Does Australia’s War Memory Need a Rethink?

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Does Australia’s War Memory Need a Rethink?

A recent incident between Australia and Vietnam points to a broader problem.

Does Australia’s War Memory Need a Rethink?

Visitors from Australia and New Zealand attend a dawn ceremony marking the 101st anniversary of the World War I battle of Gallipoli, at Anzac Cove in the Gallipoli peninsula in Canakkale, Turkey (April 25, 2016).

Credit: REUTERS/Murad Sezer

Australians rarely shy away from touting their military successes and defeats. This can be both irritating and awkward. Too little focus on them could be seen as an embarrassing failure to pay full respect to the fallen, while too much risks turning commemorations into an embarrassing farce for braggarts.

In Vietnam, that delicate balance was upset recently by well-meaning Australians who insist on doing things their way in a foreign country, forcing authorities in Hanoi to cancel commemorations for the 50th anniversary for the battle of Long Tan apart from some restricted access that was granted.

Australia’s take on the battle is different from the historical view in Hanoi and while many, including this journalist, do not always agree with Vietnam’s interpretation of its own history it’s still their history and their prerogative.

A few dozen veterans laying a wreath is quite acceptable and Vietnam has always made it known that it would prefer numbers to be limited to between 30 and 40 on the day, August 18.

That’s a far cry from the more than 3,000 people – many resembling backpackers on a rites of passage tour or using an historical cause as an excuse for a holiday – who arrived in the seaside town of Vung Tau to mark a fight in a rubber plantation in what was then South Vietnam.

Further, the number of arrivals from Australia was extraordinary when one considers just 108 Australians and New Zealanders fought that day in 1966 and many of them have since died.

A casual observer could have told organizers that a deal of this magnitude would simply have antagonized leaders in Hanoi who measure the 1955-75 war in terms of millions of lost lives, compared to the 18 soldiers from Down Under who perished that day.

It’s self-indulgent and insensitive to think anything else.

Put bluntly, Australian commemorations – which happen annually and are scaled up for major anniversaries – occur all around the world from the mountains of Borneo to the shores of Gallipoli and for many are now too much and getting out of hand.

In Melbourne, the ANZAC Day parade to the Shrine of Remembrance appears more like a celebration of right-wing militarism than the day it was meant to be – for veterans to get together for a drink in a pub and a game of Two-Up.

Instead, descendants, relatives, and friends who never set foot in a conflict zone pad out the numbers and march with little knowledge of why. Complaints have been loud that teenagers dressed more for a skateboard park than a remembrance day parade just should not be there.

Australians also enjoy their pilgrimages to the former battle grounds where their ancestors died defending their country’s foreign policy. Only on rare occasion, such as the Japanese bombings of Darwin in World War II, has the country faced a real and direct threat, unlike Vietnam.

In Vietnam, the local chambers of commerce, restaurants, and tour operators were no doubt rubbing their hands with the prospect of unprecedented business, but are now scrambling for the moral high ground after having their ethics questioned.

And this matters because unfortunately Australians don’t enjoy the same reputation as a positive, open-minded and welcoming force that they once did in Asia.

That ended in the late 1990s with the arrival of conservative politicians like Pauline Hanson and the anachronistic prime minister John Howard – who yearned for a British past when even his constituents did not – and jettisoned the look north policies of their predecessors Paul Keating and Bob Hawke.

This type of military applause just doesn’t help and it’s time the federal government had a rethink about how to approach such sensitive issues, particularly when it involves Australians arriving en-masse on distant shores to commemorate the tragedy wars fought long ago.

Luke Hunt can be followed on Twitter @lukeanthonyhunt