[Part 4 of The Pure Bugle essay on Anzac Day.]
4. The Facts
Beyond its deep ambivalence and fascist potential, the other possibility for Anzac Day would be to both honour the general need to publicly mourn and feel part of a group and something larger than oneself (the religious need) and at the same time find collective, non-regressive, critically adult, and emotionally satisfying, ways of doing so. A critical adult consciousness, aware of the healthy need to both collectively mourn/belong and avoid phoney and dangerous infantile regressions, could hardly do better than to start with the facts.
The first question is: for whom, precisely, are we to mourn? The formulaic Anzac Day answer is usually something along the lines of: ‘our fallen servicemen and –women who died to keep Australia safe and free’. This propaganda is drummed into Australian schoolchildren from the earliest years. How does this popular formula accord with the historical facts?
With the laudable exception of World War Two, it doesn’t. In all its many other wars, Australia has not fought to keep Australia safe and democratic. Rather, as expressions of Australia’s willing colonial and then, after formal independence in 1901, sub-colonial or client state (or in official parlance: ‘allied’,) status, Australian armed forces have willingly, and often enthusiastically, participated in the imperial wars and ‘counter-insurgency’ interventions of the British and US empires.
These range from helping the British empire politically dominate and economically exploit various countries by killing rebelling Maoris in New Zealand (1845-72), killing Sudanese (1885-86), killing Boers (1899-1902), killing Chinese (1900-1901), killing Turks and Germans in World War I (1914-18) and killing Malayans (1948-66) to helping the US empire realize its global ambitions by killing Koreans (1950-53), Vietnamese (1965-72), Iraqis (1990-present) and Afghanis (2001-2011).
According to the Australian War Museum, the number of Australian soldiers killed in these sub-imperial ventures or wars of aggression total about 63,156 (61,516 in World War I, 1,640 in the rest, mainly in South Africa, Korea and Vietnam). The number of foreign soldiers and civilians specifically killed by these Australian participations in securing the British and US empires of course will probably never be really tallied since, to the author’s knowledge, neither the Australian War Museum nor anyone else has so far shown any real interest in doing so. One would imagine that the figure would be at least as high, and, given much higher Australian firepower in most cases, most probably considerably higher, than the number of Australian casualties.
Thus, 70,000-150,000 victims might be a quite conservative ‘guestimate’. An indication of how very great the discrepancy between Australian casualties and those of allied or enemy others could in fact be, is shown by the figures for the Gallipoli and Dardanelles campaign in 1915. While about 8,500 Australians died (many also from typhoid), so did 33,532 Allied (including British, French, New Zealand) troops and 86,692 Turks defending their homeland (R. Buchanan, SMH 1999). To my knowledge, despite later obeisance to the ‘noble Turk’, the latter figures are never much featured at Anzac Day ceremonies. It does not seem to really matter, as little as it does WHY the Anzacs were actually fighting so vigorously, namely to serve the British establishment and invade a country with which Australia itself had no quarrel.
The main point to be made here is that, with the notable and noble exception of the Pacific theatre in World War II in which Australia was under direct threat from Japanese fascist imperialism (and in which 39,648 Australians died in all), not a single one of these many other wars that killed many more non-Australians than Australians had anything to do with the actual defence of Australia against military attack and/or safeguarding Australia’s freedom from foreign domination.
The Australian military was first, and most appropriately, called the ‘Australian Imperial Force’. With the British Empire on the wane, and the US Empire on the wax, this was later changed to the ‘Australian Defence Force’.
On the statistical and historical evidence, this is a serious misnomer. Defence has only once been the reason for war. More appropriate names that should thus be debated could be the Australian Offence Force, the Australian Mercenary Force, the Australian Vassal Force, or, given the rationale of ‘we can’t defend ourselves’/‘allied insurance’ often openly admitted by the bipartisan political class, The Australian Allied Insurance Force.