One of the most shameful acts in recent British military and political history was the 1945 forced repatriation of Cossack prisoners of war to the Soviet Union, the British - as much as the Cossacks - being very well aware that the men, the women and the children involved faced arbitrary execution, imprisonment or other terrors.
The British soldiers concerned were, of course, simply doing their duty. Winston Churchill had, rather indifferently, agreed with Joseph Stalin at the Yalta Conference that all German prisoners of war of Ukrainian, Russian or otherwise Soviet extraction would be returned to the Soviet Union at the end of the war in Europe. Many of the Cossacks had deserted the Soviet side to fight with Germany during the war; many others had never been Soviet citizens, having fled Russia or the Ukraine as refugees during the Russian Civil War. There were Cossack colonies outside Russia, not least on the edge of Italy and Yugoslavia.
British soldiers forced the Cossacks into trains, one senior man having given his "word of honour as a British officer" that they were merely going to a conference, not being returned to the East. But most, rightly, didn't believe the word of honour of a British officer.
In Julius Epstein's book, Operation Keelhaul, a Cossack speaks of this famous military feat of arms. "The NKVD or the Gestapo would have slain us with truncheons; the British did it with their word of honour.
"The Cossacks refused to board the trucks. British soldiers with pistols and clubs began using their clubs, aiming at the heads of the prisoners. They first dragged the men out of the crowd, and threw them on to the trucks. The men jumped out. They beat them again, and threw them on to the floor of the trucks. Again they jumped out. The British then hit them with rifle butts until they lay unconscious and threw them, like sacks of potatoes, in the trucks''.
There were about 2500, including wives and children - some now Australian citizens - at this particular incident in Leinz, but overall about 50,000 were sent back, thousands to die in Stalin's gulags. The "just politics" aspect of the knowing British political deal deal with Stalin, carried out without remorse by British officers and soldiers, was inspired, in part, by a British fear that the Russians might play funny buggers with British - including Australian - and American prisoners of war who had been held in camps behind the Soviet lines.
With one thing or another, including escapes a lessening of the punishments after deStalination in the mid 1950s, many of the Cossacks ended up as displaced persons/refugees in Australian and the United States, part of a great movement of millions of peoples from Europe caused by World War II. Such tides come and go. When East Pakistan revolted against Western Pakistan in 1970, more than a million people fled to India in less than a week. I saw a similar tide, of Wahutu flee Rwanda to avoid reprisals from the Watutsi about 22 years ago.
These days, perhaps 20 million people have fled war and persecution in their own countries, with perhaps 30 million more internally displaced inside their own country. On top of this, as some of the apologists for Australia's refugee policy insist, are millions more who are economic or environmental refugees, not fleeing persecution as such, but poverty and wanting freedom and opportunity for their children in a richer country.
The official attitude of successive Australian governments is that we are, and will be, relatively generous in taking our "share" of genuine refugees, but that we ourselves will decide which of the many will be allowed to come. We will not be stampeded by uninvited applicants, least of all, these days, people who get into boats and simply arrive on our shores. Indeed, under recent successive governments, we have tried to make life more and more unpleasant for "boat people", even though the overwhelming number are proved to be genuine refugees. We declare that they will never be allowed to settle in Australia.
Recent arrivals are placed in unpleasant concentration camps in Nauru and Papua New Guinea. New boats that come are met, in secret, by a militarised Navy and Customs operation which has towed boats back to their countries of origin, or, reputedly, in the past week, handed them back to the Navy of the nation from which they came.
Our response is often framed as being cruel for the sake of being kind, because many of those fleeing for our protection have been exploited by people smugglers and put to sea in leaky boats, and drowned. Our policy prevents this, even as it also consciously panders to marked hostility to the sources of asylum seekers, racism and antipathy to Islam. All the rest of the world, apparently, can be flooded with unwanted asylum seekers, but Australia, alone of any other country, can declare that coming uninvited is illegal, and that those who do will never be allowed to stay.
This week, it seems, our shameful campaign reached a new low, or returning people with a well-placed fear of persecution back to a nation with an appalling human rights record. This was an act willed by politicians, but it was carried out, as the decisions of Yalta were, by men and women who claim a tradition of military and professional honour. I doubt, however, that they will be flying their battle flags on Anzac Day, or that, a generation hence, the sons and the daughters of those doing the government's dirty work will be listening, fascinated, at the stories of derring-do involved. Instead, their parents - and we Australians generally - will be unable to look them in the face.
Although Prime Minister Tony Abbott is publicly complacent about the human rights situation in Sri Lanka, from which these people came, all the evidence suggests ethnic Tamils, particularly those associated with the civil war that racked Sri Lanka for decades, face active persecution, punishment, arrest and murder.
