You can lead a nation to slaughter, but you can’t make it think

POLITICS is all about the timing, so this column might initially seem a little out of place. But stick with me.

I am grateful to those who fought for the freedoms we enjoy today, but I don’t like the lionization of war. And I don’t really recognize Anzac Day anymore.

As a kid, I used to march every year, as part of a Sydney brass band. Even for a self-involved teenager, it was always a humbling experience.

My family would be up before dawn for the trip into the city, and my three brothers and I would march the route not once, but twice.

Such was the lack of brass bands in the late 80s – and the size of the marches – that when we got to the end we’d have to rush back to the start and go a second time around.

Of course, the ranks of the marchers have thinned over the years, although so, I note, have the number of brass bands.

I have fond memories of Anzac Day as a kid. But the older I get, the less I like what I see.

For me, Anzac Day has become not so much a commemoration as a celebration, a chance for young, flag wearing Australians to rip off their shirts, beat their chests and show everyone how ‘Strailyan’ they are.

I didn’t really know my Grandfather, Billy Graham. He died when I was two. But I don’t think that when he signed up to the Second World War he was fighting for the ‘the right to decide who comes to this country and the circumstances under which they come’. Nor do I think he would be all that happy with a nation that denies genuine asylum seekers the right to seek aide and comfort.

I also like to think that when he fought the Germans in Tobruk, he wasn’t sacrificing so much to ensure his nation could dispense with the Racial Discrimination Act whenever some ‘recalcitrant black’ needed to be put in their place.

I like to think my Grandpop would be a little uncomfortable with what Anzac Day is increasingly becoming – one part commemoration, most parts political and media event, a competition to see who can look and feel ‘the most Australian’ by sharing the pain and sacrifice of our returned service men and women.

I certainly don’t feel their pain. I can appreciate their sacrifice, but I have no understanding whatsoever of what it feels like to travel to another country and shoot a complete stranger.

I’m grateful for that, and grateful to those who went in my stead.

I was reminded of all this in late May – one month after the annual Anzac Day ceremonies – after spending the morning at the Hyde Park Anzac Memorial in Sydney with the chairman on the NSW Aboriginal Land Council, Stephen Ryan.

We were there for an annual ceremony to mark the service of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander men and women during the various war efforts.

It’s a separate event to Anzac Day and is organised to coincide with the ubiquitous Reconciliation Week.

Why a special event? Why something, as Andrew Bolt might say, ‘separate’? Perhaps because of the special status of Indigenous soldiers, a majority of whom fought for Australia despite being denied the basic rights of citizenry.

Whatever the reason, it was my first time at the ceremony, and I was surprised at the size of the event. Close to 1,000 people had turned out.

For any Aboriginal event these days, that’s a big number.

It was so big, in fact, that when the time came for people to lay wreaths, the procession seemed to drag on forever.

As you’d expect, the list of veteran’s associations was lengthy – the 7th, 8th and 9th Division Associations. The Vietnam Vets. The Korean Vets.

Sydney Legacy made it, so too the War Widows Guild of Australia.

There was a host of government departments, plus emergency services – the Rural Fire Service, Police, Ambulance, the SES, and a representatives from a dozen or so different government departments.

Organisations I’d never heard of laid wreaths – the Australian Women’s Army Service, Rats of Tobruk Association, NSW Commando Association.

Even random small town RSL branches came – the Inverell Sub-Branch, Lakemba RSL, Doyalson-Wyee.

And as always, there were plenty of school kids, some of them travelling from as far afield as Cessnock and Kempsey.

The event was so significant that even international organisations were represented, including the US Small Ships Association and the British Airborne Association.

And there were, of course, plenty of politicians.

Federal MPs Tanya Plibersek, and Andrew Laming, Senator David Feeney and Julie Owens attended. So too the Lord Mayor of the City of Sydney, Clover Moore.

But what was most notable about the event was who was not there.

Prime Minister Gillard didn’t make it. Neither did Opposition leader Tony Abbott. The NSW Premier Barry O’Farrell was missing. So too the NSW Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, Victor Dominello, and his opposite in parliament, whomever that may actually be.

The NSW Opposition Leader John Robertson was absent – he was represented by his deputy, Linda Burney. And why not? It’s perfect really. A black event. Linda’s black. It’s a no-brainer!

Jenny Macklin the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs didn’t make it either, nor did Senator Nigel Scullion, the Opposition spokesman.

Kevin Rudd, known for two things (losing the Lodge and the National Apology) didn’t find the time either, which surprised me. Rudd, in his never-ending quest to regain his job, would turn out to the opening of an envelope – even a black envelope – if he thought there was a headline in it.

But ever the strategist, Rudd no doubt knew there wouldn’t be, because there was also a surprising lack of media at the commemoration.

No wall-to-wall coverage on our televisions, no smiling morning show hosts waxing lyrical about ‘diggers’ and pointing to ‘smiling Aussie children’ and bursting with pride at the fervor of our devotion to the Anzac cause.

My point is pretty obvious – can you imagine so many politicians not turning out to Anzac Day?

And can you imagine the reaction to a mainstream media boycott of it?

It’s simply unthinkable.

It’s also breathtakingly hypocritical.

I think that as a country, if we’re going to hitch our identity to war and sacrifice, then it really should be to ‘all things war and sacrifice’, rather than ‘all things war and sacrifice… so long as they’re white’.

And therein lies one of the gaping holes in our national story, and probably the key to why I feel increasingly so uncomfortable about the way we honour our fallen.

There are few nations on earth, if any, with Australia’s history of rushing to war.

We’ve injected ourselves into just about every overseas conflict known to man.

Even before we were federated, we were sending troops to the Boer War to kill Africans. Our veterans fought in the Maori Wars and the Boxer Rebellion, conflicts many Australian’s haven’t even heard of.

We were in Malaya, Somalia, both Gulf Wars, Vietnam, Korea and all the World Wars.

As journalist John Pilger points out, Australia – a relatively small nation – has one of the largest War Memorials on earth. Our Canberra monument is dwarfed only by Russia’s.

And yet, a walk through it reveals a surprising indifference to the only war ever fought on our own soil – the Frontier Wars.

How can that possibly be in a nation that prides itself on its ability with a gun?

How can we be so enamored with the white Aussie digger, and yet so indifferent to this land’s great black warriors, both ancient and more recent?

Personally, I think in future I’ll respectfully avoid April 25 commemorations, and focus my admiration on the annual Reconciliation Week Anzac Ceremony, at least until the numbers – and the political capital – even out a little.

On the fight more broadly, like I said, politics is all about the timing. That’s why I think the efforts of those engaged in the fight for basic rights for Aboriginal Australians need to direct more of their efforts, ironically, towards fighting overseas.

We need to worry less about converting the thinking of the average Australian and more about educating the rest of the world on the real history of a deeply ignorant nation.

I think the sooner we realize this the better.

You can lead a nation to slaughter, but in Australia at least, you can’t always make them think.

* Chris Graham is the former founding editor of Tracker magazine. He’s now a freelance writer based in Glebe, Sydney.