White, Hugh: Purpose of war

White, Hugh

Lest we forget: the purpose of war is not war itself‘, Sydney Morning Herald, 20 October 2013

Admiration for the work of Australian soldiers in Afghanistan has been accompanied by a lack of discussion at to why they are there. This has been a common attitude in Australia’s experience of war.

The Anzac ethos, as it is presented in Australia today, centres on the idea that the experience of combat brings out personal qualities that are unique to those who have fought, universal among those who have fought, and essential to Australia’s national character. All this implies that there is something uniquely valuable about the experience of combat, for the soldier and for society.

Without the fighting at Gallipoli, Australia would not be the country it is today – and that in itself, rather than the wider strategic purpose, becomes the reason to fight. Combat, in other words, comes to be seen as an end in itself. Indeed, the view that there was no strategic reason for Australians to be fighting at Gallipoli is seen to amplify the soldiers’ virtue. The pointlessness becomes part of the point. The image of combat devoid of strategic purpose makes war a sport, nurturing virtue precisely because it is played for its own sake – as Peter Weir showed in his filmĀ Gallipoli. And, as with sport, we spectators believe we can somehow partake of that virtue just by looking on.

A slightly longer version of this article appears as ‘The purpose of war’, Gwenda Tavan, ed., State of the Nation: Essays for Robert Manne, Black Inc., Collingwood, Vic., 2013, pp. 23-29.

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