War heroes, armchair lawyers, and imperial legacies

Paulus Vladmiri, the Latin rendering of Paweł Włodkowic, author of the Tractatus de Potestate Papae et Imperatoris Respectu Infidelium (1415)

Edward Cavanagh
University of Cambridge

Complete autonomy in the waging of war is a proud attribute of countries like Australia. It has been so ever since the imperial crown finally got around to delegating this aspect of the royal prerogative to peripheral nations of the British Commonwealth in the wake of World War II. But with power comes responsibility, so the old adage goes, otherwise complacency is allowed to set in, blurring history and politics in the vindication of bellicosity abroad. If this trend cannot be countered with expressions of criticism, then history suggests that we might well have surrendered, for the time being at least, all expectations we might have for pacific reforms of any kind.

Chris Masters, a prominent Australian investigative journalist, has just published a book, No Front Line (2017), which provides a glimpse into the lives of that country’s special forces serving in Afghanistan. Eyebrows have been raised at the description it carries of an incident in June 2006, which saw an unarmed Afghani man gunned down by Australian soldiers fearful of revealing their secret location.

Sadly an affray like this is unexceptional in the scope of any war featuring foreign troops placed into a region and given objectives to defend their positions against elements of the population hemming them in. And its coverage in the book is even-handed, one of many incidents catalogued by the author in a mostly bland way, rescued only by the occasional quotation of soldiers accounting for the performances of their ‘mates’ with unflinching manliness.

What makes the incident noteworthy is Australia’s remarkable inability to separate the politics of war from the commemoration of its victims. Unhelpful here are the apparent aversions, more generally, of senior public servants, journalists, and returned soldiers to articulate with any nuance some of the problems associated with the politicisation and memorialisation of Australian participation in foreign wars. These might be the symptoms of a deficiency of criticism in popular discourse. They might rather suggest an intolerance to history. In any case, here is an ailment that can be treated by insisting upon an observation of war not just as a policy but, more importantly, as an idea plenty quarrelled over, across empires and epochs, and through time and space. Continue reading “War heroes, armchair lawyers, and imperial legacies”