Saturday, May 03, 2008

OPINION: Aussies still fighting other people's wars

In the early hours of April 25, 1915, Australia and New Zealand entered World War 1.

Neither country was being directly invaded or even threatened.

The Anzac troops were offloaded on the beaches of Gelibolu (or Gallipoli as we know it) at the Cannakale peninsula of western Turkey. The landing was part of a disastrous war strategy developed by their British war commanders.

The young men were part of an imperial army, fighting for King more than their own country. As if to underscore just how much this battle was the war for foreign powers, one of the most characteristically Australian symbols of the campaign was the image of Simpson and his donkey trudging through the hills above Anzac Cove rescuing the war wounded.

The reality, of course, is that John Simpson Kirkpatrick was an English illegal immigrant who joined the war effort in Australia by accident when he boarded a ship carrying Anzac troops to the frontline. Kirkpatrick was not seeking to fight but rather just a free ride back home to Mother England.

Yet for many non-Irish diggers, being British did not make you any less Australian. In fact, even using Australian symbols to the exclusion of British ones was regarded as extremely provocative. In a recent book review published in The Canberra Times, Frank O'Shea writes about Irish returned soldiers causing major controversy when they marched in 1920 under the Australian flag, not the Union Jack. In doing so, they effectively declared that they had fought for Australia rather than for Britain The Irish in Australia were Australians as well as Irish, whereas the loyalists were British first and Australian second.

Try telling the drunken racist rioters at Cronulla that they should also be holding up the Union Jack!

Few Australians know that New Zealand lost a much higher proportion of troops than Australia. Over 85 per cent of Kiwi troops were killed or wounded, compared to 50% of the Aussies.

The comparatively lesser Australian war losses may explain why Australians are still much keener to participate in other people's wars than their cousins across the Tasman. The largest New Zealand force in the Vietnam War was hardly 540 men, although over 3000 Kiwis did volunteer to join the war effort.

Since then, New Zealand has been far more circumspect about its military and even broader security relations with the United States. In a 2003 paper published by the Strategic Studies Institute of the US Army War College, Dr Andrew Scobell notes that New Zealand had made its involvement in the war conditional on it receiving the imprimatur of the United Nations. Even then, New Zealand's involvement would be limited to providing logistical and humanitarian assistance and specialised military forces such as medical, engineering and mine clearance units.

Compare this to the government of then Prime Minister John Howard. Scobell notes that Howard, apart from former British PM Blair, was the staunchest supporter of a US-led military action against Iraq. Moreover, Australia is one of the few countries ready and willing to provide combat forces for a conflict with Iraq. In doing so, of course, Australia has also placed itself in the firing line of a variety of international terrorist groups.

Iraq is not the only foreign military adventure in which Australians are involved and which is going rather pear-shaped. How many Australians expected the Taliban to successfully regroup and fight so hard after their crushing defeat in 2001? Australia's new Defence Minister, Joel Fitzgibbon, has been calling on Nato commanders to reconsider military strategies in Afghanistan that are clearly failing and have already cost Australian lives. Not to mention that terrorists now have two reasons to eye Australia.

Perhaps the most shameful aspect of Australia's military history is its mistreatment of indigenous servicemen and women. Thousands of indigenous Australians fought overseas, with many hundreds giving the ultimate sacrifice to defend their nation. Yet the dead were buried in unmarked graves whilst the survivors were ineligible for returned servicemen land grants or even membership of Returned Services League (RSL) clubs.

Until recently, Aboriginal ex-servicemen were forced to march at the back of Anzac Day parades organised by the RSL. As the National Indigenous Times newspaper editorialised on Anzac Day in 2005:

So blackfellas were good enough to fight alongside white Australia, but that's where the new-found equality ended. How could this happen in a nation that defines itself by the noble digger? The technical answer is because Aboriginal people weren't considered Australian citizens until the referendum of 1967, so they didn't qualify for all the benefits that comes with being an Aussie.
So until 40 years ago, indigenous Australians were certainly fighting the wars of a country that did not recognise them as its own. What difference exists between this and fighting for a foreign power?

And thanks to the compulsory quarantining of pensions as part of the Northern Territory Intervention in Aboriginal communities, many indigenous ex-servicemen are having their pensions compulsorily quarantined.

With bigger battles against profound indigenous disadvantage to fight at home, why does my government continue to fight others' wars overseas.

Irfan Yusuf is a Sydney lawyer and writer. This article was first published in The Press of Christchurch on ANZAC Day, Friday 25 April 2008.

Words © 2008 Irfan Yusuf

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