“We laughed, knowing that better men would come,
And greater wars: when each proud fighter brags
He wars on Death, for lives; not men, for flags.”
– Wilfred Owen, The Next War
Australia and New Zealand celebrated ANZAC Day this week. This was a solemn occasion for families and friends to remember lives scarred and stolen by war. Some argue that ANZAC Day has become a ‘nationalistic fix’ and a jingoistic day of hero-worship, with school children taught to deify patriotic sacrifice and war heroes. But whatever one thinks of the cultural significance and historical veracity of the ANZAC spirit, this national holiday should also become a day on which to reflect on potential wars, and how to prevent them.
A hypothetical ANZAC Centre for the Study of Peace, Conflict and War, which had been proposed by a report of the National Commission on the Commemoration of the ANZAC Centenary, now appears to have been rejected by a high-level advisory board. The price tag of $20 million appears to have been a deciding factor in dropping this option.
This is a shame – and not only because I’m an academic with a specialisation in the prevention of war and, therefore, a bread-and-butter interest in such a centre. It is a shame because the questions that informed this recommendation are as important as ever:
Why do wars happen?
How can they be prevented?
If they can’t be prevented, how can they be contained?
As the original report noted, these are questions which soldiers and civilians in the First World War, and again in the aftermath of the Second, have agonised over. ‘Today’, it went on, ‘these questions remain as vivid and urgent as they were almost 100 years ago’. Indeed, although studying the causes of war and how it might be prevented is no certain defence against its outbreak, this fact can’t justify complacency or inaction, as the report argued.
True, many academics, think tanks and government officials spend their waking hours studying defence and foreign policy, military capabilities, and strategic studies. However, for every 100 books on the history of particular wars at your local bookstore, good luck finding even one that dedicates more than the introductory chapter discussing its possible prevention.
Rather than treating the outbreak of the First World War as some inevitable tragedy, I want to see more Australian academics, think tankers, officials and the public talking about the multiple potential futures which existed back in early 1914. For example, as well as focusing on Gallipoli, there should be more discussion of Sir Edward Grey’s mediation proposal during the July crisis. What can we learn from his failure? Could he have succeeded? How would Australian leaders deal with a modern variant of this great power crisis?
In 1956, Robert Menzies was sent to Egypt to mediate the Suez Crisis. Although he failed, there ought to be more attention by think tanks and scholars analysing why, and whether he could’ve succeeded under different circumstances. Why don’t school children learn this part of Australian history? And how would Australia seek to mediate such a crisis today?
The need to learn lessons from such historical episodes is more than academic. Diplomatic history is as useful to future national decision-makers as military history is to generals.
A modern example of a war that could have been prevented is Afghanistan. This is bound to be a politically inconvenient argument, and is therefore liable to being charged as un-Australian or unpatriotic. But, according to some U.S.officials, bilateral talks on the Taliban extraditing Bin Laden to the US before the American intervention were full of missed opportunities. As one former CIA station chief noted: ‘We had no common language. Ours was, “Give up bin Laden”. They were saying, “Do something to help us give him up”.’ In October 2001, President George W. Bush rejected a Taliban offer to hand Bin Laden to a neutral country, if the American bombing campaign stopped.
As such, the ANZAC Centenary commemorations should feature strong public discussion of past wars, not only in terms of the necessity of patriotic sacrifice, but in terms of the fact that such sacrifice in lives and treasure is never inevitable, and is often preventable. This raises the question of whether it’s unpatriotic to talk about preventing war. I should hope not; reflecting on ways to prevent war is no indictment of the Australian conduct of war, particularly in wars of necessity or national survival, such as WWII. Instead, this is a necessary inquiry into the political decisions which lead states and societies to war, and how and when these decisions might be influenced by persuasion or deterrence.
Regardless of where government money goes for the Centenary celebrations, Australian think tanks, academics, writers and the general public should take the prevention of war more seriously. It isn’t a science, or even a quasi-science. It’s a quintessentially human art, and one which we don’t yet value or understand enough. This needs to change. A future in which Australia ‘wars on Death, for lives; not men, for flags’ is actually within reach. To ensure that we’re the better people Wilfred Owen dreamed of, we must begin by thinking long and hard about the wars of the past, and how we could have prevented them. We must then think about how to avoid the potential wars of the future.
Daryl Morini is a PhD candidate at the University of Queensland and a Pacific Forum CSIS WSD-Handa Non-Resident Fellow.