Peter Underwood’s legacy: challenging the Anzac myth
Tasmania's governor, who has just died, was outspoken in calling for wars not to be glorified. He preferred a genuine focus on how to bring about peace. Here is one of his most controversial speeches, which is well worth reading.
Tasmanian governor Peter Underwood died on Monday night. He has been remembered in his home state as a strong advocate of peace and social justice. To mark the passing of Underwood, here is an extract from a speech he gave on Anzac Day this year. The speech was criticised in some quarters for deviating from the script on the Anzac myth. Underwood will not be here to set out his case at the centenary of Anzac Day next year, so we’re republishing this extract. We think it’s well worth reading and remembering.
On this Anzac Day, the centennial anniversary of the commencement of World War I, how do we commemorate — that is, call to remembrance — that terrible event and all the subsequent violent conflicts in which Australia has been involved over the last 100 years — mankind’s greatest century of violence? Much has been, and will be, said about the Anzac spirit, but I venture to repeat the caution that I have sounded before on this day, against glorifying war with descriptions of the mythical tall, lean, bronzed and laconic Anzac, enthusiastically and unflinchingly carrying the torch of freedom in the face of murderous enemy fire, or as Lieutenant Colonel Burke wrote, the “bold, laughing soldiers” who “fought as they lived — bravely, openly, independently, and without fear.”
Australia needs to drop the sentimental myths that Anzac Day has attracted. They are not part of the truth that Sir Winston Churchill urged us to seek out. In his book Anzac’s Long Shadow, James Brown, former Australian Army Officer, writes that it is fitting on this anniversary to commemorate World War I and Australia’s military campaigns and he refers to the War Memorial in Sydney’s Hyde Park where an inscription urges, “let silent contemplation be your offering.” But he rejects, as I do, the expenditure of many millions of dollars to embark on what he describes as “a discordant, lengthy and exorbitant four-year festival of the dead.”
“Australia needs to drop the sentimental myths that Anzac Day has attracted.”
The truth is that in the last 100 years, Australia has, on several occasions, engaged in conflict, sending our men and women into the business of killing and being killed. We should remember and honour all of them for they went to where they had no wish to go, and did what they had no wish to do, because they believed that they had to do so in order to give us peace and freedom. But remembrance and honour will neither bring nor preserve the peace for which they thought they died. That is not enough. We must actively strive for peace on a daily basis and I think that we could best begin that process, and thus properly honour and remember those who were killed or wounded while their country engaged them in the business of killing, by declaring this centennial year of the start of the War to end all Wars, the Year of Peace.
In the spirit of true remembrance, the Year of Peace should be spent examining and talking about the causes of war and how we got involved in wars. We should spend less time studying Simpson’s donkey and more time looking at why we were fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan for so long. All this is not in order to criticise past decision makers, but in remembrance of the dead, to help us avoid doing it again in some other place, simply because we failed to examine all the alternative means of resolving conflict.
In this the Year of Peace, Australia should establish an Anzac Centre for the Study of Peace, Conflict and War. This is not an original idea of mine, but was a recommendation made by the National Commission on the Commemoration of the Anzac Centenary set up by prime minister Kevin Rudd’s government to look at options to mark the Centenary of the First World War. The idea was that the proposed centre be a high-profile initiative to honour the memory of the original Anzacs in the best way possible — by working towards understanding conflict and focusing attention on how the risk that future Australians will have to take part in war might be reduced.
Unfortunately, the advisory board appointed to implement the commission’s recommendations rejected the idea. Well, if that can’t be done, perhaps in the Year of Peace it might be possible to divert some of the millions of dollars that will be spent on the “Anzac Festival” to provide proper support for the University of Sydney’s Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, which after 26 years of operation is still heavily dependent on membership subscriptions and volunteers to continue its work?
It has been estimated that about 16 million people were killed in World War I. The next world war was worse. The estimated number of human beings killed in World War II range from 60 to a staggering 70 or even 85 million, making it the deadliest war in world history. So the killing got worse as the century wore on. Surely, now that the curtains have closed on mankind’s greatest century of violence, the least we can do is start the next century with a Year of Peace and commit to setting up and maintaining, or otherwise fully financing, a centre that is dedicated to the study of the nature of social conflicts, causes of violence and definitions of peace, as well as engage in research into new approaches for resolving conflicts. That would be a fitting call to remembrance.