Greens must confront Australia’s war culture

The Greens’ attempt to challenge Australia’s Afghan war policy in parliament last year has, by and large, sunk without trace.

In spite of recent polls showing overwhelming public opposition, Australia’s Afghan commitment rolls on, with the recent deaths of more Australian soldiers. And the war continues to claim the lives of Afghan civilians.

For the major “war” parties, and the military, political and media elites who support Australia’s war culture, it has been “as you were” since the parliamentary debate.

For the Greens, the debate reached an inevitable dead-end, based as it was around the limited argument that only parliament should approve foreign troop deployments.

With the major parties supporting the Afghan commitment such a vote would make no difference to the current situation.

While the recent military deaths have seen the Greens national parliamentary leadership renew calls for Australian troop withdrawals, a new, more assertive, strategy is called for.

In her 2010 Christmas message, Prime Minister Julia Gillard remembered those Australian troops killed during 2010 — “they died for us” — and this sentiment has been re-enforced through the passing of another ANZAC Day, and the positive spin it places on the notion of “sacrifice”.

But as playwright Alan Bennett put it in The History Boys, memorialising war is about forgetting its truths: “It’s not lest we forget, it’s lest we remember”.

So what are the Greens to do in the face of the national amnesia underpinning Australia’s war culture?

First, they need to overcome their own timidity, reflected in an Afghan war debate in which no criticism was made of the Australia-US alliance, a crucial part of the war culture, and in which some Green MPs, in spite of their criticisms of the war, felt the need to fall in and march to an unqualified “we support out troops” cadence.

This begs the question, support the troops doing what? The answer to this requires a little more historical depth and political courage. The Greens need to confront the war culture head on.

A starting point is to challenge Gillard’s assertion that troops killed in Afghanistan “died for us” and point out that in reality they have been sacrificed in the “national interest” of keeping the US on side in the US-Australia alliance, and that their names have been added to the more than 100,000 Australians killed in war in the past century, overwhelmingly lives thrown away in the interests of our British and US “great and powerful friends”.

It is difficult to say this in the face of the grief felt by families of recently killed Australian troops, but it has to be said.

The sacrifice of tens of thousands of Australians in wars has not been noble. It has not been for “freedom” or for “us”. It has been a tragic waste.

It is a sad reflection on Australia’s war culture that old soldiers from the great wars of the 20th century, in their final years, have often lamented the futility of war, while young thrill-seekers continued to line up at the barracks gate.

Soldiers may have fought bravely and committed heroic deeds, but fighting for their lives and looking out for each other, their deaths, and the physical and psychological maiming of thousands more, has not been heroic but tragic.

And we should particularly remember the lives lost in countries in which the Australian military forces have fought — the hundreds of thousands who have died in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan.

Their deaths remain unmourned, and the responsibility that Australian governments, military leaders, and ordinary soldiers, must to one degree or another bear for the role they have played in their deaths, has gone unacknowledged.

Even World War II, often seen as the “good war” because of its confrontation with fascism and the (only) direct threat to Australia, had bad origins.

These lay in the unfinished business of a disastrous post-World War I “peace” treaty, and the rivalry in the Pacific between the new empires of Japan and the US and the decaying colonial powers, Britain, France and the Netherlands.

Australians were justifiably fighting to defend their country and oppose Japanese imperialism, as well as take part in the wider struggle against fascism.

But their sacrifices were soon betrayed, as old empires were re-installed in Asia, laying the foundation for new wars, and a new waste of lives.

Australian historians debate the contested meanings of the ANZAC legends, and the recent upsurge in commemoration and remembrance at Gallipoli, the Western Front, and on the Kokoda track.

It is by no means certain that young people in particular come away from these events uncritically supporting Australia’s participation in the wars of empire.

But there is no doubt that the War Party — the pro-war leaderships of Australia’s two major governing party blocs and their attendant war machine — seeks to use these public commemorations to reinforce a positive view of Australia’s war culture, linked in to a populist “Aussie, Aussie, Aussie, Oi, Oi, Oi” nationalism, and overlaid with hypocritical and mawkish official expressions of sorrow for the lives of the fallen.

For the Greens, taking on this war culture will not be easy.

Green policy already lays the foundation for this with its support for “the right of [Australian Defence Force] personnel to conscientiously object to particular military actions”.

But this needs to be more than a clause slumbering away on the Greens national policy manifesto.

Federal Green MPs need to start publicly asserting this as both the right, and duty, of Australian military personnel.

