Friday, March 12, 2010

War and Memorials

Yesterday I visited the War Memorial Museum in Canberra and got to thinking about war memorials and war in general. Several people, both on this blog and elsewhere, recommended visiting this site. The size and diversity of the collection are impressive but like other war museums, this one is ultimately two things: a glorification of war and a place where overgrown boys can get their jollies by imagining they are soldiers. I’m all in favour of public institutions that help people learn about the history of their country but glorifying war is not what those institutions should be doing. And have no doubt that this is what they do. Perhaps not in an obvious way - it’s not as if they triumphally brag about victories - but the materials subtly present as noble and dignified what is ultimately the most fundamentally immoral form of behaviour possible. The memorial centrepiece is a church-like room with twenty foot representations of a soldier, a navyman, a nurse, and an aircraft pilot between stained-glass windows inscribed with virtues such as ‘courage’, ‘patriotism’, and ‘honour’. We’re obviously supposed to be impressed and humbled by these pictures. War is a remnant from the middle-ages, a form of dispute-resolution for numbskulls. Most of the wars that Australia has been involved in have been unjust wars - Boer, First World War, Korea, Vietnam, and Iraq (I’m willing to concede the Second World War was necessary to overcome fascism). I’d like to see war memorials replace the current ‘noble sacrifice’ message with one that says: ‘Like unintelligent cavemen who used to kill each other for bad reasons, countries also attack each other for bad reasons. Here’s what happened and why and here’s some of the stuff they used.’

Australia and New Zealand both fought in the First World War and the battle at Gallipoli in Turkey has become heavily symbolic in both countries, with increasing numbers of people (and increasing numbers of young people) commemorating Anzac Day every April 25th. The reason they fought Turkey is that they were allies of Britain and Britain was at war with Germany who were allies with Turkey. ‘The friend of my friend’s enemy is my enemy’ is hardly a sound basis on which to take action that will kill thousands (and as it turned out, millions) of people. Imagine Amy and Adam are friends and Ben and Bill are friends with each other, but Amy and Ben are enemies. So is it right for Adam to be hostile to Bill? Surely not. So the action at Gallipoli was actually an unjustly hostile invasion of Turkey by Australia and New Zealand. I’ve never seen any suggestion of this in a war museum.

It gets worse actually. Unlike in some other wars, the soldiers who fought for Australia and NZ in the First World War were volunteers. They freely chose to take part in this unjust war. So not only should the governments of the countries be held responsible for declaring an unjust war, but the soldiers themselves ought to be held accountable. Instead of honouring the surviving veterans every April 25th, we should actually be putting them on trial for war crimes.


  1. I will probably follow this up with further posts because war is a subject that I've given considerable thought to, both in the context of unjust wars that have specifically affected my life, that is the Korean War and the continuation of the cold war and the nuclear shadow that cast over my youth, but also from the context over why it happens, and how people react and engage in wartime activities. I guess that would be anthropological, sociological, and psychological dynamics and reasons.

    If you think war dates from the middle ages, I think you are being very naive, think about Rome, and then think about The Old Testament on warfare. War to have evolved to these levels must have had a much longer history. However this is a minor point, on something that is rationally part of survival.

    By this I mean, as a life form our function is to survive, we do this several ways, by reproduction we perpetuate the survival of our genes, by competition we gain the best resources to aid our health and longevity, and by co-operating so that we support each other in our family unit, our community etc as a stronger survival unit.

    All of these things contribute to the phenomenon of war. Reproduction ultimately increases competition on lesser resource ratios. Co- operation bands people together in this competition. The collision of co-operating groups competing for resources leads to war.

    You may not thing these dynamics are the things that compel wars these days, but I challenge you to look at wars a little more closely with resources in mind. Many wars seem to be masked by ideology, and even though ideology plays a part, sometimes these ideologies are about resources. E.g. American War of Independence, Russian Revolution. One was about tax and who got it, the other about wealth/labour distribution.

    However, ideology plays an important part in getting people to participate in war when they otherwise might not. Which is probably why you reacted as you did to words such as honour and loyalty because dirty resource grubbing for the prosperity of your country sounds like a vulgar reason, let alone a reason to support someone else’s country. It is better to say protect one's country with honour and loyalty.

