‘The War! I Am Talking About the War!’: In Defence of Anzac Day

By John Martinkus

John Martinkus has been a war reporter for a decade, covering East Timor, Iraq (where he was abducted, and released) and Afghanistan. He defends the continued celebration of Anzac Day not as a way of celebrating war itself, but of ‘remembering and understanding the shared experience of what Australia’s service men and women are asked to endure for what is perceived as the public interest’.

When I was a schoolboy in Melbourne in the early eighties I used to commute through Flinders Street Station on my way to school. Often, along with some of my more badly behaved schoolmates, I would miss a few trains and hang around under the clocks smoking illicit cigarettes and generally getting up to no good. There was often a man in an old army great coat standing across the road outside Young and Jacksons, often with an old long neck bottle of beer in his hand. He had campaign medals pinned to his coat but also usually traces of vomit and spittle crusted to the thick double breasted wool as well. Regularly he would shout at the passing commuters, ‘You don’t f _ kin understand’, or ‘You have no f kin idea you c _ts’. Being stupid boys we would dare each other to go and ask him what he was talking about. He would bellow with drunken rage at us ‘The War! I am talking about the war!’. The commuters would avert their eyes and eventually I remember a man giving me a sharp talking to and telling me to move along and leave the man alone.

After a decade of covering Australia’s deployments in East Timor, Iraq and Afghanistan I am starting to understand that man and his ravings. Whether it is the clearing out of fetid sweet smelling remains of murdered East Timorese rotting in the tropical sun or the cleaning up of the pieces of victims of yet another Taliban Improvised Explosive Device, the men and women of the ADF have had experiences in the last decade that will permanently affect them and change them. I know the moral ambiguity of the Iraq deployments weighed heavily on many of our soldiers as they manned checkpoints and had to make the – sometimes life or death – decisions about whether a fast-approaching car was a suicide bomber or a family racing a badly wounded relative to the hospital. Or whether a car approaching a convoy erratically was yet another VBIED (or, Vehicle Borne Improvised Explosive Device) … or simply a bad driver in a malfunctioning vehicle – and to make that decision about whether or not to shoot.

Then there are the small teams of infantry and engineers flung out through the moonscape of Afghanistan’s Uruzgan province to live and work on small patrol bases with Afghans they can neither trust nor rely on to fight when the Taliban attack. We all know that four of Australia’s casualties have come at the hand of Afghans who are supposedly our allies. It is a figure that, sadly, is likely to rise as we draw down our troops. In short, whatever the politics, our society has asked our defence force to shoulder a very heavy burden since that first deployment to East Timor in 1999. We have a whole generation of soldiers, airman and sailors who have seen and been in situations that those who live a civilian life in this country are likely to never have to endure. Whether you supported the involvement of Australia in the wars of Timor, Iraq and Afghanistan or not, the fact is that we as a society, required these people to go and work in these environments with all the physical and mental risk that entailed. Yes the ADF is now comprised of volunteers and the argument will be made that they made that choice to join in a time of war and should accept the consequences of their service. But I think, having shared some of the horrible experiences of these conflicts, that Anzac Day should be maintained as a day for the participants of these conflicts to get together, reflect and relive the good and the awful experiences they have shared – essentially, in the service of their nation.

Anzac Day is not about jingoistic patriotic posturing. It is not about which political party supported or opposed which deployment, operation or invasion. Anzac Day is about remembering and understanding the shared experience of what Australia’s service men and women are asked to endure for what is perceived as the public interest.

In October and November 2011 I went to Afghanistan as the Official Australian War Cinematographer. My brief was to produce a series of documentaries that reflected on the Australian experience of the war in Afghanistan. I went to patrol bases and on helicopter missions and to the main Australian base in Tarin Kot. But out of all the footage that I collected, the most powerful (to me) were two simple interviews.

One was with a corporal who had survived an IED attack on his armoured Bushmaster. He described how the rear gunner had been flung out and over the vehicle by the force of the blast. The corporal described how he and the only other unwounded member of the crew had found the gunner and dressed his wounds as they called for an evacuation helicopter. He talked of that hour feeling like an eternity as things moved in slow motion, as is common when you are in severe shock. He spoke rapidly – but with precise descriptions of the blast and their attempts to stabilise the wounds of their comrade, all the while expecting a Taliban ambush.

I’ve seen that same intensity countless times during my years covering wars: in the statements of refugees, of victims of bomb attacks, of victims of coalition shootings in Baghdad and in some instances in myself after witnessing the same events. It is quite simply trauma. That will stay with that young corporal for the rest of his life and he will need people to understand that for him to come back from that experience and continue to live.

The second most powerful interview I did was with an explosives expert whose job involved cleaning up the aftermath of suicide bombings. The dead children he had to clear away came back to him often in his dreams as his own children back in Australia.

To share and understand the experiences by ordinary soldiers of this current generation – that is why Anzac Day should be observed. Hopefully one day there will be no more generations of Australian living who have had to live with the memory of war. Maybe then Anzac Day can be consigned to history. But with more than 20,000 Australians having served in Afghanistan alone since 2001, that time is a long way away.

And unless we want to see another generation of veterans cracking up and yelling at passersby in drunken rages, about how they don’t understand, we should allow those veterans the chance to share and remember their experiences together – on that one day of the year.