Activists stopped from honouring civilian war dead

At noon on October 8, Stop the War Coalition Sydney will mark the 10th anniversary of the start of the longest running war in Australia’s history. A protest, starting at Town Hall, will hear from a state MP, an aid worker and a lawyer and had intended to march via the Sydney Cenotaph in Martin Place to the US Consulate in Martin Place.

Together with the veterans’ group Stand Fast, the anti-war coalition was to lay a wreath to commemorate all the dead from the Afghanistan war.

But the Returned Services League (RSL) has refused, saying: “The very nature of the organisation that you represent is not conducive to maintaining the dignity or sanctity of the Cenotaph and what it represents.”

Tony Iltis, spokesperson for Stop the War Coalition, rejected this saying the RSL was out of touch with the views of the majority on the war in Afghanistan.

“We intend to make a dignified condemnation of both the glorification of military deaths and the cover-up of civilian deaths. Our message, 10 years on, is that the troops must be brought home for the deaths to cease.”

Iltis said: “World War I, which the Cenotaph was built to commemorate, has become defined by the harrowing words of poets such as Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen and Robert Graves.

“Swept up by the patriotic fervour at the war’s outbreak in 1914 they, along with many others, enlisted with the British forces but were soon overwhelmed by the indescribable horror, the futility and the callous disregard for human life shown by those in charge.

“This is how Siegfried Sassoon put it:

‘You smug-faced crowds with kindling eye
Who cheer when soldier lads march by,
Sneak home and pray you’ll never know
The hell where youth and laughter go.’

— Siegfried Sassoon, Suicide in the Trenches (1917)

“These poets used bitter irony to contrast the stirring words of glory-seeking politicians with the pointless slaughter to which they sent a generation of young men.

“World War I was supposed to be the war to end all wars. Tragically, this was far from the case. World War I was the last major war where the majority of casualties were military. Since then, civilians have increasingly borne the brunt of the horrors of war.

“The politicians’ hypocritical appeals to glory and patriotism remain the same, but now it is no longer just young men who die. In Afghanistan it is civilians — from babies to the elderly — who are most of the casualties inflicted by all sides.

“Unlike the 2753 military deaths (including 29 Australians), the number of civilians killed in Afghanistan has never been counted.”

Iltis quoted Afghan anti-war activist Malalai Joya, who “described the hell civilians in her country face: ‘Day by day, the situation is getting worse. Tens of thousands of Afghans have been killed. Millions suffer from extreme injustices including poverty, unemployment, cruelty and corruption.

“‘We are fed up with the occupation … Violence is increasing day by day against women. Over these past 10 years, thousands of innocent people have been killed — mostly women and children. Democracy never comes with occupation. Democracy never comes through military invasion, cluster bombs, white phosphorus, massacres and the bombing of wedding parties.’

“Civilians also make up most of the casualties of the remote-controlled drones that the US has used to extend the war into Pakistan.”

[This statement was released by the Stop the War Coalition Sydney on October 6.]

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