    For this next bit, I think you need to look at yourself in context, as being an individual who has rarely been pressed for resources in a way that your survival would be at stake, who grew up in a society of similarly (but also diversely) resourced individuals. Morality counts for a lot, and you are privileged enough not to have this particularly challenged on a day to day survival basis. However, if resources are scarce, coupled with survival instinct, survival may frequently triumph over morality. It doesn't mean that morality goes out the window, you may stay loyal to your family and friends in their interests and rights, but you might steal to feed yourself and them, which could easily lead to war with whomever you stole from. People are usually prepared to fight for their own survival, but when you start extending out the larger group who you are fighting for, especially when your own personal resources are unlikely to be at stake, then the propaganda of nationalism, Mother England, Fatherland, patriotism, loyalty, honour etc all get trotted out to ensure the populace realise they are all part of the big resource picture, and that you've got to do your bit to ensure we don't lose resources, or we gain us resources that we either just need because the country is in crisis or that we want to get back the resources we lost in the last war.


  2. Interestingly war efforts bond people together in a common goal and sense of community that might normally not exist due to petty social rivalries or divergent personalities. This is one of the things usually applauded by war museums. The act of co-operation is applaudible, just not the goal, unless you really are defending your country. This is sometimes not differentiated in some war museums etc. Likewise, the comradeship, trust, loyalty and courage of soldiers in the face of death can be admirable, just not context of war and killing. However soldiers are pretty much charged with doing societies dirty work, for a society that may have initially been happy to send them to war, and then be denigrated when they return home as public opinion changes. Personally, I think this is a pretty vulgar dynamic. Especially since many soldiers come from poor social backgrounds with few prospect and the army does offer good opportunities in peace time.

    I think it is more productive to try to understand a phenomenon than simply judge it. In understanding what dynamics are at work, there lies the potential of changing enough factors that people come to better conclusions about how to resolve conflict.

  3. (1) Was WW1 immoral? Britain, and with it NZ & Aus, entered after Germany invaded Belgium. Germany committed atrocities against the civilians (worse than just invading, that was bad enough in itself). After the war the pacifist movement discounted many of the tales of German atrocities. But modern historians have confirmed many (though not all) of them. A Europe under the Kaiser would not have been as bad as under Hitler, but it would have been an oppressive tyranny all the same. WW1 was therefore not immoral, unless you care nothing for the fate of those who would have been under Germany's rule (and don't forget Hitler was a skilled politician who may have gained power anyway even if Germany had won. He would have had a free reign over the Jews if he had).

    (2) the invasion of Gallipoli was conceived, in Churchill's words, as an alternative to men chewing barbed wire on the Western Front. You ask what NZ & Aus were doing invading Turkey. What was Turkey doing fighting with Germany? That's something just as immoral.

    (3) By far the largest contingent of allied troops at Gallipoli (and casualties accordingly) was British. Followed by French. Most of the ANZAC legend is a myth. (Incidentally the Allied defeat owes as much to Turkish willingness to sacrifice as it does to Allied leaders' mistakes - the Turks actually lost more men defending the peninsular than the Allies did attacking it, an astonishing stat given how weighted the odds were in favour of defence in WWI and the logistical obstacles in the Gallipoli campaign.)

    Of course war's a silly thing. But so is crime. And we have to have policemen, I hope you agree, arresting and imprisoning the criminals. And it is right that we should acknowledge the sacrifice of Police, just as we do soldiers.

  4. James: the cause of WW! was really the desire for empires of all the European powers. And they formed alliances such that any event was bound to spark a war. Wanting an empire is not a just cause for war.

  5. I'm a pacifist at heart, but have had to examine my view of the issue while living here in the UK. The issue is quite different for New Zealanders than say for folk here in the UK, where I get the feeling there is a reasonably strong support for the idea of military solutions being acceptable in principle, though consensus seems to be that Iraq was an unjust war that they shouldn't have been involved with. There is a great respect for the serving soldier, and lots of emphasis on remembering those who died while in service. Folk in the town near where the fallen soldiers bodies arrive back into the UK line the streets in respect for every hearse that take the bodies to the coroners.

    I think the attacks on UK during WWII mean that military activity is seen as an important defensive tool, strangely even though their troops only operate in other people's countries these days.