Remembering forgotten wars as fallen soldiers return

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Thirty-three bodies returned to Australia last Thursday in the country's largest repatriation of dead servicemen and their dependents, including six children.

Soldiers carrying coffinThey were greeted by a guard of honour as the coffins were led to the hangar.

All of the dead were connected with Australia's involvement in overseas conflicts which have been archived and, in some cases, forgotten altogether.

In the politics of Australia's short historical memory, a few wars stand out: the baptismal conflict of the First World War with its bloody symbolism, and the exterminating rages of the Second World War which saw a foreign power reach, though not occupy, Australian shores.

Few Australians (and this says as much about school curricula as it does about general discussion on the subject) would know about the at times covert role played by Australian servicemen in the Malaysian-Indonesian conflict between 1962 and 1966; or the Malayan Emergency (1948-1960).

Most focus on the stained, estranging Vietnam conflict, one deemed ignoble by even some family members of the fallen personnel.

Returning the fallen has been a contentious matter. Only in 1966 was a policy introduced that formally asserted that servicemen killed in foreign theatres (in that case, Vietnam) would be brought back to Australia for burial. Those who perished prior to that date, such as Warrant Officer Kevin Conway, Australia's first combat casualty in Vietnam, were left.

The choice left for families was grim: cough up 500 pounds to have the remains transported back to Australia, the equivalent of half-a-year's salary, or see the bodies buried in the Terendak Military Cemetery in Malaysia. (Singapore's Kranji Cemetery also supplied a resting place.)

 

"The repatriation offers a chance to reconsider Australia's varied role in foreign conflicts. These have not all been undertaken in the spirit of cold, logical sobriety."

 

In some cases, the issue has been politicised, with dead soldiers discarded for being the immoral instruments of disputed foreign policy. This is particularly the case in Vietnam.

The return of these servicemen and dependents should constitute far more than a battle over remains. The press have tended to see it in such procedural terms, a dispute over flawed paperwork, bureaucracy and battling the establishment. The Daily Telegraph focused specifically on Vietnam with the headline 'Australian Vietnam War dead finally return home'.

Veterans Affairs Minister Dan Tehan similarly focused on the sore of Vietnam, with the repatriation giving Australians 'a chance as a nation to stop, pause and reflect on the service and sacrifice that our Vietnam veterans made on behalf of our nation'. Such descriptions ignore the extensive role Australian soldiers have played as agents of broader political machinations, often being victims of egregious calculations.

The repatriation should go beyond Tehan's commemorative remit, offering a chance to reconsider Australia's expansive, and varied role in foreign conflicts. These have not all been undertaken in the spirit of cold, logical sobriety, hatched in the strategic boardroom. Men, and in some cases families, were sent to fight foreign conflicts fed by the ideology of each age. If it wasn't the sanctity of White British Empire raging against German Kaiserism, it was the anti-Communist, and more specifically anti-Asian Communist, cause that mattered.

In some cases, Australians performed the euphemistic clean-up roles, mopping up resistance or patrolling tense borders in undeclared conflicts. Three of the returned Australian personnel died in Malaysia having performed their duties guarding the Thai-Malaysian border from Communist incursions during the Malayan Emergency.

Even now, the ideological glasses remain firmly set, with justifications that the deployment was necessary to prevent Malaysia from falling into Communist hands. That conveniently skips over the initial motivations for the mainly Chinese-inspired communist uprising led by the mercurial Chin Peng: to eliminate British colonial influence and assert greater control over the rival Malays, who tended to occupy government positions.

It is also worth remembering that some caution in rushing Australian personnel into action could be shown. Canberra proved a reluctant supplier of Australian soldiers to the Konfrontasi conflict between Indonesia and Malaysia, refusing initial requests by the British and Malaysian authorities between 1963 and 1964 to send troops to Borneo. On January 1965, Australia relented in sending a battalion.

