Myths about Australians abound — laconic, laid back, anti-authoritarian, great sportspeople and soldiers, brave and stoic, etc. There is a much darker side to this fantasy, of course.
Time for a reality check
I would say that, along with America and Britain, Australia has been one of the most aggressive and war-mongering nations in modern times. Our inglorious involvement in other nations’ troubles started with the Boer War. The questions arise, as they will in all our involvements in future wars: Were Australia’s interests being served? Why were we there? and why did we need to support Britain’s colonial war-mongering?
We then did the same in WW1 at Gallipoli, one of the all-time great military debacles, when Churchill decided the Aussies could be cannon fodder as they invaded Turkey. Again, this was a European war, nothing to do with us, remote and distant from our shores, and surely no threat to our security. Thousands of young Australian men were killed and injured in a pointless campaign devised by English generals and politicians.
Gallipoli was one of the biggest military fiascos of all time and was rightfully hushed up and forgotten about for many years — until the present day when super patriots now wrap themselves in flags and make sacred pilgrimages to Gallipoli every year. I find it astounding that young people are so gullible and willing to be led by the nose by the media and politicians in this respect.
God knows, my generation grew up in an atmosphere of reverence for all things English, with constant extolling of the glories of the British Empire both at primary school and secondary. We were lectured and given homilies at school assemblies and were made to recite the “pledge” every week – “I love God and my country, I honour the flag, I will serve the Queen and cheerfully obey my parents, teachers and the laws”.
As well as the school propaganda, we also suffered from religious conservatism and intolerance (all Christian of course), a dull media (newspapers and radio) and Bob Menzies in power for what seemed like 100 years. Menzies himself is a shameful figure. He disgraced himself before the second world war, first by banning socialist or communist speakers from coming to Australia and then signing a deal to sell pig iron to the Japanese, which was thwarted by the wharfies who refused to load it on the ships. They knew, even if Menzies didn’t, that the Japanese were gearing up for war and the pig iron would be returned to Australia in the form of bombs, bullets and tanks.
Good old Pig Iron Bob, as he was then known, was kicked out as prime minister before the war started and replaced by John Curtin, one of our greatest prime ministers, who then led brilliantly through the war years. You would think that would have been the end of Pig Iron Bob’s political life, but, no, he was voted back in 1949, where he stayed to involve us in several more dubious wars until he was finally voted out in 1966.
None of these wars and those that followed (Korean, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan) could be justified in any way. They had nothing to do with our security, or justice, or “fighting for freedom”, but everything to do with supporting the war industry. I suppose the closest Australia has come to being directly threatened is by the Japanese in WW2, but there is strong evidence that they were hopelessly over-stretched as they marched through New Guinea. Their troops were starved of ammunition, food and logistical back up, and had become a demoralised rabble as they retreated. The Darwin bombings and the midget subs in Sydney Harbour were possibly a last hoo-ray from desperate, leaderless and starving forces.
I’ll end on a positive note. There are, believe it or not, people who see through all the bullshit and here are my three favourites:
The first is Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens). I have just read that his autobiography has finally been released (100 years after his death, as he stipulated). It is a rambling collection of scattered thoughts, themes and vague musings, which was deliberate in its non-sequential and timeless structure. He explains at the start that no-one should be judged by his lifetime of talking or writing, but only by a lifetime of thoughts. Mark Twain was censored and criticised at the time, for daring to question the reasons for manufactured war.
The second is Charles Dickens, whose stories still resound with empathy and a fierce belief in the human spirit in its struggle against cruel authority, wealth and privilege.
The third is Henry Lawson, a contemporary of Twain and Dickens, and he had the same fierce desire for fairness, justice and equality for the working people. Lawson’s work is incredibly large and diverse with sparkling humour, insight and compassion, sometimes too slap-dash and overly sentimental (written when he was drunk), but his fight for the poor and under-privileged was a life-time passion, matched in poignancy by his own alcoholism and the tragic deaths of some of the young women he loved (after he left his wife). Lawson died at a young age, as a pauper and a drunk, but he had a shining spirit and a genius for storytelling, and I hope one day, he and his complete works are given their rightful place.