I won't be attending the sound and light show at the War Memorial on Anzac Day. I’m sure the colour and noise will be a great spectacle and that it’s all part of ensuring the ‘continuing relevance’ of the institution; but personally, I prefer to remember those I knew in the old way. Two minutes of silence seems a far more fitting tribute than imagined, heroic images and noise of battle that doesn’t, as it happens, reflect the reality surrounding most of our recent deaths in war or the tragedy for those left behind.
I will be thinking, for example, of the slight yet incredibly strong Kellie Merritt, a young mother whose husband was killed flying in Iraq. A missile had suddenly, horrifically spiralled up from the ground to destroy his aircraft on his last mission. It was his bad luck he was flying with the RAF, because that air force had decided to save money and hadn’t equipped its Hercules planes with defensive equipment and decoys that are standard in our RAAF variants.
I’ll think, for example, of Robert Poate, who died simply because he happened to be in the wrong place when an Afghan soldier, one of the people he’d been training, decided our Diggers weren’t helping his country and turned his weapon on them. And I’ll also remember his mother, another strong and wonderful woman who I met still helping turn boys into men at Robert’s old school.
The grief of those left behind can never be assuaged. We pretend to remember those who’ve lost their lives on this one day of the year. These people live while loss touches their lives every moment. The tragedy isn’t simply that so many young men have died; but that they were killed by landmines; accidents as aircraft plunged from the sky; and in the now notorious so-called green-on-blue attacks, and in so many ways other than the images conjured up by our visions of battle. A noble cause, yes; but our government committed their lives to achieve a political objective. Was it worthwhile? Was the government they died to install in Kabul really worth it? And how long will it survive?
There are scores of others, of course, not to mention their Afghan colleagues. For them there will never be any ‘going home’ parade after a tour; they cannot expect casualty evacuation to good German hospitals or proper care after they lose a limb. Is it really any wonder they’re reluctant to press attacks home, charging across the open dash? For us that war is over. Our soldiers have returned. For them the victory is just another day of life.
But there are other deaths I’ll be remembering on Friday, too. In one of the first outposts we pulled out of in Afghanistan, a place where the soil soaked up Australian blood when an Afghan who was supposed to be guarding the parapet killed one of our soldiers – a cook – I found a nametag in the dust. It said, “Tattersall” and I thought of another, earlier loss from the years of peace and a young son marching behind a coffin; a service funeral in peacetime.
Warrant Officer 2 Frank Tattersall always did everything perfectly – he was a wonderful man and a brilliant leader. But then his life was, terribly, cut short when he was crushed in a freak training accident: an armoured personnel carrier overturned as it slipped down a muddy embankment. Will politicians still attend these funerals? The loss is just as real for the family, even if it’s not accompanied by the rhetoric of nobility that surrounds a death in battle. Tragically, this will become the new reality of military death. Reconciling this reality to heroic images of war will become the new test for the military – one not easily plastered over by references to glory.
Of the three services the army faces the biggest challenge to its ethos, one not bound up in the embossed laurels on the walls of the Memorial, but one that will nonetheless become far more real to a current generation of soldiers. Just as after Vietnam, the army’s now undergoing reorganisation and refocusing as it transits to a fully peacetime force.
A new book by a regular contributor to these pages (and Senior Fellow at the ANU’s Strategic and Defence Studies Centre) John Blaxland illuminates the difficulties the organisation faced as it struggled to find a role in the wake of the pull-out from Vietnam in 1975. The Australian Army from Whitlam to Howard covers the past third of this institution’s history – a period during which, notwithstanding the bigger attendances at Anzac Day ceremonies – it has become more detached from the mainstream of society.
The faces in the ranks no longer represent a genuine cross-section of the country, although the current chief, Lieutenant General David Morrison, is doing everything he can to add to the diversity of his units. The task he faces every day, however, is similar to the difficulty we have on April 25 each year.
Everyone has their own firmly held attitudes to the march, both the event and the institution. Blaxland’s book recounts much more than just the struggle the forces had to shake off the lack of focus as soldiers engaged in peacekeeping before deployments in first East Timor and later the Middle East. The Army remains at the sharp end of the way our country will achieves its strategic objectives and demonstrate its commitment to achieving outcomes. That’s fine when we all agree what these are but, as Blaxland demonstrates, discerning a way forward is difficult when there’s no clear light to reveal the path.
Nicholas Stuart is a Canberra writer.