It is a challenge to speak on the breadth of feelings that Anzac Day brings out among the community, even almost one week on.
It remains an important and solemn day in Australia, often observed with a reverence reserved solely for it. Our feelings and remembrance towards those who have fallen on battlefields far from home are deeply felt, and so to take this opportunity to speak about the culture of war and the armed forces is not one taken lightly. There is no benefit to having a rose-tinted, idealised view of war. It has been my sentiment on Anzac Days past that the greatest act of respect towards those who have fought and fallen, and to those who have returned home carrying unspeakable trauma, is to actively work towards disarmament and peace.
The culture in and around our armed forces is marred by unnecessary occupations in countries such as Afghanistan, and the inconceivable acts of brutality that occurred under poor leadership - leadership that often valorises violence in its most vicious forms. Reading through the Brereton report, which alleges harrowing acts of cruelty, intentional deceit, hazing and torture, is a difficult task - one that has left some feeling physically ill. Specific acts such as "throwdowns", where troops would plant weapons on unarmed casualties (including civilians) in order to stage a fairly won battle, rather than murder, are described in great detail. Hazing rituals known as "blooding" demanded that newer soldiers take the lives of passive prisoners of war, itself a universally agreed upon war crime, and served as a way of initiating them into conflict.
This all speaks of a dangerous mentality, a culture in which violence is glorious, and viciousness committed in the name of Australian values is high honour. US President Biden recently announced the end date to the occupation of Afghanistan as September 11, 2021, a full two decades after its beginnings. The remaining Australian troops will be withdrawn by this date too, and Afghanistan will be left deeply scarred by foreign occupation, having lost 157,000 lives - of which 43,000 were civilians. This is a legacy we cannot say is shrouded in honour, and we cannot say that war crimes are acts committed in defence of our values. This is simply not a sacrifice we can ask of ourselves or other nations.
It is a challenge to speak on this topic in larger part because of the connections so many have to those who have fought and served, and the sense of duty bound up in it. However, being honest about the realities of war is not antithetical to the spirit of Anzac Day; it is necessary. The culture and the actions of the armed forces have created a long-unaddressed crisis in those who return from war. A royal commission into veteran and serving defence member suicides was announced last week, after decades of pleas from veterans and their families. While 41 Australian troops have died in active service in Afghanistan since 2001, well over 400 veterans have died by suicide over the same time period. This is a figure that has soared in the past 12 months during the pandemic, with housing stability and mental health suffering great hits, and has not yet been captured in the data. This is a grave loss, and its gravity is increased only by its preventability.
In Australia, 4.4 per cent of the general population suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, whereas those rates are as high as 17.7 per cent for veterans in their first four years of discharge. This is an extremely vulnerable state for veterans to be left in, and the effects of trauma and PTSD greatly increases their risk of suicide, homelessness, substance abuse and relationship difficulty. It also shows the environment of war for what it is: inherently traumatic. Yes, it is a challenge to speak on the breadth of feelings that Anzac Day brings out among the community, because often they run deep into wellsprings of unspeakable grief. On Anzac Day, we may speak of the ultimate sacrifices made abroad, but a tragic sacrifice is being made in our own communities as a result.
Now is the time, as we remember and reflect, to do more than gaze upon the growing list of names inscribed on our many war memorials. We must put a stop to the horrific cycle of violence that is war. The loss of life at war is not an honour, it is a tragedy. War crimes are not an acceptable part of the defence process. They are an atrocity, and they are leaving many veterans scarred upon discharge. We must commit ourselves to attaining, and maintaining, peace; this is the only acceptable act of true respect and remembrance that there is.
- Jordon Steele-John is a WA senator and the Australian Greens' spokesperson on Peace and Disarmament.