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Foreign fighter with the 'Anzac spirit'


Reece Harding 'Lest we Forget' illustration by Chris Johnston

It’s hard not to admire Reece Harding, who died in Syria fighting for the Kurdish peshmerga against IS. His sense of social justice, idealism and internationalism led him to take up arms against an organisation he seemingly believed lived up to Tony Abbott’s characterisation as a ‘death cult’.  

His father, Keith Harding, told the ABC:

With all the information that's spread about on the internet with people beheading people, killing children, raping and beating women, I think it really did get to him in the end […] He felt that he wanted to do the right thing and try and stop it in his small way that he could […] I'm sure that's the driving force of him going to do this.

The Islamic State hasn’t made any effort to hide its brutality; on the contrary, it’s promoted it and used it as a perverted recruiting tool. But the Federal Government has also used it to stoke fear within Australia, play-up the risk of terrorism at home, dismantle democratic freedoms and the rule of law and boost its own approval rating.

The media saturation, the constant ‘death cult’ references and the battle between the two major parties over who can better protect Australians has meant politicians have benefitted from the characterisation of IS as a force more violent and ruthless than the world has ever seen.

IS has a special status, partly because of their online propaganda, but also because politicians have afforded it to them. There’s hardly been a week in the past year that the PM hasn’t made a direct or indirect reference to the rape and torture of the Yazidis. But when was the last time he mentioned the schoolgirls kidnapped by Boko Haram?

Reece Harding was simply answering the prime minister’s increasingly nationalistic and jingoistic calls to ‘degrade and ultimately destroy’ the ‘Islamist death cult’.

The government has warned Australians against travelling to the Middle East to fight on any side. But these calls are drowned out by decades of contradictory rhetoric that has seen the Anzac legend (or myth) placed at the very fore of Australian history and culture. It’s become Australia’s great foundation story, filling the void of the revolution she never had and obscuring the mass murder of the Aboriginal people.

‘Anzac values’ and ‘Australian values’ have become synonyms embodying ideas of larrikinism, mateship and disdain for authority. After more than a decade of John Howard promoting Gallipoli as Australia’s most important military engagement – despite it being a resounding failure – and few politicians or pundits challenging him since, these qualities are more venerated now than they’ve ever been.

The centenary celebration of the Gallipoli landing was a reminder of just how prominent a place the conception of ‘Anzac’ has in contemporary Australian society. All the pomp and circumstance cost upwards of $30 million – an expensive exercise to celebrate an event that has become dangerously divorced from any historical reality.

But who could deny the streak of larrikinism and disdain for authority in Reece Harding’s decision to disregard Australian law and travel to join the war in Syria? There’s also photos of him, published on The Lions of Rojava Facebook page, arm in arm with his fellow soldiers – his mates.

It may seem paradoxical to be compelled by Australian/Anzac values to take up arms and join an organisation other the ADF, but changes in the way wars are now fought means that this logic is perfectly in keeping with military developments.

The rise of private military contractors – mercenaries, if you will – during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars has shattered the idea that armies are an exclusively national force. In an essay for The Monthly, James Brown writes that at its peak, ‘the conflict in Iraq employed over 20,000 armed private security contractors.’    ‘Australian contractors’, he explains, ‘are prolific in the private security world, alongside Americans, Britons and South Africans.’

The Australian public has, therefore, had over a decade to get used to the idea that their fellow citizens are fighting in wars that their government supports, but for security firms that aren’t subjected to any executive oversight. These mercenaries do the jobs that national armies either can’t, won’t or don’t want to do.

The parallels between these contractors and the Kurdish forces are not insignificant. The Federal Government agrees that airstrikes alone will not be sufficient to defeat IS. Troops on the ground need to take the fight to IS too, and the Kurds are just one of the West’s proxy fighting forces.

Reece Harding understood that Australia’s commitment to fighting IS is mostly tokenistic and that her impact will be largely inconsequential. In a video released after his death, he says: ‘I volunteered to join the YPG in the fight against Daesh. I believe the Western world is not doing enough to help.’

He wanted to help. He gave up his life to fight an organisation – an ‘Islamist death cult’ – all Australians are being told to fear. Spurred on by a sense of internationalism, he did something, one suspects, many politicians – if they didn’t have to contend with the political backlash – would like to commit more Australians to do. If there’s anyone who embodies that great Australian construct – the ‘Anzac spirit’ – it’s Reece Harding. We shouldn’t lose sight of that.

