Learning lessons from the slaughter

As the debate about Australia’s war history continues, it’s important to take note of diverse views…including from the views of those who believe the main lessons are being ignored.

Learning lessons from the slaughter

By Richard Keys*

Director Brendon Nelson shamefully described the Australian War Memorial as the “soul of Australia”.   When she was Prime Minister, Julia Gillard said Gallipoli “defined us as a nation”. With the government spending millions on Anzac Day hoopla, perhaps it is time for a reality check. Tragically, the true lesson of Anzac Day has not been learned.

The 20th century began well for the newly federated nation. Backed by a reasonably enlightened constitution (if you were white), Australia led the world in such things as universal suffrage, aged pensions, minimum wages and innovative design and development. The exhibition at the National Museum of Australia “1913 – Glorious Days” showed what an exciting world it was, especially for the better off.

Then a pointless and avoidable war started in Europe, and a generation of young Australian men were sent off to be slaughtered on the other side of the world. Dragged into Churchill’s fantasy about “knocking Turkey out of the War”, we invaded a country which had never heard of us – seemingly oblivious to the well-armed and well-trained army waiting for us on the cliff tops above. Is this really how we want to be “defined” – belligerent and stupid?

Our first bellicose Prime Minister (but. alas, not our last), Billy Hughes, wanted yet more cannon fodder, and tried to win two conscription referenda. With all the patriotic propaganda around, he thought the “yes” vote would be a shoe-in, but just to be sure he allowed the troops at the front a vote. Big mistake: they voted heavily against conscription, and that, combined with the suffering wives, sweethearts and mothers ensured the referenda were defeated, the second by a larger majority than the first.

 Photo: Conscription vote badge…pic: Jason McCarthy NMoA
Photo: Conscription vote badge…pic: Jason McCarthy NMoA

With so many men away, food production plummeted, as did manufacturing (except for arms, of course). The cost of living skyrocketed, riots broke out, there were regular police baton charges. The country was on the brink of civil war.

The trade union movement was greatly strengthened.

The end of the appalling war saw an equally appalling peace, based on the Treaty of Versailles. Billy Hughes used the blood of 60,000 Australian dead to strut around at the Peace Conference. As Chairman of the Imperial Reparations Committee, Hughes played no small part in imposing the vindictive and impossible reparations on defeated Germany, which led, not too indirectly, to the Second World War. As a result of his manoeuvrings we acquired New Guinea, for which we are still paying a price in more ways than one.

The end of the “The War To End War” saw a nation numbed and bereft. There was hardly a family that did not have a man lost – either dead, or wounded, or blind, or mentally traumatized, often taking refuge in alcohol. War Memorials in nearly every town in the land bear silent testimony to the pain, and the grief, and the guilt. “They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old….”

We are told that we celebrate Anzac Day to “honour the fallen”. The best way to have honoured the fallen would have been to ensure that there were no more fallen. With one notable, even noble exception, we have fought numerous wars from Sudan to Iraq (mark 3), firstly for the British Empire, and then for American hegemony.

It is beyond my understanding why we venerate the disastrous folly of Gallipoli, while Kokoda is greatly undervalued– Kokoda, where our brave soldiers fought in terrible jungle conditions, with the remarkable support of local people, on the one occasion in our history when we were under direct threat of invasion. At least they knew what they were fighting for!

And now we have another desperate Prime Minister who kicks the khaki can, tries to ramp up fear in the populace, exhorts us to rally round the flag(s).

He spends millions sending planes off to bomb the Middle East, and yet more young men to fight and possibly die in yet another futile foreign war, even though he himself said: “In the Middle East, there are only baddies and baddies”.

As Dr. Samuel Johnson famously asserted: “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel”.

* Richard Keys spent a lifetime in the filming business, covering everything from newsreels to animation, ultimately retiring as ‘curator emeritus’ at the National Film and Sound Archive. Through his work, he developed an abiding interest in history, which was boosted by the war diaries of father who served in Salonika. Richard is a member of CLA.

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One Comment

  1. Dear Richard,

    Thank you so much for this perspective on ANZAC day.

    The relative silence to the pain, grief and guilt of soldiers and civilians, you mention in your article, is all I could think of on the 41 ANZAC days I have experienced;

    ..in disbelief, that we are still being manipulated and, in a sense, overpowered by the corporations who continue to push for profits, by producing weapons, finding buyers.

    I grew up in the 1950’s in West Germany. As a child, my terror of war, the threat posed by the Cold War, was present as an underlying emotion every day.
    It eased somewhat, when I emigrated to Australia in 1975, 23 years young.

    This fear has resurfaced since the the Iraque War, 1991.
    I now avoid watching news bulletins on TV or Radio.

    The recent move to criminalize dissent, the undermining of people’s ability to earn a living in an increasingly unstable employment market, rekindled my fear of, one day, having to live in a dictatorship.

    The subtle and not so subtle manipulations (legal, economic) have become relentless over many years; to my feeling, since the mid 1980’s.

    I hope that the work of writers like you will be presented by Highschool teachers and university lecturers.

    Thank you again!
    And my very best wishes,

    Claudia Bonnielle

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