“Colorful demonstrations and weekend marches are vital but alone are not powerful enough to stop wars. Wars will be stopped only when soldiers refuse to fight, when workers refuse to load weapons onto ships and aircraft, when people boycott the economic outposts of Empire that are strung across the globe. ”
― Arundhati Roy, Public Power in the Age of Empire
Recently, I shared this post on my private Facebook page and my public page and while I knew it was would elicit a response, it blew up a lot more than I expected, so I thought I would write a more fulsome explanation of why I shared it and why I think it is important to share something like that on ANZAC Day.
One of the most baffling things about ANZAC Day, and what I was ultimately attacking in sharing that pic, is the following logic:
- Wars are bad
- The wars Australia has fought in over the last 50 years have been bad
- The politicians who sent our soldiers to fight were bad
- The top ranked guys who prosecuted the wars were bad
- Our soldiers are great and they should be thanked for their service
I personally prefer that our public holidays remain either non-partisan or bipartisan, and so the only way to maintain that neutrality on ANZAC Day is to basically say points 1-4. Everyone can rally around war being bad, and we can rally around politicians and bureaucrats being bad, and so that is the basis of how we talk about war on ANZAC Day. ANXAC Day isn’t a day for glorifying war (that’s what we have 364 other days for) but it is definitely a day where we glorify soldiers. We are bombarded with pics of soldiers who got sent off to war, we hear their stories and we (as a society) praise them for how they served.
The rub for me is that wars aren’t self implementing: the authorization that comes from politicians flows through to orders given by the brass and ends with young men and women pulling triggers and dropping bombs on those who don’t deserve it. That last part is crucial: since politicians and bureaucrats are feckless cowards who love to send other people off to war in pursuit of whatever grand goals they have for the world, it cannot be achieved without the willing participation of those on the ground who do the shooting and the bombing. Particularly in the post-Vietnam environment, the people doing the shooting and bombing are those who volunteered into a job knowing that their purpose is to shoot, bomb and kill, meaning their participation in what happens is willing on two levels: when they sign up and when they are deployed.
When we praise current and former members of the ADF, we as a society never ask they what they actually did in their time in the ADF – it seems to me that regardless of what you actually did, you are treated as a hero within the popular narrative of ANZAC Day. However, for a methodological individualist like me, what you do individually with your life and your choices is the whole ball game – the goodness of your actions is to be measured by your own actions and the circumstances that your actions took place in. I don’t believe in collective guilt or collective praise where the collective itself hasn’t acted in some sort of uniform manner. Similarly, if your actions are judged individually, no one can indemnify you from the blame that is due to you – the state cannot justify your actions simply by virtue of giving you orders or declaring your actions legal.
The Nuremberg defence
After WWII, numerous Nazi officials defended their actions when put on trial by saying they were just following orders, in what has since been popularly called the Nuremberg defence. It has a certain logic to it, particularly within the context of war: these soldiers were just doing their duty and their actions were legal because the government made them legal. It requires the application of some sort of deeper moral logic to come to the conclusion that the actions of the individual Nazi soldiers and commanders to state that even if German law authorized their actions, even if they were commanded, they should have disobeyed. They have moral and legal culpability because what you were asked to do was obviously wrong and so disobedience is what is expected.
What then of ANZAC Day then? Certainly the actions of the Australian Defence Force (ADF) don’t resemble the actions of the Nazi regime in Germany. However, one must still ask: if you acknowledge that the wars are bad, should not members of the ADF also refuse to fight? Why is it that in any other area of life where someone knows of some kind of malfeasance or fraud is going on, we expect them to tell others what is going on or to show some sort of resistance and yet in war, when it involves our side, the people who knowingly participated in something horrific are lauded as models of citizenry? That those who volunteer to join a military that is engaging in a bad war as seen as serving us, as opposed to diving head first in the oceans of blood that our wars have unleashed?
We certainly don’t tolerate the Nuremberg defence when it comes to the Vietcong or the Taliban, and I suspect many could barely tolerate it of the Imperial Japanese Army. It would be decidedly unacceptable if I were to praise the patriotism of those who fight to defend their country from foreign oppressors, as they see it, by joining the Taliban, so why do those who join the ADF, knowing they will fight in these bad wars, get a free pass? Shouldn’t we really be telling people that it is dangerous and immoral to fight in unjust wars, that you make yourself into a murderer by doing so?
Good intentions aren’t good enough
One might reply: what about the intentions of those who joined the ADF? If you intend to defend the country, but you end up fighting in an immoral war, are you really as blameworthy as someone who did just want to kill others? I would argue they are as blameworthy as badly intentioned people. Good intentions are great but if they don’t translate into good actions, what does it matter? A bullet going through some poor schmuck in Afghanistan isn’t going to do any less damage if the person firing it is well intentioned. Good intentions won’t stop shrapnel from a drone attack annihilating a truck full of poor peasants, nor will it bring their dead sons and husbands back to life. Good intentions won’t restore a country to normality after we have unleashed hell on it. Intentions don’t inherently matter to the outcome of the actions, and so they are irrelevant to our considerations.
It is worth clarifying what exactly I am claiming here. This isn’t an argument against all standing armies, though I think there is a good case to say that standing armies are dangerous to the health of a society. This isn’t even an argument for pacifism and the rejection of all wars. This isn’t an argument that all people who have joined the ADF are irredeemably evil or that they are all equally blameworthy, nor is it an argument that soldiers alone are to blame – if there is blame for the results of war, front line troops are the lesser partners in sharing the blame and politicians are primarily to blame. What this argument is is a call to look at the actions of individuals and see if they stand the moral test.
