In many parts of the world, war is very much an everyday reality.
According to one world leader, we face the most dangerous decade since World War II – and that leader, surprisingly, is Vladimir Putin!
Of course, he blames what he calls “Western elites”, while the Western allies, and others, blame Russia and China for the looming menace of major global conflict.
Whoever would have thought we’d come to hear the once rigidly communist Russians claiming that their war against Ukraine was “in defence of Christian values”? For those of us old enough to remember the Cold War the world has indeed turned topsy-turvy – and this Anzac Day is a good time to consider the changing role of Australia’s military in such a world.
In his poem The Family Trenches at Home retired soldier Brigadier George Mansford recalls the way we felt about going to war back in the day:
Remember those farewells, strong hugs and comforting hands
The sounds of blaring busy airports, and perhaps military bands
Or a noisy siren beckoning from a troop ship eager to sail
So many heavy hearts, yet duty and love of country prevail
But those of us who grew up in the Vietnam years became disillusioned with such notions of duty and patriotism and our children and grandchildren have no understanding of war unless they are in the military or have worked with refugees in war zones.
George’s old friend Terry Holland, who also retired with the rank of brigadier, says the fighting of wars has changed considerably since he became a career soldier. Such changes include precision targeting of bombs, artillery and missiles due to computer-age technology.
Back then it was compasses and maps, today it is drones and rocket launchers.
As we have learned lately, even in comparatively peaceful Australia, intelligence-gathering has become a major international military strategy which has, Terry says, “progressed from grainy aerial photo, dangerous reconnaissance patrols and military attaches with their gin and tonics, to drones, satellite and ‘listening’ technology of mind-boggling invasiveness and accuracy”.
Terry, now in his early 80s, served first in Malaya (in the SAS) and then with the Royal Australian Regiment in Vietnam. Later he became Australian Military Attache to Indonesia.
He is very knowledgeable about Australian military history and sees clearly that not only have the weapons changed since he saw combat, but also our social attitudes towards war.
That change was summed up in Marilyn Lake and Henry Reynolds’ controversial 2010 book What’s Wrong with Anzac? The Militarisation of Australian History.
It argued that the Anzac “obsession” distorted our understanding of the past, replacing historical fact with mythology.
While it’s true that myth plays its part in all of history’s great events, and also true that most Australians treat Anzac Day as just another public holiday without thinking much about it, there is still enough public sentiment for politicians and the media to take it seriously.
Nigel Waistell and Dee Handyside have both retired from careers in the military and it was only after they found themselves living in the same Queensland town that they learned they had shared many postings in places such as Cyprus, Northern Ireland and Germany.
Dee, a sergeant in the military police, illustrates the stresses and dangers of such postings by saying that “for 16 years I never failed to check under my car for a bomb”.
Today she is best known as co-founder of the Silk Rags Project which is dedicated to increasing cancer awareness.
Major Nigel Waistell served in both the British and Australian armies before retiring here with his Australian-born wife Pam.
Neither Nigel nor Dee see direct conflict between Australia and China as an imminent threat, despite recent media reports. Nor, looking back, do they think we should have been involved in Vietnam, Northern Ireland, Iraq or Afghanistan.
They are not at all gung ho in their views but, rather, exemplify the attitude today of many retired service men and women – thoughtful, analytical, not condemnatory of military policy but not blindly obedient to it or admiring of it, either.
For example, they strongly condemn gratuitous violence such as the alleged Australian SAS excesses in Afghanistan.
Both think Anzac Day is still relevant in terms of remembering those who have given their lives, including, in their own cases, personal loss to combat or terrorist attack. Nigel adds that Anzac Day is also important because it reminds us of “how ghastly and stupid war is”.
As for the attitude towards women in the miliary, Dee says that while it has improved since she joined up at the age of 18, there is still room for improvement.
She was physically bullied during her training and saw other women suffer also. Sexual abuse used to be swept under the carpet – now it is better dealt with.
One area she would like to see improved is the lack of preparation for those entering civilian life when they leave the armed services.
