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What ANZAC Day Means To Me

On the eve of ANZAC Day, the day when Australia takes a day off work to pause and reflect on what ANZAC Day means to them I thought that I would take some time t0 explain what this day of memorial means to me as an Australian.

To me, first and foremost ANZAC day is about remembering the landings at Gallipoli on the 25th of April, 1915, the first time we fought as a nation for Queen and country.

This was a day where we went to war and faced incredible challenges, landing at the place now known as ANZAC Cove, in a hail of gunfire, our young men having to dodge heavy fire from troops fighting for the Ottoman Empire, now known as Turkey.

Australia sustained heavy losses in this campaign, thanks largely to unforgiving terrain and the well-prepared and alert Turkish troops that were able to pounce and inflict devastating losses on our troop deployment to this far-off land. This mission inflicted a heavy toll of dead and wounded in the Australian contingent, with 26,111 casualties, 8,141 of which were fatalities, a truly devastating statistic for a campaign that ended just 8 months later on December 20, 1915.

As the acronym subtly suggests, the day is one to also remember our fallen friends from “across the ditch” in New Zealand, who went into combat with us during that part of World War One. They too sustained heavy losses with 2,721 soldiers killed, about a third of the Kiwi contingent of 8,556 troops that landed on the shores of Gallipoli on April 25.

ANZAC Day has evolved to mean much more than just the first combat mission we undertook under the Australian flag with our allies. Now it is also about remembering the troops past and present who have served and died or been wounded under the banner of Australia in all operations from Gallipoli onwards, including in World War Two, Korea, Vietnam, East Timor, the Solomon Islands and more recently Afghanistan and Iraq.

To me, commemorating ANZAC Day has nothing to do with glorifying the act of war like critics of the day and of participation in conflict in general suggest, it is purely and simply about acknowledging that loss and the part that the past has played in our identity whether it was positive or negative, which in itself is an inherently subjective judgement anyway.

The day beginning with the dawn service is one that should be beyond politics. Yes war and conflict is a truly sad and unfortunate reality in the world, but the people involved have been sent there by government to participate because those in power have decided for a reason, be it sound or not, that our presence has been required in a particular theatre. To diminish the loss of life and the injuries sustained by questioning war on this day is folly.

There have been both “good” and “bad” wars, if I can phrase it that way, but we cannot rewrite history by arguing against the pros and cons of each particular conflict we as a nation have been involved in prosecuting, but clearly we should take lessons from them.

ANZAC Day is also a day to reflect on events of history and to learn about our involvement in the the politics of the world and our place in the history of it. To learn about history will help us understand the future as many have said in the past and that knowledge translates into the power to shape our future, another cliche also apt when thinking of ANZAC Day.

The day is also one of a more deeply personal nature for me, for although I never met him, my grandfather’s brother, John Mickle Tait was shot down over Leipzig in the plane he was Air Gunner in over Germany in April 1945 as the second world war involving Germany was coming to an end, a loss that came devastatingly close to having been avoided, just weeks prior to German surrender.

There is no doubt that there will be differing reasons, some deeply personal, some based on a learned history which will colour your the way you go about your ANZAC Day. For me it will be to first and foremost remember the loss to my family in World War Two. But it will be to also remember all of those who have served, in all wars and to learn more about our history.

Lest we forget.

Joel Fitzgibbon Has it Almost Right on Afghanistan

One time Defence Minister and now Chief Government Whip, Joel Fitzgibbon today uttered the awkward but necessary reality that some Australian troops, probably special forces, may and should remain in Afghanistan well after the already stated withdrawl date of 2014. These comments come less than a day after Taliban militants struck urban areas across Afghanistan, including the capital Kabul, attacking government buildings and diplomatic missions as well as a NATO facility.

The government have already stated that the majority of Australian troops will be coming home within the next two years, but that there is a real possibility that elite soldiers may remain well after the planned withdrawal date.

