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This pandemic Remembrance Day offers a unique opportunity to more honestly parse Australia’s war experience and how its storification has eclipsed other national narratives of immense pain and struggle.
Very few things about war are certain. But here’s a couple. Politicians wage it. Young (mostly) men fight it. And when things go wrong these soldiers pay the price – with their lives or future wellbeing.
Australia has never been good at honestly appraising the true human cost of the politicians’ decisions to commit to wars, from South Africa and the Great War to Vietnam and our longest war, Afghanistan.
Sure, today you’ll hear plenty about the “glorious dead” and the “sacrifice” of the “fallen” – language ecclesiastic in tone and perpetuated by politicians to sanitise the putrid reality of battlefield death. But you won’t get much about what I’ve elsewhere called the “uneaten dinners of Anzac”. By which I mean the attempts after the first world war to keep the limbless and facially disfigured off the streets, to hide the drug addiction and alcoholism, the terrified children, the battered wives and all those uneaten dinners behind the walls of the repat hospitals and tens of thousands of bolted shut Australian front doors in the decades afterwards.
Same goes for all later conflicts. Things have changed little about the conflict stories Australia has chosen to tell itself since the aftermath of the first world war. That’s when prime minister Billy Hughes sculpted a national foundation narrative for his boastfully white Australia out of battlefield sacrifice by men from new states that had, until just 14 years before the Gallipoli invasion and retreat, been disparate colonies.
By Jove, if 60,000-plus could die together like that over four years, how well we forge together as a federated nation!
Except the federation was sorely tested at its first subsequent homeland challenge – the Spanish influenza pandemic of 1919, which killed between 13,000 and 20,000 (mostly young men aged 25 to 40) in a single year from a population of 5 million. The nation supposedly forged in the furnaces of European and Middle East battle almost crumbled in the face of the virulent threat at home, when it was all suddenly mate versus mate and state versus state.
The Anzacs who died on the battlefield were buried overseas. The small towns and suburbs remembered them with thousands of monuments. But they were equally traumatised by the droves dying from the pandemic who they were mourning and burying daily.
There are few monuments to them, however.
Multiply many times over the fear we have all felt about Covid-19 this year. The anxiety and depression over lockdowns and personal economic ruin. Next, multiply 13 to 20 times the numbers of dead and the associated communal grief of a population that was in 1919 a fifth the size of today’s. To do so might afford some sense of the profound and compounding trauma the pandemic brought to this war-weary nation.
Which raises questions about why Australia has chosen not to remember that trauma in the way we have come to commemorate what has been cast as a stoic national endurance post-first world war. Where are the monuments to the doctors and nurses who died saving thousands in the pandemic? Were their deaths somehow less heroic than of those who went over the top at the Nek or Fromelles?
They are as forgotten in official remembrance as the countless tens upon tens of thousands of Indigenous people who died in the wars for this continent post-1788 European invasion.
As the historian Peter Hobbins notes, “Compared with the Anzac memorials that peppered our towns and suburbs in the decades after the Great War, few monuments mark the impact of pneumonic influenza … Nevertheless, its stories of suffering and sacrifice have been perpetuated in other ways, especially within family and community memories. A century later, these stories deserve to be researched and commemorated.”
It’s an acute observation. Why has the popular and academic historiography largely excluded this dire national experience while dedicating an industry to Australia’s war-time stories?
War stories sell, of course. Particularly those peppered with bravery and the inhuman feats of survival and daring, the drama and sorrow of lives cut short and loves lost. They are all things we should remembertoday, of course. But not exclusively.
It’s also a good time to reflect on the ever increasing evidence of war crimes that is attaching to the service of Australia’s special forces troops in this nation’s longest war in Afghanistan.
Our politicians and generals sent the revered Special Air Service and Commando troops on repeated high-rotation deployments in the most hostile environment imaginable. The fact is they went on such high rotation to minimise battlefield deaths – and their associated political ignominy.
Terrible crimes have been committed. But who will ultimately carry the can – pay the price if you will – for these grievous breaches of humanity?
You can bet it won’t be the politicians or the generals. Or the perpetuators of an Anzac mythology that demands stoic silence over the ugly truth of what actually happens to soldiers during war and to them and their families afterwards.
Think about that today.
• Paul Daley is a Guardian Australia columnist
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: Focusing on the Anzac myth eclipses other national stories of pain and struggle | First world war