Tim RobertsonTim Robertson is an independent journalist and writer. Tweets @timrobertson12.



Topic tags: Tim Robertson, IS, national security, foreign fighters, Tony Abbott, middle east



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Existing comments

It seems to me that there are two types of Australians who head overseas to fight against foreign foes: the lumpen type who sees a stoush somewhere and wants to jump in and swing a few punches, kick a few heads irrespective of who the head belongs to; and the idealist, outraged at what he sees as an injustice and wants to set the injustice right. Pasty Adam Smith's fine examination of the Anzacs puts those lovable larrikins in the lumpen camp but Reece Harding, just like those heroes who went to Spain and fought against Franco's fascists, gave his life for a cause he believed was right and just. He was a brave man, God bless him.

Paul | 09 July 2015  

Well said Tim.

Ginger Meggs | 12 July 2015  

There is little doubt in my mind that Reece Harding was a brave young man who enlisted with the Lions of Rojava because he felt he was supporting a noble cause against an evil foe. Certainly the young Australians who enlisted in 1914 would've felt the same way. His death should be honoured. The conflict taking place in Iraq and along its borders is much more complex than our politicians would have us think. It is possible that the situation in Turkey with the Kurds may ignite and potentially destabilise that country. Yes, the Kurds, a trans-national ethnic group who want their own state, are fighting ISIS, but the threat of the whole region collapsing into internecine war has never been so strong for a long time. This is a conflict both the government and private individuals need to stay out of. Fighting ISIS in Iraq also means aligning ourselves with the Shia dominated government and Iran. In areas retaken from ISIS Sunnis have been massacred, raped etc. This war - and war it is - has long and deep roots. I fear the Prime Minister is dragging us into Iraqi Quagmire Part 2. The consequences, both at home and abroad, are and will continue to be dire. This is worse than Vietnam. We will regret it.

Edward Fido | 12 July 2015  

I enjoyed Tim's well-reasoned and thoughtful article. The Kurds are defending a just cause. Never the less, in evaluating Reece's sacrifice the requirements of fighting a just war must be considered and include the necessity of reasonable expectation of success. Reece's sacrifice did nothing to increase such an expectation. Just wars are waged by democratic countries, not by individuals.

Claude Rigney | 13 July 2015  

Good article. There are over 300 Foreigners with the YPG in Rojava now and a few Australians who choose to remain anonymous. There are also Australians of Kurdish descent in the Peshmerga and Assyrian / Syriac forces fighting Daesh. The problem of course is that these individuals face jail for doing something that is morally right but illegal. The Foreign Fighters Bill did not anticipate that Australians would travel to the region to fight against Jihadists it also mistakenly thought that the law would stop extremists from joining ISIL. There is a petition on Change.Org. There is a vast moral separation between those that join ISIL and those that volunteer, unpaid, to fight it. Please sign the petition. https://www.change.org/p/julie-bishop-mp-and-george-brandis-qc-australian-volunteers-fighting-isil-daesh-in-the-kurdish-ypg-be-granted-amnesty-under-the-foreign-fighters-bill-2014-and-the-proposed-australian-citizenship-allegiance-to-australia-bill-and-be-allowed-to-return-h

John | 15 July 2015  

Actually the Government spent close to $400 million on the ANZAC centenary.

John | 15 July 2015  

As the conflict in Syria and Iraq continues we are going to see atrocities perpetrated by all sides to it. No one will come out squeaky clean. The people who really suffer are the noncombatants who, whatever their ethnicity or religious affiliation, will be automatically regarded as "traitors" or "collaborators" by the other side and dealt with accordingly. Claude Rigney is right: individual Australians should not get involved. We do have an official presence in Iraq. I have qualms about that because we are, in effect, taking sides in a very complex long term war which may well inflame the whole region but at least there is legal protection if you are part of that force. I suspect few Australians fighting unofficially for any of the sides in the conflict will return alive. That is sad. I doubt if anyone who served in WW 2 (most WW 1 veterans are dead) would endorse these freelance agents.

Edward Fido | 17 July 2015  

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