Lest we forget to ask the reason why

Bookmark and Share | John Roskam
The Age 25th April, 2007

At the front of the Baptist Church on Collins Street there is a banner that reads: "Seek Peace". And while peace is certainly preferable to war, the slogan doesn't answer the question. Pacifism is fine in theory, but has its limitations in practice. Whether peace is good or bad depends on the circumstances. Peace in the short-term might come at a long-term cost.

As the United Nations searches for peace in Darfur, the killing continues. Military intervention by Western countries in the Sudan would not be peaceful but it could save lives.

Sometimes to abandon peace is the least worst option, and sometimes the decision to fight requires as much bravery as fighting itself. There is a part of the Anzac tradition that represents such bravery.

We don't regard ourselves as particularly militaristic and compared with many other countries our history is relatively free of armed conflict. So it is significant that our most important national commemoration, Anzac Day, recalls a military conflict, and quite appropriately the public focus of Anzac Day has traditionally been on the wartime sacrifice of Australians.

What we don't do on Anzac Day is recognise the reason Australians fought. To properly understand the sacrifice of those Australians who fought and died, we must remember what caused them to do what they did. If we are to understand our own history, simply to record what happened is not enough.

Confronting the "why" of war is always controversial. We face precisely such a situation right now in relation to Australia's military presence in Afghanistan and Iraq. We confronted, and continue to confront, that question about the Vietnam War.

The difficulty we have in explaining our contemporary conflicts extends to all wars, even those that took place nearly a century ago. Members of the public might be able to name who the enemy was at Gallipoli, but it is likely that few would be able to explain anything more about the event.

One of the things that Anzac Day represents is the willingness of Australians to stand up for what they believe in. Australians sometimes like to think of themselves as people who will look for consensus first, and who are unlikely to be roused to passionate disagreement. But our track record is actually quite different from this stereotype.

During the First World War, 320,000 Australians volunteered, 61,000 were killed and 155,000 wounded. From the end of the war until the 1930s another 60,000 died from wounds and war-related illnesses. More Australians died in the First World War than in the Second World War. One way of determining the scale of this effort is to consider the size of this military contribution if Australians today volunteered for a war at the same rate as they did 90 years ago - if they did there would be more than 1 million volunteers in the armed forces.

Our focus on what happened at Gallipoli means we risk misunderstanding what has shaped the national character. Even if Gallipoli had never happened, the country would have been a very different place by the end of the war.

The reasons Australians offered to serve their country in such large numbers during WWI are complex, but there was more to it than blind loyalty to Britain. It wasn't simply a case of because Britain was fighting, so too must Australia. Certainly Australians regarded themselves as part of the British Empire, and they believed they should contribute their fair share to its defence. There was also a strong sentiment that to secure long-term world peace the aggression of Germany against the rest of Europe needed to be stopped.

In the case of WWI, the Korean War and the Vietnam War, the received wisdom is that we were involved because our allies, originally Britain and then the United States, were involved. This is altogether too simplistic. When the Australian government committed troops to these conflicts, the decision was overwhelmingly supported by the community - war was difficult but it was necessary.

In recent years, the resurgence of popular interest in Anzac Day has been noticeable. Part of the reason for this resurgence might be precisely because we have avoided the divisive issues of why we have been at war. Now that Anzac Day represents the service of Australians in all wars, not just WWI, it is becoming more difficult to avoid this question.