Today, the United States remains the ideological high priest of Australian foreign policy, encouraging Canberra to be willing to part with soldiers when Washington's interests demand it. Such a policy is naturally sold as being in Australia's best interest, and risks bringing the country into future conflict with such trading powers as China. As always, it is the soldierly class, along with family and the civilians encountering them, who suffer as a consequence. The tactician and policy maker, however capable, stand immune.

 


Binoy KampmarkDr Binoy Kampmark is a former Commonwealth Scholar who lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne.

Topic tags: Binoy Kampmark, returned soldiers

 

 

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Existing comments

Australian politicians have been to do the bidding of the US when it comes to involvement in foreign wars. The Government of the day should not make such decisions unilaterally, without even a parliamentary debate. Sadly we have lost too many lives by rushing into wars in Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as had the terrible aftermath of so many returned soldiers with post-traumatic stress. If we can have a referendum on same sex marriage, I suggest we have a referendum on any proposed war involvement next time. Our political leaders have made some disastrous and deadly decisions in the past.
Grant Allen | 06 June 2016


By the time of the Malayan Emergency in 1948, communists had murdered and enslaved tens of millions of people and promised more of the same. True to form, tens of millions more were murdered by China’s Cultural Revolution, the Khmer Rouge, Mugabe, etc. Typical of the delusional justification for such barbarity, was the Khmer Rouge’s Khieu Samphan. At his trial for genocide he stated, “I never wanted anything other than social justice for my country.” Well some people didn’t buy this mendacity and fought against it. Lee Kuan Yew wrote that the Vietnam War, “bought time for the rest of Southeast Asia. In 1965, when the US military moved massively into South Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia and the Philippines faced internal threats from armed communist insurgents…Had there been no intervention, the will of these countries to resist them would have melted and Southeast Asia would have most likely gone communist. The prosperous emerging market economies of ASEAN were nurtured during the Vietnam War years.” It was only in the 1980s, after China and Vietnam ditched their disastrous communist-inspired centralized economies and embraced a market economy, that they too began to prosper economically.
Ross Howard | 07 June 2016


All of the wars mentioned were fought for very good reasons and in our national interest. We were almost always on the side of right. Iraq is the new and I believe almost unique exception. What is most interesting is the new importance given to the physical dead body; this is something that has profoundly changed over the last 30 years as religious and spiritual consciousness around death has decline. The same change is reflected in the almost complete absence of traditional post-mortem examinations in our hospitals and the difficulty in getting even post-operative human tissue for research. The body has taken in a secular sacredness.
Eugene | 07 June 2016


What a complex set of questions is generated when a government ponders what to do about our fallen warriors in foreign lands. The submitted comments so far illustrate that there are no easy solutions. There has been much academic and therapeutic research carried out on how men and women cope with the death of a loved one in the normal course of the human cycle of birth, growth, aging and death. But when the death is the result of military action a plethora of personal, social, political and moral is generated. But the situation has become more complicated ever since the media coverage of the Vietnam War gave rise to the question should a democratic government ever pursue military policies that run counter to public opinion.
Uncle Pat | 07 June 2016


Because the Stalinist brand of socialism committed many crimes against humanity, this does not justify Australia being involved in wars instigated by the US Military Industrial Complex or actions to undermine democracy in many countries around the world to increase the wealth of US corporations, steal resources from other nations or further US global power. We must remember the US use of mass bombings, napalm, Agent Orange and murder squads caused a lot of terror and brutality as well. In the case of Pol Pot, it was other factions of the Khmer Rouge and the Vietnamese Government that cooperated together to rid Cambodia of Pol Pot and his faction that committed so much brutality. It would be far better for Australia to be an independent, non-aligned nation that worked for peace, fairness in international relations, human rights, social justice and care for the environment than to just let our governments be subservient to the US and, as a result with Israel and Indonesia, two nations that have committed their share of terror in their regions of the world. It is understandable that families want the remains of their loved ones to be returned to Australia.
Andrew (Andy) Alcock | 10 June 2016


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