Nothing that follows is to dishonour the bravery and sacrifice of the young Australians who suffered and died in World War I.
However if we are to avoid repeating such disasters we need a larger and clearer perspective than we have been getting from much of the commentary, official and unofficial, marking the centenary of the war.
The Australian nation was not forged at Gallipoli or any other foreign battlefield. There was already a vigorous nation by 1913.
It was a nation remarkable for its rise from subsistence to among the most prosperous in the world, an economic miracle in today’s terms.
Beyond mere materialism, it was among the most socially progressive. Ordinary people, including women, demanded and got the vote. It required a decent living wage to be paid. It already provided many supports to the less fortunate. Though some injustices would not be addressed for many decades, it was consciously moving beyond the oppressive social stratification of Europe.
Australia had a vigorous and growing local culture, not only through Banjo and Henry but also through artists and other writers. It had perhaps the most prolific movie industry in the world and produced the first-ever full-length movie.
WWI dealt a body blow to this creative and optimistic young nation. The trauma of death, injury and loss cast a darkness across the land. There was bitter division over conscription for overseas service. The tenor of politics shifted to conservative and authoritarian, reflecting a widely held if misguided loyalty to Empire.
No doubt the adversity drew people together in some ways. Perhaps many Australians at the time thought our boys’ military valour would remove the convict and colonial stains and validate us in the condescending eyes of the home country. Perhaps it did to some degree, but it takes more than that to erase the thousand-year-old privilege claimed by the entitled class.
There was no nobility in the cause our troops fought for, it was a struggle of great powers over empire and trade, a sordid mercantile war.
Many people worked to stop the insanity. Whatever your politics, it should be known that socialists in Russia and Germany were key complements to allied ‘victories’ in ending the carnage. Russia withdrew from conflict and German militarists were eventually displaced so an armistice could be signed.
A women’s movement was created in the midst of war fever to lobby to stop the conflict. In 1915 women assembled at The Hague from all combatant countries and some uninvolved countries.
Those women later formed The Womens International League for Peace and Freedom, which is still active, dedicated to identifying and eliminating the causes of war. They produced a manifesto of proposals and policies that fed into the League of Nations and later the United Nations. They recognised the injustice and lack of wisdom of the terms of the armistice, fearing it would lead to another war, as it did.
Within Australia there was strong opposition to conscription for overseas service and two referenda promoted by Prime Minister Billy Hughes were lost. The volatile Hughes had taken over from the steady but ailing Andrew Fisher, who would not have allowed such division to grow.
There was significant sentiment to withdraw from the war: people said men go to war and come back broken whereas money goes to war and comes back fatter.
If all we do year after year is rake over the individual heroism and the horror of what those young people faced then rather than honouring them we risk merely wallowing in the misery.
We do not honour them by repeating the folly. We have a history of rushing into ill-advised and highly counter-productive ‘interventions’. We do this supposedly to curry favour with great and powerful friends. Yet the one time we really were threatened our troops were on the other side of the world helping a ‘friend’, and that friend cut us loose and left us to our fate.
We do not honour the dead, maimed and emotionally scarred if we never stop to consider, seriously, how to reduce the risks of lethal conflict breaking out. At its core it is about emotional maturity.
We do not honour them if we yield to the drum beating of those superficial politicians and media who are too absorbed in their own narrow ambitions and fears to give wise counsel and leadership.
Let us also honour those who bravely campaigned to stop the insanity and spare the lives of our precious young people. Perhaps we need a monument to wisdom and peace installed to complement the soldier statue that adorns many main streets across the country.