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Lest We Forget#9: Khaki elections, the meaning of and visits to Gallipoli, and 1930s comparisons: Anzac Day roundup

John Menadue’s website, Pearls & Irritations, can be relied upon to produce thought-provoking posts. This Anzac Day, it offered Peter Stanley and Greg Lockhart on khaki elections, Sue Wareham on the moral issues that now envelope the Australian War Memorial, and Barbara Wertheim‘s personal reflections on Anzac and her family.

Peter Stanley

Suggesting 2022’s Anzac Day was different, Stanley asked some important questions.

Who are Australia’s heroes today? Surely the doctors, nurses, ambos and hospital workers who have helped to us through the Covid pandemic are more convincing candidates to be regarded as the nation’s saviours? Surely the fireies and the SES volunteers who protected communities in 2019-20 and in the recent catastrophic floods have a greater claim to be accorded a day of public acknowledgment? Maintaining a day of remembrance for those who fought for a long-gone empire, or for a very different Australia must be losing the immediate, personal, emotional connections which rightly made Anzac Day such an important part of Australian life during the twentieth century? Does a different, more diverse society demand other things to valorise? Is Anzac Day, while still important to some Australians (those with an Anzac in the family), of diminishing relevance? These questions might at least be more widely debated this Anzac season.

Greg Lockhart

Vietnam veteran Greg Lockhart considered at some length the implications of the current defamation proceedings involving Ben Roberts-Smith VC.

BRS’ ‘khaki’ image portfolio layers many others in the culture, as it looms large to cover the central inadequacy of Australian defence culture today. In confirming the idea of Australian fighting prowess, with which ANZAC culture desires strongly to identify, the khaki does not primarily represent the defence of Australia. It still represents something close to what Lord Salisbury intended it would in the first khaki election of 1900:  the defence of the empire. That is a great, collective secret of Australian defence. The current khaki election is riding a political-cultural illusion of our permanent place in the British empire-cum-Anglosphere.

Sue Wareham

Why does the Memorial risk fulfilling its purposes and its reputation, against the wishes of a majority of Australians, for tiny amounts of funding [from arms dealers]? The only beneficiaries appear to be the corporations themselves, and those leaders in perpetual khaki mode – heightened during election campaigns – who lead by fear and demand ever-growing military budgets. Meanwhile the AWM Council also appears captive to the notion of never-ending wars, and oblivious to the “never again” sentiment of the World War 1 diggers who we honour on Anzac Day. The council members are disproportionately (over half the council members) current or former professional military personnel, unlike the vast majority of our war dead and their descendants who remember them. The AWM’s governing body is not representative of Australian society. There is no longer a single historian on the Council. The trend towards militarisation and commercialisation must be reversed, starting with an end to weapons company sponsorships.

Boeing’s Loyal Wingman drone, sold to the RAAF. Boeing’s Australia, New Zealand and Pacific President, Brendan Nelson, is now also Chair of the Council of the Australian War Memorial. Boeing Defence Australia is part of the Boeing empire. Boeing also makes bombers, rotorcraft, fighter and attack aircraft, tankers and transport aircraft, other drones, missiles, spacecraft and satellites. Boeing defence products are sold to more than 150 countries. Neither Boeing, nor the War Memorial – nor, apparently, Dr Nelson – seem to have a problem with potential conflicts of interest.

Barbara Wertheim

Barbara Wertheim said the Anzac story is inadequate as the basis for an Australian national identity.

In the last few decades successive governments have spent vast sums of money memorialising WW1. Once a very solemn day of national mourning, April 25 now feels like a celebration of our performance in war. The digger is held up as the pinnacle of what it is to be an Australian, the person we should most admire. As a foundation story it is very limited and very blokie. It ignores the contribution of so many who were not soldiers and as a women I do not identify with the digger role model. And this constant eulogising of warrior men reinforces a culture in which many men have an outrageous sense of superiority and privilege including the right to control and abuse women.

Noel Turnbull

Vietnam veteran, public relations expert and blogger, Noel Turnbull, followed his cameo on The Project on Anzac Eve with a post on his own website, where he reviewed a recently published book, The War Lords and the Gallipoli Disaster: How Globalised Trade led Britain to its Worst Defeat of the First World War, by Nicholas A. Lambert. The book shows that our Australia-centric view of Gallipoli is by no means the only way to look at it.

