Stuart, Nicholas: After the battle

Nicholas Stuart*

After the battle‘, Inside Story, 28 November 2020

Honest History has been closely following analyses of Brereton and the fallout. This below is one of the best pieces we have seen, particularly on our special interest of what Brereton tells us about the simplistic hero-based approach of the Australian War Memorial to war commemoration. On that, see the campaign diary of the Heritage Guardians group opposed to the $498m expansion of the Memorial. (See especially the entry for 19 November.) More and more hero stories on more and more space is not desirable. David Stephens, Editor, HH

Extracts below with permission of Inside Story. Many thanks.

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The article has more on what Afghanistan was like – at least to visiting journalists with limited access. (See Stuart earlier and historic pieces on the difficulty of finding out what was going on in Afghanistan: Michael Brissenden (2013)Tom Hyland (2014).) Also on Brereton’s methodology and what might happen next, regarding letting the law take its course. But, there is this crucial question also:

When they are delivered, the verdicts will not simply deal with what happened in Afghanistan: they will be a judgement on the Anzac myth of the exceptional digger and, because of this, the very value of using military force in places like Afghanistan.

Stuart goes on to look at issues of force structure, culture, effectiveness, management – and what commanders knew.

Finally, these accusations have opened deep fissures, not just in the military but across the country. The Anzac myth, with its image of the larrikin digger, looms large; but now we’ve found it’s an image with a very dark shadow. Many individuals will be challenged by this and feel it represents a direct assault on their own identity. It’s amazing how many individuals, including many people who have and would never join up to serve, hold such definitive views about Anzac. I’ve had discussions with people, most of whom have no idea of what the soldiers have been accused of, who’ve attempted to dismiss the charges as simply applying to “what happens in war.”

Others, of course — people already suspicious of the warrior ethos that holds such a dominant place in our society — have already swung instinctively the other way. For them nothing good was done in Afghanistan and prejudice against the military has merely grown.

What was once an icon, a binding figure that could be used by politicians to hold the country together (as well as a political prop) no longer possesses unquestioned authority. People are looking at the army and, if not actually finding it wanting, certainly keen to put it under examination.

Concludes with a look at military strategy and what Brereton says about what it means to be Australian.

The Anzac myth has become one of the country’s most powerful ideologies. It’s been used, quite deliberately, to shape modern Australia. Both sides of politics have borrowed these stories to help elevate the shallow mechanics of government into something transcendental. In the nineties, prime minister Paul Keating bent down on the Kokoda Track to kiss the ground defended by young men during the second world war; in 2015, the narrative switched to Gallipoli when prime minister Tony Abbott insisted that the diggers had played a critical role in “the founding of modern Australia.”

The revered Anzac has become much, much more than an unquestionable truth. The image of the selfless digger has come to play a special role in the way we perceive our society and its actions. Brereton’s investigation means the country will need to find a new way of understanding itself without looking for a martial glue to hold things together. Politicians will need to find a new way of justifying their actions without wrapping themselves in the flag and slouch-hat.

One of the great foundational myths of the country has suddenly come unstuck. Perhaps there really is nothing so unique about the Anzacs after all. And how can we trust all those other things we’ve been told?

* Nicholas Stuart is a columnist with the Canberra Times specialising in defence and foreign affairs. He is the author of three books on Australian politics, Kevin Rudd: An Unauthorised Political Biography, What Goes Up: Behind the 2007 Election, and Rudd’s Way: November 2007–June 2010, all published by Scribe.

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