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Wells, Alexander: Whatever happened to the arts of peace?

Alexander Wells

Whatever happened to the arts of peace?Overland, 8 February 2019

In the mass media and cultural institutions, we have just marked the 100-year anniversary of Armistice by continuing to fixate on warfare – at the expense of our remarkable history in peace … The limitations and dangers of too much “Anzackery” have been discussed at length. As Ben Brooker has argued, one of the costs of so much war talk is that our other national narratives get pushed to the side.

To counter this, we need to empower and give space to stories of peace. He quotes an editorial in the Manchester Guardian of 12 November 1918:

If, as a people, we can be wise and tolerant and just in peace as we have been resolute in war, we shall build [the war dead] the memorial that they have earned in the form of a world set free from military force, national tyrannies and class oppression, for the pursuit of a wider justice in the spirit of a deeper and more human religion.

The author goes on to look at Australia’s history of war and peace over the last century.

While “Anzackery” doesn’t quite glorify war – it’s too gory for that, too insistent on the folly of leaders – it really does seem to normalise it. There is always a war raging somewhere. It is what it is. For Australia, it’s the worst of our middle-power status: we are guiltless for war but damned proud to have been.

(Whether by design or not Wells manages to use, if slightly out of context, one of War Memorial Director Brendan Nelson’s favourite and oft-repeated lines. After quoting CEW Bean about the dying Digger at Pozières – ‘But in Australia – they will be proud of this’ – the Director goes on to say, ‘And we are. We are damned proud.’ Anzackery needs its troubadours and Dr Nelson is in the front rank.)

Wells muses further on the nature of Anzac and why it has been so popular (because it was about suffering; cf Christina Twomey on trauma) compared with the defensive war in the Pacific 20 years later.

Both the institution of Anzac and its progressive rejoinder [the author concludes] have much to say about the evils of war – but to the honours and splendours of glorious peace, we could dedicate a little more attention. The price, and the reward, might be that history depends on us.

See also, for some parallels, Margaret Atwood’s 1995 poem ‘The loneliness of the military historian‘.

David Stephens