Over beers last week, a few close friends and I found ourselves debating the way we talk about Australian soldiers killed in Afghanistan.
“That’s un-Australian,” was the blubbered consensus. “How could you not be grateful for their sacrifice?”
In spite of my usual reservations for a word like “un-Australian,” I’m curious to know what I’m meant to be grateful for. Grateful is a difficult word here as it suggests some kind of debt. ADF personnel are (by way of the taxpayer) paid a modest salary, their university education sponsored, their living expenses subsidised, and in the event of ill health or even their untimely death, generous benefits recompensed.
Don’t get me wrong when I say this, I certainly respect Australian troops in Afghanistan – after all, it takes genuine courage to partake in war, let alone one where you don’t belong. But soldiers aren’t accountable for the political blunders of the government that sent them there; they simply follow orders. They shouldn’t be vilified simply for doing their job any more than they should be exalted. Let me then make this clear: I don’t mean to say that simply paying respect to our war dead is in any way tantamount to glorifying the act of war itself.
But labeling them collectively as heroes is.
It’s true that the occupational hazards of a combat soldier outweigh most, but why should we meter their civil worth on this alone? Why are we so eager to adorn them the h-word? Heroism in my books is limited to Marvel comic characters and Nelson Mandela – it is a status earned as much as it is distinctive, not one conferred by default. Especially when they are killed.
Australian soldiers don’t fight to defend my values, nor do they anyone else’s. This view is probably owed to the bewildering practice of historically conflating the outright militarism of the ‘Anzac spirit’ with our national identity. Far from being some kind of beloved public institution, the ADF of recent years has ostensibly served to protect the foreign political interests of the governments that have thus commanded it.
Maybe it’s our own pathological need to justify taking part in someone else’s deteriorating campaign that makes us rally behind the thinned edifice of duty and the ‘ANZAC tradition.’ Either way, we’re kidding ourselves if we think a soldier is any more a saint than a schoolteacher is, a bus driver, a nurse. Each serve a function in our society, and their worth should be judged on their individual capacity to productively fulfill it, rather than by virtue of their uniform.
Expectation of the unconditional support for our ‘diggers’ in public discourse (a term dangerously loaded with jingoistic implications), implicitly prevents direct criticism of the government who sent them to war in the first place – to question the latter is to undermine support for the former (and that’s just “un-Australian”). It’s a clever and foolproof political ruse that’s hard to resist. As long as we still dogmatically bandy around the tired emblem of the ANZACs, it certainly won’t be the last time Australia is led blindly into the kind of conflict better left to countries who still don’t think the Vietnam War was a mistake.
The glassie has long cleared our drinks but my friend hasn’t noticed.
“What about the your national pride?” She pauses. It’s an empty point, and she knows it.
We have plenty of things to be proud of in our society – our multiculturalism, a high standard of living, and our public health system among others. But the war in Afghanistan has long been unpopular in Australia, and we’d do better to divorce our sentimentality from our political will to openly criticise this country’s participation in it. Branding Australian soldiers as heroes and glorifying the war they fight is simply unproductive. If by recognizing this I am “un-Australian,” then we seriously need to reconsider the definition of the word.