Think Piece: The Anzac tradition & dissent
My introduction to the Anzac tradition came as an infant. A much loved uncle, knowing me to be interested in history, handed me a graphic, comic strip treatment of the saga of the Gallipoli landing. I was amazed to find that my own people had been involved in such larger than life enterprises. I had not heard of the Iliad, the classical epic account of the drama and tragedy of war. The Anzac tradition came to occupy its place for me. It was the drama I understood at first. But it wasn’t long before I was discussing with my father the tragedy at the Nek. Later I became aware that my paternal grandmother came from a family of Boer War dissenters.
At the time I underwent this initiation, the rights and wrongs and human cost of war were front and centre of the Australian public mind, for we had an expeditionary force engaged in Vietnam. A cousin of mine employed by my father, an athlete and marksman, was conscripted. He had sworn he would `go bush’ if his number came up, and my father was fully committed to helping him dodge the draft if it came to that, being convinced of the impropriety of conscription and a war he thought colonial and not in the national interest. At the age of eight I wanted to use the credibility of my Cub Scout uniform to march in the moratorium rally in Burnie, Tasmania. Dad talked me out of it, saying that ASIO might take my photo. My cousin’s tour of duty in Vietnam was a time of common anxiety for him in an extended family split about the war.
My next brush with the tradition was as an undergraduate student of Bill Gammage at the University of Adelaide in 1981. He confirmed for me that the tradition was not necessarily jingoistic, that it could best be understood from a compassionate and humanistic perspective.
Last but not least was my personal association with an SAS veteran of Phuoc Tuy Province. He was stressed to within an inch of his sanity by a year of long range reconnaissance behind enemy lines, and suffers PTSD to this day. I participated in representations that kept him out of jail for light hearted infractions of social security regulations, which he had not in his disordered state been able to take seriously, having cheated death.
In middle age as a pragmatic rather than dogmatic peacenik I was one of the lesser organisers of the impressive demonstration in Adelaide against the invasion of Iraq. The question of war and peace is one of the most important any society can face, particularly one which lays claim to being in some measure a democracy. As a historian I think some wars are better fought, others not. It is all a matter of judgement every time, and every time the conduct of the war is a compounding issue. Wars in a good cause are bad enough, wars fought badly are diabolical. As for communities that cannot tolerate dissent, and pretend that dissent is disloyalty to the troops and the country, they are not worth fighting for. May the Anzac tradition be spared in the national interest such abuse by its false friends.