There is a mystique about war and military service which means that commentators like me with no personal military background whatsoever offer opinions at their peril.
But commentary can't be avoided, because both war and military service are central to our identity as a nation, and because there are many different perspectives on them.
The intensity of Australia's reflections on war waxes and wanes and is currently high. The potent mixture of celebration and anxiety are percolating more deeply through the community than for some time.
The Anzac Day weekend demonstrated this. Sporting events now always include Anzac memorials. Schools are now fully inculcating the ceremonies too, and members of the local community are being encouraged to conduct their own home-based ceremonies at the time of the dawn service. This year my regular church service was of a greater Anzac flavour, including standing for the Last Post and singing of the national anthem, than I can ever remember.
Yet in the middle of all this, many in the community are wrestling with the consequences of war and the impact both on those who have served and on those we set out to protect. The Catholic Archbishop of Sydney, Anthony Fisher, pointed to this contrast when he told a Sydney church service that "the ANZAC legend has become an epic, noble and admirable part of our national identity, yet at the same time it has obscured the brutal reality of the damage of war".
This anxiety is rising when the profile of the Australian Defence Force has never been higher. Yet ironically, that profile has occurred because of natural disasters, rather than war. The ADF has been most prominent recently fighting bushfires and COVID-19. This applies not just to ordinary serving women and men but also to current and retired senior officers. Everything from the vaccine rollout to the Civil Aviation Safety Authority is now being presided over by the military. It would not surprise if all this essentially civilian activity gave the ADF a split personality in the eyes of the public.
Such has been this diverse public role that, rather than welcoming it, some political supporters of the military worry that it has diverted attention from its traditional role as a fighting force. According to Assistant Defence Minister Andrew Hastie, himself a former serviceman, the core business of the ADF "will always be the application of lethal violence in the defence of our values, sovereignty and interests". These words were echoed by other federal Coalition members of the ex-service community.
While we celebrate military service, there are three major causes of anxiety: our forthcoming withdrawal from Afghanistan, veteran suicides and the Brereton report into alleged war crimes. Each of these topics is controversial, and they feed off one other. Eventually the Australian War Memorial must decide how to represent each of them in future displays.
If the Australian community reaches the conclusion that our 20-year commitment to the war in Afghanistan, ending this September, ultimately came to nothing, then that will hurt the military community. Already full or partial versions of this conclusion are common, even among ex-service men and women themselves. That is, that Australia either should not have been there at all or that we stayed too long. Even the best case, put by federal Labor MP Luke Gosling, depends on a multi-pronged definition of the role of the military, counting the work of medics, engineers, and development experts as well as soldiers.
Whatever our conclusion, there are two legacies which will dog us as a community for some time. Both are about the damage of war, though different aspects of it. The consequences of the Brereton report, which alleged war crimes by some Australian soldiers in Afghanistan, will work their way slowly through military and civil processes for a decade. At the same time, the recently announced but not yet operational Royal Commission into Veteran Suicides, will take years to conduct, assimilate and respond to.
Both investigations will be raw and painful experiences, and neither will go away quickly. They will expose the trauma endured by soldiers in the field and the personal consequences for mental and physical health experienced upon their return. Serious questions will be asked about the role of the federal government in the conduct of both the war and the peace. The Australian community also should not escape investigation of its own role in either encouraging governments or failing to hold them to account.
In its own defence, the community could reply that the dark side of war is often deliberately hidden from their view by government. For apparent security reasons there is anonymity about many individuals, and even where the community is invited by embedded journalists to take a closer look at what is going on, it may all seem a long way away. When a troop commitment is relatively small, as it has been in Afghanistan, it is easily forgotten.
The work tackling bushfires and pandemics is much more visible and may be more highly valued by the community. This creates a problem, if what the community values most about military service is regarded as secondary to its main purpose by the military itself. Wartime service may be valued and rewarded more than domestic community service by military authorities.
What the nation needs is a full, integrated and open accounting of war and the military. Instead of a comprehensive account, what we have now is a set of separate and disjointed discussions of the purpose of the military, the Afghanistan commitment, alleged war crimes by soldiers and the trauma of veteran suicides.
- John Warhurst is an emeritus professor of political science at the Australian National University.