warfare against the 
superior military might of industrial Britain. Because this resistance was 
effective, and the enemy elusive, a bloody and vengeful military campaign 
was conducted in retaliation.

There were punitive raids on camps, and terror was officially used to bring 
about Aboriginal submission. This protracted warfare resulted in the 
violent deaths of an estimated 20,000 Aborigines and 2000 Europeans.

Before Federation in 1901, thousands of enthusiastic Australian volunteers 
participated in three imperialist military ventures overseas; against the 
New Zealand Maori tribes (the Maori Wars, 1863-72); against the Islamic 
rebellion in the Sudan (1885-86); against emerging Chinese nationalism 
(Boxer Rebellion, 1900-01).

In each case the involvement was presented in adventurous, jingoistic 
terms, and the enemy portrayed as heathens devoid of human rights. This was 
a recipe for callous and criminal military behaviour.

Australia's emergence as a nation was marked by the involvement of 16,175 
troops in the Boer War (1899-1902) in South Africa, on behalf of British 
gold interests. It was a brutal war in which the British used scorched 
earth tactics and concentration camps to crush Boer resistance.

Twelve years later Australia was at war again. The Great War (1914-18) 
realised the dream of those Federation polemicists who maintained that the 
nation should be born in the heat of battle and blood sacrifice.

Out of the blood-fests of the Western Front, and the impossibilities of 
Gallipoli, the Anzac myth was crafted, telling of larrikin heroes, imbued 
with mateship and derring-do.

Somewhere in this myth-making process the slaughter and senselessness of 
the War, so apparent to many participants, and to those who hoped it would 
be The War To End All War, was lost. Possibly deliberately so.

In 1919 Australian troops were at it again, fighting the Red Army as part 
of the anti-Bolshevik North Russian Relief Force. Australians won two 
Victoria Crosses in this bloody and useless British initiative.

The campaign aimed to advance British interests in the Baltic region and in 
Persia and, of course, to "strangle the Bolshevik baby in its bed" as 
Winston Churchill declared. The Force was withdrawn after British 
capitalists decided it would be better to develop trade links with the 
infant Soviet Russia.

After an interlude of peace, conflict continued: World War II, the only 
time Australia was actually threatened with invasion; Korea; Malaya; 
Borneo; Vietnam; and more recently, Gulf Wars 1 and 2, with the "social 
worker with a gun" Timor Intervention sandwiched in between.

Conspicuously missing from Anzac Day commentaries is reference to the use 
of the armed forces against trade unionists. This tradition reaches back to 
the Maritime Strike of 1890, finding fullness of expression with the 
Chifley (ALP) Government's use of troops as strike-breakers during the 1949 
Coal Strike.

Thereafter Coalition and Labor governments variously used the armed forces 
against trade unionists in 1951, 1952, 1953, 1954, 1967, 1981, and 1989. 
The jury is still out on possible military involvement in the 1998 War on 
the Waterfront.

The Vietnam War and conscription temporarily halted Australia's love affair 
with War. Since then, however, powerful forces including media 
organisations, the RSL, the Department of Veterans Affairs, Armed Forces 
and weapons industry lobbyists, have variously worked hard to blunt anti-
war sentiment and encourage the martial spirit.

Youth in particular have been targeted, and the fostering of the Anzac 
legend is central to the project.

Dewy eyed celebration of Anzac Day 2003, politically heightened by the 
emotion of an ongoing war, coupled with the apparent electoral appeal of 
the repulsive 'war-leader' posturing of Prime Minister John Howard, suggest 
the martial spirit is alive and well in 21st century Australia, and 
probably will be for some time to come. I hope I am wrong. 

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