Lambert … places the Dardanelles decision in the context of the globalised world economy of the time and the government’s understanding of the relationship of the British economy to “international flows of commodities, goods, information and money”. He says the strategic debate over war policy in the British Government shows “how tightly interwoven throughout were economic and political considerations with military and diplomatic concerns. They show that the Gallipoli campaign originated in economic necessity not perceptions of strategic opportunity. This book demonstrates the entanglement between the forces of economic globalisation and the conduct of war.”

Difficult to work that perspective into the standard ‘Lest We Forget’ and ‘service and sacrifice’ tropes.

Paul Daley

Over at Guardian Australia, Paul Daley wrote at length about (and over 450 readers commented, mostly supporting the author) the moral swamp the Australian War Memorial has lurched into.

It is drifting closer to becoming some military Disneyland, with an unnecessary $500m expansion so it might display more military hardware and stage exhibitions on contemporary conflicts before their impact can be properly assessed. It is steadily evolving into a place of entertainment, rather than reflection, that boastfully celebrates combat triumph and blokey derring-do – not least in terms of its questionable hot-takes on Australia’s failed Afghan mission and continued uncritical deification of special forces at a time when those units are mired in potentially existential moral/legal quagmires.

And the governance of the place reflects this, with the disgraceful accession of arms dealer Boeing executive, Brendan Nelson, to the position of Chair of the Memorial Council:

Nelson has come back to the memorial, this time as its newest governing council member. In the past he has assiduously defended accepting sponsorship money from arms manufacturers for the memorial. On the governing council he replaces Kerry Stokes. Late last week Nelson was formally appointed as Stokes’ replacement as AWM’s governing council chair. So, the president of arms manufacturer Boeing Australia is now effectively the head of governance at Australia’s secular shrine for war remembrance.

Brad West

Brad West of the University of South Australia has published a book about tourism to Gallipoli and his brief essay in The Conversation discusses different ways of marking Anzac Day:

In finding new ways to commemorate Anzac Day, we should learn a lesson from the rise of the Gallipoli pilgrimage. To be meaningful, military history now needs to acknowledge the contributions of all parties and sides, while the experience of remembrance itself has to be memorable.

Brad West recently wrote for Honest History about the danger that corporate sponsorship of the Australian War Memorial would undermine military professionalism.

Peter Dutton

To counter these voices of reason, nevertheless, there was the Defence Minister, Peter Dutton, peddling familiar arguments about comparisons with the 1930s and the need to preserve peace by spending up big on defence kit.

“The only way you can preserve peace is to prepare for war, and to be strong as a country”, Mr Dutton told Channel 9. “Not to cower or be on bended knee or be weak. That’s the reality.” Mr Dutton said the government had done that [not cowering, presumably] by boosting defence spending, as well as citing the government’s plan to build nuclear powered submarines and develop advanced military technology under the AUKUS pact.

When asked about the lessons of Anzac Day, Mr Dutton warned that the prospect of conflict was not a distant one. “We shouldn’t take for granted that the sacrifice that was made by the Anzacs or those in World War II or in Vietnam or in the Middle East … that somehow that will see through to eternity without conflict in our region”, he said.

Independent and Peaceful Australia Network (IPAN)

IPAN countered Dutton strongly with a media release, ‘If you want peace, prepare for peace, not for war’.

“We are all shocked and horrified by the ongoing war in Ukraine where people are being needlessly killed as collateral damage and suffering the loss of their homes, livelihoods and history. Mr Dutton and Mr Morrison’s reckless talk of war coming to Australia must be condemned.”

The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute today released their annual report on military spending with the news that this has increased dramatically to US $2.11 trillion which is so fundamentally wrong while resources are not being spent on the transition to a fossil fuel free future, on health, nutrition, education, housing and many more social needs.

(SIPRI)

So, there we are: nine voices for Anzac Day, saying rather different things. Lest We Forget that, in a free society, Anzac Day and the Anzac Legend are and must be contestable. Their meaning and significance will change across time and between people.

David Stephens

26 April 2022