Truth, Suffering, Values. On Anzac Day 5

iraq-war pain children

[Part 5 of The Pure Bugle essay on Anzac Day. The photo was taken in Iraq.]

5. Truth, Suffering and Values

Such usually ignored facts of Australian imperial military engagement [cf. previous blog post] would seem to strongly validate the cliché that truth is the first casualty of war, and thus of most war remembrances as well. They are the uncomfortable taboos, the elephants in the room, the unconscious shadows of each phony and incomplete Anzac Day: whatever you do, don’t mention the (real nature of) the wars. Don’t mention what Australian soldiers were really fighting for in almost all of their foreign wars: the imperial interests of others. Don’t mention the incalculable suffering these suffering soldiers wreaked on foreign soldiers and civilians. To do so is to risk denigration, accusations of disloyalty and treason, violence, ostracism from the tribe. Truth is usually unpopular.

Such taboos are of course not confined to Australia. Every country has these historical shadows both its rulers and collectively immature majorities usually want to suppress. The question is whether Australians are yet mature enough to face them – and those around the black dispossession and destruction of colonial settlement ‒ or whether, like obedient Germans under Hitler or most Japanese, Russians, British and Americans to this day, they will continue to look away, to simply not want to know.

Like Australian propaganda and Anzac Day, every side in war of course always frames its cause as ‘just and good’. If religious, their god is, of course, always on their side. Religious leaders on both sides bless their weapons, their righteous crusade or jihad. Participating soldiers and their families have an obvious deep need to feel part of the righteous tribe-in-war, to believe they are engaged in the ‘just and good’, even when most of them themselves frame their activities as a more modest and dutiful ‘getting on with the job’.

Will history judge Australia’s imperial wars and their immense human suffering on all sides as ‘just and good’, or as unjust and evil? Does, as just one example, actively contributing to many hundreds of thousands of Iraqi deaths, injuries, traumatisations, displacements, including those of hundreds of thousands of women and children, matter in this judgement?

The answer to this question of course raises the central issue of perspective: who will judge and whose suffering are we talking about from whose perspective? From a metaphysical or theological perspective focussed on each individual person in his or her entirety, it is hard to declare some suffering as more ‘worthy’ than others, more or less worthy of compassion and remembrance. From this deep perspective, the worst sinner and criminal is also worthy of compassion: tout comprendre, c’est tout pardonner. Much crime is as much a product of ignorance and folly as of inherent pathology or evil.

Yet to not make any distinction between victim and perpetrator, innocent and guilty, is to give up on all ethics and the very notion of justice. Not all suffering can thus be equal. Most would probably agree that victims and perpetrators, the violated and the violators, should not be equally remembered. Any suffering that Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot or their henchman may have had, for example, is obviously immaterial when considering their horrendous crimes. Any suffering Lieutenant Calley and other murderous gangs of GIs and helicopter pilots may have felt at some point is immaterial vis-à-vis the victims of My Lai and other Vietnam War massacres.

Should the undoubted suffering and massive deaths of German and Japanese soldiers in World War Two be equally worthy of remembrance? Should there be German and Japanese equivalents of Anzac Day and War Museums (as there is in the Yasukini Shrine in Tokyo which also includes officially designated war criminals)?

If the answer is no, the same question must be raised regarding the Australian military: is the suffering of Australian soldiers involved in imperial invasions and wars of aggression and that of their families ‘equal to’ and as worthy of remembrance as are the suffering and death of homeland-defending Boer, Turkish, Vietnamese, Afghan, Iraqi soldiers, innocent women and children?

All national leaders and constructors of national identity see their wars as expressing or defending certain core values ascribed to the nation. Anzac Day is so interesting a social phenomenon because it would seem to often incorporate, often incoherently, two sets of values that have been in tension or competition within the human soul and society throughout history. Graham Seal (Inventing Anzac, 2004) has described these two sets as the top-down, officious ‘Anzac tradition’ that now dominates and the bottom-up ‘Digger tradition’, the latter originally evolved by the soldiers themselves in the Boer and First World wars based on the popular bushman and urban ‘larrikin’ stereotypes that arose in the 1890s. The latter was both more explicitly anti-authoritarian, ‘larrikin’ and more racist than the former.

Using a modified version of Seal’s typology, one could say that one set of values is more ‘masculine’ and authoritarian and has been linked to the tribe, warrior culture and the State since the Neolithic: duty, sacrifice, courage under fire, unquestioning loyalty and obedience to authority, xenophobic tribalism, macho militarism. The other set of values is more ‘feminine’ and anti-authoritarian and has been linked to actual daily life in society: egalitarianism, anti-authoritarianism, solidarity (mateship), compassion, good humour in the face of adversity, love of place and culture, courage to stand up to any injustice, disgust with war-mongering, veiled sentimentality.

Many people would seem to go to Anzac Day ceremonies in the belief that the second set of values predominate. I would argue that without a radical questioning of the militaristic forms, denials and officious propaganda of the first set of values, they simply cannot.

In contrast to the collectively narcissistic propaganda of Anzac Day, many or all of the second set of values are of course in no way exclusively Australian. They can often be expressed in many societies and cultures: in response to emergencies and disasters, in the many small decencies and generosities of daily life, in the many courageous expressions of dissent and standing up to power and unjust authority, in mass non-violent civil disobedience.

Such values ‒ especially if combined with a willingness to face the truths of Australia’s many involvements in imperial wars and wars of aggression ‒ could become the focus of an adult, rational but emotionally satisfying form of alternative Anzac Day.


~ by Peter Lach-Newinsky on April 22, 2015.

2 Responses to “Truth, Suffering, Values. On Anzac Day 5”

  1. so true…”many or all of the second set of values are of course in no way exclusively Australian.”
    sadly, it’ll probably take the disasters from global warming to induce those decencies and generosities into an initial mass non-violent movement of civil disobedience…but what if the response from our institutions is inadequate, as it usually is…what’s to prevent us from going onto the next predictable step of fear and violence, when we face mass homelessness, hunger, etc…?

    • Thanks, Kristi. Yep, crisis can bring out the worst too, of course. I can recommend Rebecca Solnit for anti-despair essays. Have you read any of her stuff? The gist: despair implies a fore-knowledge of how things will pan out, an unwarranted omniscience. Neither despair nor hope, just doing something because it’s right… Not easy.

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