Comment

Anzac Day: Best we forget the RSL in peacetime

Anzac Day has always been one of the great annual festivals of Australian tosh, and it would hardly be surprising if this morning, the 100th anniversary of the Anzac landing, there was not a good deal more around than normal.

But even those with the bullshit detectors on full blast, will have an uneasy feeling there is something left that must be respected, commemorated and revered. The meaning of Anzac Day has shifted over time, but it does, at heart, reflect great national traumas, of a sort we now do not know. I doubt that this is because of our civilian soldiers, but it may be.

In World War I, Australia lost, in effect, about a fifth of its then male population. Of this fifth, only a third were actually dead: shot, blasted to bits, or expired from disease, and left lying, mostly in pits, overseas.

The rest came home, proud, perhaps, but also numb, dazed, traumatised, shattered and in many cases broken in body and spirit.. Many soldiers carried physical wounds, or hacking coughs from gas and dust. The psychic retreat might be shielded behind silence, a laconic humour, or an affecting recall of real incidents of innocence and fun, or black humour, alongside the awfulness. It was hereditary, hanging over the nation for more than 50 years.

Ultimate "victory" in the Great War meant nothing to the survivors. Less still did the medals. When I asked my great uncle Leo why he was given a Military Medal, he said they gave them out with the rations. (They didn't. He got his, in August 1918, by taking out a German machine-gun post.) He had lots of time for his comrades in arms but not much for ceremonies, speeches and explanations of what it had all been about.

There was not a village or a suburb – perhaps not even a street – spared the death and disease of the war and its immediate aftermath. There was nothing particularly honourable, virtuous, dignified or glorious about any of it; and no one and nothing, least of all, Australia, was ennobled by it all happening. To speak of a "baptism" of fire, as though it was some triumphant birth (or rebirth) is  blasphemous.

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The commemoration of Anzac Day was not built on a Lincoln-like Gettysburg address of resolve that dead men should not have died in vain, or that this nation, under God, should have a new birth of freedom. There was no new birth of freedom. Half-hearted soldier settlement schemes mostly failed. The end of war brought no revival, no burst of optimism, business confidence, full employment and a resumption of an old life. Australia, pre-war, had a high standard of living. Afterwards, it was an also-ran, though hardly as ruined as Britain or Europe. 

From the start, politicians and ambitious former officers were appropriating the history and such dignity as could be retrieved from the death, squalor and appalling leadership, political and military, that had created such carnage. For them the search for meaning, or for affirmation, became forward looking – a search for new enemies needing to be exterminated so that the soldiers, sailors and airmen had not died in vain.

Protestant ministers, trying to see the hand of God in the outcome, appropriated religious words, rituals and symbols, such as "sacrifice", "consecrate"  and "sacred tasks" into their civic oratory – a reason Irish Catholics were, for 25 years after Anzac, discouraged from participation in "non-denominational" ceremonies honouring the dead. These Catholics were incited to feel an extra bitterness because of the brutal British suppression of the 1916 Easter Rebellion, open disparagement of the patriotism and false claims about the voluntary enlistment rate of Catholics (the same as for others), and the bitterness of the anti-conscription referendums. A combination of these caused Archbishop Daniel Mannix, perversely the chief Catholic military chaplain, to treat ceremonials with "non-denominational" features, as forbidden to Catholics, and to regard the RSL hierarchy being, morally equivalent to high-grade Freemasons, which, of course, they often were.

Bodies like the RSL were from the start dominated by professional soldiers and the officer class, many of whom, from the moment of their return, feared that the dislocation of war would lead to an outbreak of Bolshevism in Australia, or, perhaps worse, militant unions and a Labor government. For this reserve force of "decent" people, able if needs be, to "restore order," the organisation of care and comfort of survivors, or the development of proper repatriation services, was generally secondary at best.

The modern repatriation system owes much more to World War II, and negative remembrance  of how the nation had failed, after the Great War, to plan for or build any sort of land fit for heroes. While obviously popular with returned soldiers as well as the greater population (most of which had been mobilised by war), its form owed little to RSL leadership. Indeed much of it was conceived by people locked up in World War 1 for opposing conscription. 

But both wars had something, seen in the 70 years since. Then, no Australian could have been unaffected by the struggle. At the peak of World War ll, one in every seven Australians (male and female) was wearing a uniform. Millions more were working in factories. Almost all of the activities of government and industry were focused on the struggle. In my father's family, for example, four men and one woman of six military-age siblings were serving abroad. 

