Lest we forget…

“there was another kind of heroism besides that of the Anzacs — the heroism of men who were brave enough not to fight, who faced the full scorn of public opinion, and in many cases went to gaol because of their opposition to militarism in their own country. It is necessary to remember the heroism of the Conscientious Objector, the Militant Anti-War Fighter, and the Anti-Conscriptionist, and to give it its place beside the heroism of the Anzacs”

— Len Fox, communist and ex-serviceman

Zine by Hollie Mollie. Print ready PDF available for download at the end of this article. Plain text version below the gallery.

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  • Lest We Forget: Lessons from the History of Anti-War Activism in Australia

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“there was another kind of heroism besides that of the Anzacs — the heroism of men who were brave enough not to fight, who faced the full scorn of public opinion, and in many cases went to gaol because of their opposition to militarism in their own country. It is necessary to remember the heroism of the Conscientious Objector, the Militant Anti-War Fighter, and the Anti-Conscriptionist, and to give it its place beside the heroism of the Anzacs”

— Len Fox, communist and ex-serviceman

Every year at Anzac day politicians implore: “Lest we forget”. In truth, it is as hard to forget the Anzac myth as it is to pin it down and define it. The ceremony of Anzac day and the accompanying invocation of an enduring “Anzac spirit” has long since outlived the Anzac veterans. Its foundational place in Australian national identity renders the Anzac myth incontestable — witness the backlash against Muslim commentator Yassmin Abdel-Magied (“Lest. We. Forget. Manus, Nauru, Syria, Palestine…”) and SBS sports journalist Scott McIntyre (“Remembering the summary execution, widespread rape and theft committed by these ‘brave’ Anzacs in Egypt, Palestine and Japan”), both pilloried and abused for questioning a sacred narrative, with McIntyre losing his job and Abdel-Magied hounded out of the country. For the peddlers of nationalist rhetoric that sit in the Australian halls of power, “Anzac” is usefully nebulous. The Anzac myth is not so much about what the diggers in Gallipoli fought for but a fictionalised, idealised account of national sacrifice and righteous violence, and it is a myth that has been recruited by politicians to serve their nationalist agendas ever since those young men were first sent to war. The modern telling of the Anzac myth owes a great deal to John Howard, who undertook a concerted effort to reassert the Anzac myth as a cornerstone of Australian culture, linking the blood spilled in Gallipoli to his conservative political project and his imagined “Australian values”. But in all accounts of the Anzacs, we are told that they went to Gallipoli because they believed in democracy, in equality, and in freedom. They died together with young Turkish men, fodder for the machine of imperialist war. 

Lest we forget that it was the “heroism“ of Gallipoli that made Australia a nation, lest we forget to find a higher meaning in the sacrifices of our fathers, lest we forget that our brothers and sisters and our sons and daughters could again be called upon to make the ultimate sacrifice, to lay down their lives in the next “last war to end all wars“.

Lest we remember that the Australian state itself is a product of bloody imperialism, where the theft of Aboriginal land by the British state constituted the crucial first step of Australian capitalism. Marx said that capital comes into the world “dripping from head to foot, from every pore, with blood and dirt”. Australia came into the world dripping in the blood of Indigenous people. Yet even in these brutal first moments of Australian history — so conveniently absent in the telling of a national identity forged in foreign war — we can find another story to remember: one of resistance. We are told to remember that Anzac day is about honouring endurance and courage, but to forget the Frontier Wars. The history of Australia is drenched in blood, but it is also rich in traditions of brave defiance. Aboriginal people dared to defend their sovereignty against the imperialist power of the British Empire — Aboriginal people continue to defy the violence and indignity of the capitalist system.

We are told that the Anzac spirit stands for egalitarianism, the derision of class, and irreverence to authority. At the outbreak of war, it was surely the radical syndicalists of the IWW, the “Wobblies“, who best embodied this spirit. But unlike the mythical Anzacs, the Wobblies also embodied an unflinching commitment to the spirit of internationalism. They were militantly anti-war. In classic IWW fashion, the Australian Wobblies pushed back against wartime censorship in their street corner meetings, and many were arrested for their anti-war rhetoric as the union established itself as the radical flank of the successful anti-conscription movement. Prime Minister Billy Hughes went as far as to argue that the IWW was “largely responsible for the present attitude of organised labor, industrially and politically, towards the war”. 

In the late 1930s, the Dalfram Dispute saw unionised wharfies embrace this spirit at Port Kembla, refusing to load pig iron onto ships bound for Japan, fearing that it would be used to manufacture bombs to be dropped on China, or Australia. The waterside and seafaring workers’ unions continued their commitment to anti-militarism during the Vietnam War, refusing to crew the ships Boonaroo and Jesparit that were headed for the conflict. 

Opposition to the Vietnam War was widespread. Two hundred thousand people marched in the 1970 Vietnam Moratorium rallies around Australia. Young men burnt their draft cards, students staged sit-ins at their universities, anti-war draft resisters were imprisoned by the authorities. After three years of protest, the troops were withdrawn from Vietnam. Could ordinary people, taking to the streets, have the power to change the world?

That spirit of protest was taken up by the women’s liberation movement in the early 80s, when the Women Against Rape Collective took to the streets on Anzac day highlighting the previously undiscussed issue of rape as a weapon of war. Arrested by the police and denigrated by the media and the RSL, the women challenged the glorification of war and masculinity, and in doing so, asserted our democratic right to protest. And in 2003, we again saw ordinary people stand up against war and imperialism, with 600,000 of them marching against the Iraq War in Australia, and millions more marching around the world.

Opposition to imperialist war is not simply a position of principle. It is foundational to our politics. The class struggle is the struggle for a world without war, a world liberated from the violence of imperialism, and it is predicated on fostering a sense of solidarity with our comrades in all countries. We mourn the blood of the workers and the oppressed that has been spilled in the interests of the ruling class. We advocate for a peoples’ right to self-determination. We organise ourselves until we have the strength to resist the imperialist impulses of our rulers. We mourn the dead and we fight like hell for the living: for ourselves and for our comrades internationally. We fight the enemy at home.

We should not memorialise war itself, but the people who have fought against it, the people we have lost to it, and the people that we continue to lose to it today. We must reflect on the lessons of history, expose the lies of nationalism and patritotism,  and never again fight for the ruling class, but against them. We commemorate the fallen Anzacs, but we must also commemorate the victims of imperialism in all countries, in all wars. Wherever the ruling class invokes the “spirit of the Anzac”, we invoke the spirit of internationalism and the spirit of resistance. We have a duty, not to the drums of war, but in the words of anti Vietnam War group the Ex-Services Human Rights Association of Australia, “to prevent war on our own soil” and “to do what we can to prevent it on other people’s soil”.

Lest we forget:

The soldiers, generations of the working class sent to their deaths in the name of imperialist war.

The victims of rape in all countries in all wars.

The refugees fleeing violence and persecution, only to be persecuted by our government.

The conscientious objectors and anti war activists who refuse to march to the drums of another rich man’s war.

The civilian victims who have died and are dying in all wars, and all who have suffered and hungered in the shadows of bloated military budgets.

The custodians of this land who have fought, and fight, and who survive.

“If blood be the price of all your wealth, good God we have paid our share.”


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