Mr Fitzgibbon, on his return from visiting the NATO headquarters in Brussels, stated that the attacks which were quelled today after more than half a day of fighting proved that “the peace in Afghanistan is at best a fragile one”. This is very true, whilst the attacks  in the major urban cities of Afghanistan have been rare in recent years, aside from a similar one last year, the fact that they are still occurring and not being smothered, or even discovered beforehand is a cause for major concern regarding the real level of readiness of Afghan security services post combat troop withdrawal.

At the outset it is important to note that the ongoing effort in Afghanistan will be one more of harm minimisation as opposed to the ideal outcome of crushing Al Qaeda and the Taliban.

The events over the last 24 hours or so provide some evidence that a greater level return of troops to the major cities is a necessity both to train and supplement Afghan police and army stationed in these cities.

The attacks also point to the need for greater border security, particularly around the Afghanistan-Pakistan border areas where, in the worst kept secret of the conflict, many Taliban fighters are known to have fled and to have even been welcomed by elements of the military and intelligence community in the neighbouring country.

Greater intelligence efforts of both the Afghan and international community need to be deployed into these border regions to help identify, prosecute or eliminate border crossings by known Taliban fighters and this kind of intelligence building and effort cannot occur overnight as many members of the Taliban may just wait out international forces before returning to the country when it is safer for them to do so. In the case of intelligence cooperation, an ongoing cooperation between Afghanistan and particularly US intelligence services is a necessity.

Where Fitzgibbon starts going wrong is suggesting that, in his view the mentoring task force would have returned home by the end of 2014, like the artificial timetable created suggests. If any part of the Australian commitment had to remain in Afghanistan post 2014, it predominantly should be those tasked with mentoring the Afghan National Army and police. It is the security forces that we as a nation have been partially responsible for mentoring that weren’t ready yesterday wasn’t it?

It is certain that the security situation in Afghanistan is tense and that the threat of combatants returning from Pakistan through the porous borders is a certainty, regardless of the timing of an exit and needs to be responded to with continued security and intelligence cooperation between nations. The question is, will a war weary and debt-ridden international community be able to stomach continued commitment to peace and security in Afghanistan? Equally so, will the Afghan Government, increasingly weary of the international presence and occasional misadventure be happy for this to continue to occur? That is far from definite.

‘Cut and Run’? No We Should Not

Overnight the Australian Defence Force (ADF) suffered three deaths and 7 wounded soldiers in an attack by a soldier in the Afghan National Army (ANA) uniform. The incident has inevitably revived the question: Should we ‘cut and run’ from our commitments in Afghanistan, or is there something else that we can do?There have now been 32 Australian soldiers killed in combat and training operations since our commitment began. We grieve them all for the loss to their families and friends and to the nation.

Should we pull all our troops out of combat, training and reconstruction roles in Afghanistan in the wake of an incident like this? I tend to agree with the position of the Gillard Government, the ADF and the Tony Abbott led Coalition when they say, no we should not contemplate a precipitate withdrawal from our responsibilities to train, reconstruct and make the war-torn nation safer.

An immediate withdrawal of all troops in an instantaneous and collective manner would result in Afghanistan becoming far more de-stabilised and result in a likely mass return of the Taliban to areas of the nation where they have largely been eradicated from.

Indeed, there is a valid argument that a longer combat, training and reconstruction role is essential for the long-term, at leas relative stability of Afghanistan. This ongoing role is essential for the future stability of Afghanistan politically and economically.

If there is one major thing that this incident tells us, it is that Afghanistan is not necessarily more or less dangerous than it has been previously. What this dreadful event, the second similar incident involving Australian forces, may tell us is that better vetting of ANA and other security force’s candidates is required.

This approach calls for more intelligence resources and time to conduct background checks, not less time with talk of deadlines of a specific withdrawal timetable. Furthermore it calls for more time and effort put into the training, combat and reconstruction roles.

The Government and other governments contemplating such circumstances will find it incredibly difficult to justify in a political environment where there have been casualties and voters are becoming war weary. The current global economic doldrums will also put immense pressure on political will. However, the point remains, that what is required is not necessarily an escalation in troop numbers or operations, but chiefly, in relation to this attack, a simple revision of vetting processes for Afghan security forces which can be worked on, in unison with the Afghan Government.

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