For the past 70 years, there has been no such mobilisation in Australia. We have had engagements aplenty, skirmishes, brave men killed, heroic deeds done. We have won some battles; lost all wars, and, generally, morally as much as physically. It's not the fault of those we sent.

Those who fought our recent wars, at the behest of politicians who have never worn a uniform, were in a small, professional, and well-paid and disciplined military service, consisting, at best of about 0.25 per cent of the population, and, generally, far from representative of it. Perhaps 2 or 3 per cent of living Australians have worn a uniform, the majority still (all aged more than 88) as men and women in service in World War II.

Perhaps, though I doubt it, there is something left within the modern RSL which allows it to speak for what was once its core membership – the civilian volunteer, a person who, almost by definition, did not have much fellow feeling for the military professional. The RSL and the Department of Veterans Affairs are chock-a-block full of old soldiers, living off their past deeds, but theirs is the ethos of the professional soldier who never fought alongside (though often against) civilians who had donned a uniform in a time of peril.

But such bodies would never lightly surrender a claimed right to define why citizen soldiers fought, what meaning was to be attached to the ultimate futility of it all, or their right to a special place, purchased by the blood of others, in the councils of government. 

On this, for 100 years, it seems usually, that the RSL has always been the most reactionary political pressure in Australia, leading from behind against non-white immigration, even from some branches (and after knowledge of the Holocaust), against the entry of Jewish refugees, and forgiveness of Japan, and, particularly, keeping the Aboriginal in his place. Old journalists always knew to ring a Bruce Ruxton or an Alf Garland whenever one felt the need for a nationally embarrassing cringeworthy statement on almost anything..

We've heard, in recent weeks, more  about Aborigines in citizen armies, and of their being refused membership of local RSLs. This was not the result of national RSL policy.It reflected, as so often does the RSL, local prejudice and bigotry. I grew up all around it, from people who would not hesitate to give a white man the shirt off their backs. The discrimination continued well into the 1970s, and extended to Aboriginal soldiers returning from Vietnam and Malaysia. 

What one does not hear, even to this day, is a word of apology, whether to Aborigines, or to the community, from the  RSL. It will not condemn the attitudes or actions of a previous generation, even when it is, certainly by modern standards, utterly and wickedly wrong.

The RSL was also slow to engage with one of the continuing scourges of war, post-traumatic stress. In World War l, officers tended to regard of stress from  being under fire to moral defect  and cowardice. Even "shell-shock" implied weakness: the formal term, then, was "lack of moral fibre". Incapacity to cope and fit back in again after war, suicide, domestic violence and mental illness did not rate high in repatriation priorities, or RSL lobby lists. 

World War II produced much the same crop of victims. Mates and old comrades, including local RSL welfare officers, were sometimes a help, but the national bodies were rarely their advocates. RSLs were slow to embrace Vietnam veterans, derisive of their "active service",  and publicly inclined to dismiss signs that survivors were not coping well. Only belatedly did the RSL or the Department of Veterans Affairs realise the appalling psychic toll. It's, if anything, worse, after successive fights in Iraq and  Afghanistan. Post-traumatic stress syndrome was always there, but swept aside by men who should have been champions of their troops. 

Meanwhile, the RSL has become, more by anno domini than by general consent, a refuge of the professional military establishment, a tame supporter of what its officers want, and not very fussy about who, apart, historically, from Aborigines can belong to its social wings. It may represent people who have served; it no longer, or hardly any longer, reflects the service of a whole community in a time of total war. It's time it lost its guardianship of Anzac Day, and de facto control of the Australian War Memorial.

Australians should honour the spirit, the service and the suffering of the men and women who threw in when their nation was seen as being in peril. They should also think about the costs and the victims of war, among old enemies as much as old friends and our own.

But they should take with a grain of salt anyone who claims to speak for the dead or the living. Or to  tell you what it was all about, or why it was worthwhile. And they should reserve a special contempt for those who want to appropriate the occasion for religious ritual, "sanctifying" and "consecrating"  "sacrifices"; pretending some blessing of God on an ultimately pointless and profitless nationalism. But the sure sign of the furphy is the claim of an essential continuity between what happened 100 years ago and the modern turning back by our military of refugees, precision bombing of tents and cars on the other side of the earth, and arbitrating between rival gangs of cut-throat religious terrorists.