If you joined the ADF in the 90s and your time there you participated in peacekeeping in Cambodia or East Timor or cleaning up floods in Australia, there is nothing to criticize you for, and in fact I would praise you for your service for you have indeed served the interests of the Australian people. Stabilising nearby countries, after being invited in, and helping with disaster relief generally speaking is a good thing.
Similarly, if you work in a role that has little to do with the ongoing war effort, you don’t have anything to be criticized for either. My brother-in-law drove trucks for the Army for a while and his only deployment was in Malaysia, so he had pretty much nothing to do with the war effort. Maybe he might have indirectly loaded a plane or something that eventually ended up in Iraq or Afghanistan but the link is so distant that I would be happy to say that ignorance is a defence in cases like his. I am not going to throw stones at the base cook for failing to stop the war.
However, if you were in the ADF and contributing directly to the war effort, the blood of innocents is on your hands commensurate to the role you played. Front line troops are the ones firing the bullets and so if you choose to fire them on orders, you are part of the problem. If you are a commander and you have the power to resist sending people out to fight and you don’t resist, then you are part of the problem. If you cannot help but assist in the death and destruction, the only truly moral courses of action are resistance and refusal. If refusal lands you in trouble, that is the price you pay for doing what is right.
Ignorance is a defence: because of the cult of militarism in Australia and the presumption that joining the ADF is a noble thing, I’m sure many people join the ADF idealistically, only to find later on that they are basically killers in the cause of something immoral. I wouldn’t blame someone for taking a while to figure out what is truly going on, for it is in the interests of those overseeing the war to hide the nature of what is going on. I myself was ignorant at one time, and if I had known back then what I know now, I would have begged my friends and family who joined the ADF not to go – I would have told them not to be part of an immoral killing machine. I would also give some leeway to those who were drafted for Vietnam and didn’t try to dodge it, thinking that spending time in prison as a dodger would be worse than fighting. The threat of prison is immediate and obvious, whereas it would be easy to not know what price you would be paying by going. Once you are aware of the truth, however, the burden is on you to act morally, to resist and to refuse.
Consequently, we find there is a spectrum: on one side, you have people in the ADF who have nothing to do with the war, and therefore carry none of the blame for what goes on in them; on the other side, you have those are in combat, doing all the killing and making the war a reality. Presumably, it is only a very narrow sliver of people who sit in the category of those doing the killing, especially in the current mode of warfare. Australia has a small number of special forces doing the bulk of the work, with an array of people supporting them and thank God for that! The less people fighting the better!
So what now?
There is nothing that can be undone regarding existing Australia’s involvement in foreign adventurism so where to from here? What should be done about ANZAC Day and how should we think about people who did fight in unjust wars? The first casualty in war is truth so the first response would be to speak the truth about what is going on in the wars our nation is fighting. If we cannot stand up and declare what is going on in Afghanistan and what happened in Iraq and elsewhere, there is really no hope at all for ending those wars. We need to declare that our soldiers and our allies are killing innocent people under color of law, and that this is unacceptable. Soldiers need to stand up and call out the lies of the government that justify what is going on.
Secondly, ANZAC Day is in the grip of immense whitewashing that benefits the government. We tell ourselves that we honour the sacrifices of those who died and those who were mained by saying it was in defence of the nation but that is not true. Australia has never been under threat of invasion, not even in World War II, so whatever the reasoning is for the wars, it cannot be that it is to protect us. Maybe people believe that dying for our allies or for some other reason is justified but that isn’t the logic we see on ANZAC Day – all we hear is about honouring the sacrifices of those who died for our freedom. This is completely false, and while I can understand that it is a bitter pill to swallow that your sons and friends died for nothing, it is one we must swallow if we are to be honest about the nature of the wars we are called on to fight.
Thirdly, we need to tell those who are thinking of joining the ADF what exactly they are signing up for, in hope of dissuading them. Ultimately this is the end goal: we end war by the Australian public deciding to stop supporting them and to discourage those who want to fight them. This is why the mythology that surrounds ANZAC Day is so pernicious: by glamourizing the heroism of those who fight in wars, we encourage a new generation of people to sign up to be slaves to politicians who care nothing for their lives or the lives of those who will be killed. If every mother and father grabbed their son volunteering to fight by the ear and questioned why he wants to go kill poor brown people overseas, instead of championing their valour, maybe we would have a lot less tolerance and capacity for war.
Finally, we should encourage soldiers to refuse to fight, and to cheer them when they resist orders to go and kill people we have no business in killing. War continues because we, the voting public, expect soldiers to go fight in wars we shouldn’t be fighting, when instead we should welcome soldiers choosing the moral course of action over the expedient one. Not only would this make the job of warmongers harder, it would also signal to politicians that we take this stuff seriously, and that we expect them to move towards ending war. Politicians are followers, not leaders, and so if the broad mass of the Australian electorate start telling them that war is no longer acceptable, they will fall in line.
Ultimately, we honour those who died more by calling for the end of war and encouraging people to refuse to fight than we could ever by telling ourselves that their deaths were in the cause of serving us. It might be convenient for the collective Australian conscience to tell ourselves that our young men died for a purpose but the harder and more rewarding truth is that we do our war dead a greater service by ensuring no more go to join them for a cause not worth dying for.