Retired submarine commander Neil Dearborn firmly believes Australia needs to maintain an effective military presence in the world, in order to contribute meaningfully to strategic alliances. He says a military career offers many job opportunities to young Australians. He still attends Anzac Day services, along with his wife, children and grandchildren.
“My father was a prisoner-of-war,” he says, “And though he lived a long and full life afterwards he never forgot his experiences or forgave his enemies. I believe in peace and most of those with whom I served feel the same.
“But I also believe that to ensure peace we need to always be ready for war, sad as that may seem. That’s why we have a standing army, navy and air force.”
Neil, born in 1948, does not see this situation changing in his lifetime, because the main historical reasons for war – territory, resources, ideological difference – still exist and while he hopes for a war-free world of the future he says it’s dangerously naïve to think that we are anywhere near to achieving it.
Australian military analysts have identified the 10 conflicts to watch in 2023 as Ukraine, Armenia and Azerbaijan, Iran, Yemen, Ethiopia, Congo, the Sahel, Haiti, Pakistan and, of course, Taiwan.
It’s the latter that looms as Australia’s elephant in the room in terms of direct conflict, though a barrage of recent media reports has made us increasingly more aware of our vulnerability should the unthinkable happen and we find ourselves at war with China. Is it scaremongering, as some claim? Or is it a wake-up call?
Australia is currently ranked 21st in the world in military strength, behind countries such as Germany, France, Japan and Pakistan and 16th in terms of global firepower out of 145 considered for the annual GFP review.
Over 60 individual factors determine a nation’s Power Index score, with categories ranging from quantity of military units and financial standing to logistical capabilities and geography.
So we are not as insignificant in military terms as is often believed.
Our defence budget is expected to be close to $50 billion this year. Active military comprises about 60,000 personnel (small by world standards but strong in technology), we have 59 combat tanks, 2040 armoured fighting vehicles, 38 commissioned warships and 251 air force planes, of which 83 are combat aircraft.
But still, some of our military analysts claim, these forces are designed mainly for overseas offensives, and we need a lot more to defend Australia against attack – after all, our military organisation is called the Australian Defence Force.
Since 1916, the Returned and Services League of Australia has been identified with the interests of returned servicemen but it, too, has changed in response to changing public attitudes.
Even the name has morphed into that of a more inclusive organisation that recognises not just combat veterans but also the role of all men and women who have served in the Australian military.
Those once exclusively male bastions, the RSL clubs, have bowed to the reality of shrinking veteran numbers and become licensed social clubs, in some cases merged with local sporting clubs, where all are welcome. They still retain honour boards naming fallen and wounded veterans and usually a selection of military memorabilia – and some still serve the traditional Anzac Day breakfast.
The ethnicity of our population, too, has considerably changed since we last went to war as a nation.
According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics just over 29 per cent of Australians today were born overseas and there is a belief among older Australians of Anglo-Celtic and post-World War II European origin, that more recent migrants would be less enthusiastic about going to war than the conscripts of the two previous world wars.
If it was against a nation for which many of them retained an affinity the old rallying cry of “for King and country” would have little appeal.
Others disagree, saying that while newer Australians may not be so keen to fight for a distant king, or even understand why we still celebrate what late playwright Alan Seymour called our “one day of the year”, they would certainly rally to support the country that has given them citizenship.
Pushpendra “Pat” Shah migrated to Australia from the UK 15 years ago and says his grandfather, who fought proudly with the British troops in World War II, always praised the courage of Australian soldiers. Asked whether he believed today’s Australians of foreign birth would be prepared to fight for Australia, Pat makes the distinction between “fight” and “defend”.
“This is my home,” he says, “and my sons’ home. We would fight to defend our home and I believe most migrants would feel the same, wherever they come from.”
Brisbane World War II veteran Keith Buck said on his 100th birthday in February that Anzac Day still meant a lot to him “because of the memories that I’ve had. They’ve been terrific. It’s something that you don’t lose.”
But it’s more than just the memories.
At the Anzac Day services this year there will be representatives of many different nations and beliefs, and different ages too, united by the one thing that all can believe in – a hope for peaceful solutions to today’s conflicts.