But Australian immigration officers, interviewing asylum seekers by Skype, claim to be able to detect whether it is safe to return such people to their persecutors from a four-question interview. This is the same department which, under present management, is consistently in trouble with the courts for failing to understand human rights, and in trouble with the public over what is called a "culture" of hostility to immigrants, particularly refugees.
The government, the public service, and the military, simply refuse to give any information about what is being done. It is said that this would be providing intelligence to all-powerful, all-evil people smugglers. It also, however, provides a very useful cloak of secrecy.
One of the many reasons why it might be a good idea to wind down Anzac Day sooner rather than later is that it may prove increasingly difficult to stare into the eyes of professional soldiers and honour them for their service in the manner that we praise the million and more volunteers who served their nation during the world wars.
We do not have Anzac Day to honour the wisdom of our political leaders, nor the military skills of our officer class. Rather we salute the service and sacrifice by which about half of Australia's men of an age between 17 and 45, volunteered to serve their nation 100 years ago, and about the same about 20 years later. And, in recognising the terrible nature of the conflicts in which they were involved and the deaths and lasting injuries it did to the men and women who served, we recognise also the scars which that service and sacrifice left on the Australians and the Australia left behind. That there was hardly a family, a clan, a school or a community which was not lastingly affected has made the commemoration something much more than a reunion of survivors, an occasion for telling war stories or a mere public holiday.
It is now touching 70 years since conflict so transfixed the nation. Australian soldiers, sailors and aviators have since served in several big wars - Korea and Vietnam - and, in a much more limited way, in others such as Afghanistan. For Vietnam, Australia introduced military conscription but only about one in every 200 Australians saw active service there, compared with the one in 10 Australians who fought in the Middle East or on the western front, or both, in World War One, and the one in five who put on a uniform in World War II. At any one time at the moment, about one in 400 is wearing a uniform, but, usually, fewer than one in 1000 is on active service.
Today's service men and women may well in many ways be a cross-section of young Australians, but the very fact that they are making careers of military service distinguishes them markedly from those who rushed to the colours 75 and100 years ago.
That they work for money may also explain why they are prepared to submit to a code of military secrecy and political unaccountability, unknown in all of Australia's military engagements up to Iraq and Afghanistan, and that a good deal of the secrecy, however rationalised, has been designed to conceal conduct the ADF would prefer others not to know about.
Whether it's the business of slitting throats in the dark, playing in the Byzantine and treacherous games of tribal politics, or enabling politicians to say one thing while the ADF is doing another or doing dirty deeds of dubious legality and morality on the high seas under the cloak of the tightest military censorship Australia has ever known, the ADF has become a law unto itself. This is not to say that it is doing otherwise than acting under knowing political direction or that the formal mechanisms - bar transparency - of civilian control do not operate or that our generals and our admirals are engaged in an adventure of their choosing, with tactics of their choice. Indeed, the military generally hates "playing policeman" and regards border security matters as perhaps necessary but generally beneath contempt.
The question is whether, in the long term, the ADF's increasing separation from, and lack of accountability to the community will join with a pervading sense that the institutions of the services are dysfunctional, and that they have only a tenuous hold on any indigenised sense of honour. A military code of honour - perhaps of a sort that until recently thought bastardisation and initiation rituals "character-building - may well prevail, but whether it has an democratic and easy-going temperament is not so clear.
Some recent service leaders have demanded of Australians and the Australian media a presumption of innocence in relation to actions of service men and women on active service but it's an assumption that becomes more difficult as one sees not only how appalling off-duty service conduct can be, but the generally poor record of the officer class in preventing it.
Australians go to war memorials to honour service, not servicemen and women. They might well understand that our military go where they are sent and do as they are told, but, down the track, ordinary Australians, or even the children of those in uniform, will not usually be looking on with frank admiration at those who can tell only of repelling boarders at our borders. More often, mention of it may provoke the averted eyes of which Vietnam veterans complain. The more so since ordinary Australians, who, right now, voted enthusiastically for the politicians who ordered our military caste to do such deeds behind the curtain, will by then share the sense of shame.
What Australians are doing, in our name, at sea to refugees is not honourable and is not fit to be seen, whether by Australians or the world, be done on national television. Naturally, the moment we realise this, we will probably blame women and men in the other ranks rather than the military leaders who sit silently as their honour and the reputation of their service goes down the drain.
I'm a proud Vietnam draft-dodger, but I have no problem with honouring men and women of my generation who fought in Vietnam. I cannot ever imagine my eye tearing up about fit young Aussies unloading men and women and children into boats of the Sri Lankan Navy.