For example, the Greens could encourage Australian troops to stay in their bases (defend themselves if they have to) and refuse to go out on patrols or other activities until the government brings them home.

This goes to the heart of opposing the war culture of uncritical service to military alliances, challenging Australian soldiers in Afghanistan and elsewhere to accept a degree of moral responsibility for choosing to fight or not.

This is a complex question. Australian soldiers serve in the armed forces under threat of draconian disciplinary punishments.

Equally complex are the reasons why young people choose to sign up to be part of the military, ranging from patriotism and military careerism through to naive adventurism and economic conscription.

So the Greens need to be understanding of the pressures placed on serving personnel.

Responsibility for Australia’s war policy and culture ultimately lies with those at the top — the political and military leaderships. Nonetheless soldiers need to reflect on their own situation.

This particularly applies to those serving in the special forces units, the aggressive arm of the military that is most implicated in civilian deaths and potentially in war crimes and human rights abuses. Let’s face it: you don’t get to be in the special forces unless you really want to be there.

Thus the statement that we must “support the troops” needs to be qualified.

Yes, support them in the circumstances where they find they have little choice but to obey their superiors.

Yes, support them if they suffer injury, physical or mental, as a result of their war service.

Yes, support them by demanding that they be brought home to their loved ones, and yes support them, most particularly, if they choose to conscientiously object to their war service.

But we also need to make clear that this is not support for the war in which they fight, not for any re-writing of history to justify a sacrifice in lives as part of a disastrous war culture, and in the service of empire, and not for actions by soldiers that put Afghan civilians at risk and violate human rights.

[Reprinted from the political blog Watermelon: ]


1) We have a voluntary military - if they don't want to be there they don't have to be.

2) Soldiers obey orders - always. The only exception to this is if they recieve an illegal order, and we don't have any commanders that are stupid enough to give those, nor any who aren't professionals and good people. If soldiers don't want to fight, they can leave. It has happened already - the soldier is removed from operations and shown the door.

3) There is no 'war culture'. Deployment of the military is always to be made in Australia's national interests. The security cabinet are obliged to qualify our commitments in this context. Just because everyone doesn't agree with it doesn't mean that a deployment is wrong.

4) "War crimes and human rights abuses" - those charges have already been dropped and it is disingenous of GLW to omit that fact in publishing this piece.

5) Why no mention of whom the soldiers are fighting? Do you support their opponents? The Taliban regularly commit attrocities against civilians yet all the talk is about Australian soldiers.

As Jello Biafra says
"We support our troops most 'cause we say

When I was serving my voting habits use to be Green(What can I say I was young and idealistic). Since discharge I've been able to read your policies, political blogs etc... and have become politically active.

I must say the last election I voted LNP, and helped dispose an incumbent Labor candidate. You can imagine I do not help the Green/Labor alliance in the blogosphere.

Perhaps The Greens leader should actually visit our troops if he was serious, or just someone from The Greens. Pigs will fly I imagine before that happens. So any rhetoric from The Greens on military matters hits the ignore list or defend and argue to the bitter end.

Just from this article here it's very hard to take you seriously, perhaps you should do the military job yourself first and become an expert in geo politics and intelligence before making such ridiculous statements.

1) Sure, but if you want a career in the military you dont get a choice of where you end up.

2) Not always. The Vietnam war is a stark example of soldier rebellion, to the point where there were many instances of soldiers killing their commanding officers. Theres a big difference between what is technically "illegal" and whats immoral. From the increasing rate of civilian casualties in Afghanistan, all your "good" commanders clearly have no problem with wasting civilians as long as they can get away with it.

3) You'd have to be blind not to notice the ramping up of 'war culture' in Australia with the absurd ANZAC day celebrations that seem to get more detached from reality every year. Your attempt to justify the deployment under "Australia's national interests" is laughable, given that the government has had to resort to distortions to sell it to the public. The Australian people dont benefit at all from the war, unless you see "Australia's national interests" as being synonymous with imperialism and corporate profit-making. All the reasons the government has given for being there have proven false, when you look at whats actually happened.

4) Its not surprising that the military has cleared its own people at a time when the war is more and more unpopular. And of course, theres all the abuses that dont technically qualify as crimes, but are part and parcel of a military occupation.

5) This is the flimsiest argument of all. War supporters never mention who the Australian military is actually supporting - brutal warlords with the same beliefs and modus operandi as the Taliban. See here:

that was a remarkably long-winded and self-important way of saying.. well not really much at all was it!

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