As a young man I was impressed by war. The scale of human action, the scale of humans acting in concert was the thing. Compared to the tiresome and repetitive tropes of politics, which to my teenage brain resembled nothing so much as a rolling maul in a game in which there was no tryline, war appeared to be something monumental and uniting. Every little country town I ever lived in had a cenotaph (sometimes it was the only ornamental thing in town and always the largest) and each case the local burghers pointed to the names of their forebears on the cenotaph at the biannual gatherings on Anzac and Armistice Days.
I can see that in some ways I was easily impressed, but my admiration for those who went off and did what is still euphemistically called service has never really diminshed. They did do astonishing things. Like many young men, naive in their admiration for older men who had been placed by history in harm’s way, I didn’t question the moral context for their wars, or any war, until I began to separate those servicemen who marched down the main street from the machinations of great power shenanigans which brought about those confluences of history and agency. In their hands and feet and fingers and eyes and hearts I can’t help but admire those who fought, even when fighting for some awful causes.
I was, for instance, also impressed by Breaker Morant as a teen. I read the bush ballads, the Kit Denton book (still an excellent read), visited the Handcock memorial in Bathurst, watched Bruce Beresford’s film more times than I care to admit. I once went on a driving holiday with Dad to a number of Breaker Morant sites in western New South Wales (not that there was anything Morant orientated at those places, they were just places he had lived and worked –my Dad always liked tooling around ghost towns and neglected pastoral manors). And yet ultimately Morant was shot by his own side for the greater cause of a British South Africa. Yikes. There’s hardly a worse cause in history, except for all the other ones. I also went with my Dad in 1987 to Gilgandra to watch the re-enactment of the Coo-ee March, a recruiting drive for the first world war. Twenty six men started walking from Gilgandra, calling out coo-ee to their bushmates to join them, and to go and fight the Huns. Two hundred and sixty three did so. And, of course, many did not ever come back to rural New South Wales and remain entombed in France. I was, and remain, moved by the whole affair.
The taking up of arms, in the context of a twentieth century that any historically inclined right thinking person would notice took up arms almost continuously (even more than the incredibly violent and militarised nineteenth century), hardly seemed a radical or extreme move. After all, every year, twice a year in all our little towns we applauded those who had done so and survived, and mourned those who had not been so blessed.
Later, as I thought more about the contexts for these and other military matters, I came to admire those who fought for causes. The usual anti-imperialist suspects: Che loomed large, ditto Giap, John Brown and the Osawatomie crew, the Weather Underground, Michael Collins, Augusto César Sandino, the Tupamaros, and so on. Similarly I was always particularly moved by the stories of the Spanish Civil War, and the volunteers who travelled there to fight the fascists. I read Hemingway and Orwell and all about the Abraham Lincoln and Washington brigades. Much later I also took the trouble to learn about Nugent Bull, the only Australian who went to fight for Franco, a no less moving gesture for my horror of the cause. But at the heart of all this I admired them all, for being connected to that big world and being agents within it.
So I wonder about these young Australians heading off to Syria and Iraq. I have no truck with their cause but I find it hard not to extend the admiration I have for those who march(ed) on Anzac Day to those who’ve decided to go off and fight for what they believe in. To point to the politics of their umbrella organization as being distasteful is no doubt true but so too were the invasions of Iraq. So too was the invasion of Afghanistan. The politics of the fight seem to me to rest with the conscience of the fighter when we’re talking about so and so from Bankstown, or whomever from Padstow. To tar all these thinking people, moved by faith (misguided or not), as evil-doers and potential terror threats is a dehumanising process aimed at some future point to enable something like extraordinary rendition, and eventually extra-judicial imprisonment. To listen to George Brandis and Tony Abbott it is clear to me that Australia is preparing the ground to have its very own Guantanamo.
It would be better, I think, to not do this.