The Nation-State, Killing and Death
By Adam Henry
Dr. Adam Hughes Henry is a Visiting Fellow of the School of Culture, History and Language, Australian National University. He also teaches History and International Studies at the University of Canberra.
Book by Adam Henry
The Gatekeepers of Australian Foreign Policy 1950–1966

Australian Scholarly Publishing (August, 2015)

During a lecture, the famous news correspondent Robert Fisk told a story of the reaction of a Reuter’s news agency (London) to receiving graphic pictures of civilian death and destruction caused in Iraq by British forces. Reuter’s called the pictures “obscene” and therefore not fit to be shown back home.(1)

We learn about the abstract war, the war of nationalist or ideological sacrifice and endurance, the achievement of some military objective or another; the war that is remembered in one national cemetery or memorial museum. But we must not see the broken and mutilated bodies—the final state of the human being once steel, bomb, bullet or blade meets flesh.(2)

Just imagine any national war memorial in Australia, UK or US that dared to prioritize visual displays (historic or artistic) highlighting the sheer carnage of war—not only on soldiers, but on the civilian population who suffer death, atrocity and deprivation?

How long would this be tolerated by the political and cultural gatekeepers of the nation-state? In the name of ‘respect’—or for the mental well-being of the potential visitor—the museum would be forced to close such a display.(3) An accurate focus on the horrific results of warfare might overwhelm standard narratives of nationalist sacrifice, brotherly comradery, and courage.

Despite the fact that graphic images of war are easily located and displayed— and are legitimate historic artifacts—real death and killing must be erased from official war remembrance. Death becomes a passive event visited on soldiers by an unknown, alien force; the daily acts of deliberate killing soldiers carry out are best left to implication.

There can be exceptions. The sacrifice of “our” soldiers can sometimes be shown, but in the controlled and sanitized manner of a ritual military funeral remembrance—with flag draped coffins, proud comrades, grieving families, and pontificating politicians. Any unfortunate loss of “innocent” (civilians) must be set against the more important picture of our losses and our noble mission.

The development of “total war” strategies—particularly the routine use of airpower against civilian targets by the most powerful nation states—has set the precedent. This has blurred the line between combatant and non-combatant (aka the ordinary civilian citizen). Indeed, massive and indiscriminate fire power has obliterated this demarcation.

These casualties can be rationalized away by the doctrine of military/political necessity—“unfortunate accidents” that are to be expected as a matter of course. The decapitated, mutilated, incinerated, eviscerated bodies of soldiers and civilians must be censored, and the true reality excluded from national debate and official remembrance.

When the true horror of war is revealed in brief flickers of information, it might come with a “distress warning”—to be censored in some “sensible manner” so as not to cause anxiety. Does this type of sensitivity enable political and military elites to continue to engage in wars?

The reality of war requires intellectual and cultural sanitization. Citizens must be shielded from the consequences of the activity—often waged on their behalf by some authority or government. In many cases, citizens prefer to be shielded from this burden.

Citizens also must “kneel” before official acts of memorialization and ceremony enshrined on their behalf by their political rulers. These are the pillars of society that routinely send soldiers to war—and who use their sacrifices to bolster themselves politically.(4)

In the years since the end of the First World War, April 25th 1915 (ANZAC Day) has developed into a celebration of European Australian nationhood with distinctly jingoistic and celebratory overtones. To criticize the obsession with Gallipoli would be considered an attack on the brave men in uniform “who died for our freedoms”, i.e. an attack on Australia itself.

Every year the official ceremony in Gallipoli itself, ANZAC COVE, is rife with politicians and dignitaries from Australia and New Zealand and thousands of young Aussies and Kiwi’s—who “hajj” to the most sacred place(5) wrapped in their flags, soaking in the atmosphere.

In actuality, Australian forces participated in an invasion of Turkey (a country that posed no threat to Australia). The campaign itself was often ineptly planned and executed by the Allied commanders. Officers ordered their men into wasteful battles; the shooting of prisoners is documented; and the entire campaign ended with inglorious defeat for the Allies. All this is “true”.

Yet, according to the official nationalist narrative, this was the birthplace of the nation. Nothing from the 19th Century, to the Federation of the Australian Colonies in 1901, or anything before 1914 matters—only the bravery and courage of military sacrifice at Gallipoli.

What did this carnage really symbolize? What exactly did these Australians kill and die for? The basis of Australian participation in the war (membership and kinship of the British Empire) no longer matters to mainstream Australian society: Gallipoli is the “birthplace” of the nation. We must “remember those” who fought and died there—but not the context, the politics, nor the human carnage.

To appreciate the glorification of Gallipoli, we (as citizens) must not see (or ask) about the twisted and broken bodies, the soldiers who died screaming in agony, or those who came back psychologically damaged from the “glories” of Gallipoli. We must simply “remember them”.

To be granted access by the Republic of Turkey to the “sacred place”—for the purposes of this ritual—we must turn away from the realities of even more horrid violence and killing. The Australian government officially tows the Turkish line that the massive slaughter of the Armenians of the Ottoman Empire by the Young Turks was not a “genocide”—the anniversary date of the Armenian Genocide is April 26, 1915, just a day after ANZAC DAY. (6)

To celebrate its “birth,” the nation state must turn away from the political context and daily reality of killing and dying at Gallipoli—for the benefit of the accepted nationalist ritual of sacrifice. But we also must ignore the genocide of over a million Armenians; to do otherwise would deny the Australian nation state its ritual ‘hajj’ to the sacred sands of Gallipoli.

(1) Robert Fisk, Distinguished Lecture on April 20, 2010, State of Denial: Western Journalism and the Middle East, Center for International and Regional Studies (CIRS), Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar (GU-Q) 11:20 to 13:05 available at https://youtu.be/l6ASJA7fbcE

(2) Trevor Wilson (ed.), The Political Diaries of C. P. Scott, 1911-1928, London: Collins, 1970, p. 274.

For a classic example of this reality see British Prime Minister Lloyd George as quoted by C.P. Scott Diary (Editor of Manchester Guardian newspaper, 27 December, 1917).

I listened last night, at a dinner given to Philip Gibbs [British journalist] on his return from the front, to the most impressive and moving description of what the war really means, that I have heard. Even an audience of hardened politicians and journalists were strongly affected. If people really knew, the war would be stopped tomorrow.

But of course they don't know, and can't know. The correspondents don't write and the censorship wouldn't pass the truth. What they do send is not the war, but just a pretty picture of the war with everybody doing gallant deeds. The thing is horrible and beyond human nature to bear and I feel I can't go on with this bloody business.

(3) See Paul Boyer, ‘Whose History is it Anyway? Memory, Politics and Historical Scholarship’ in Edward Linenthal and Tom Engelhardt, (eds.) History Wars: The Enola Gay and Other Battles for the American Past, Metropolitan Books, New York, 1996, Chapter. 4, pp.115–139.

We might speculate that such a graphic depiction of the true reality of war within an institution of official remembrance would provoke an angry response from the “gatekeepers”. For example, in 1994 the Smithsonian constructed a display for the fiftieth anniversary of the atomic bombings in Japan. The display included the full range materials related to the bombings, including the ongoing debate over the motivations behind the bombing. The exhibit was attacked as being “revisionist” and “anti-American”, the result of the campaign being that the exhibit was scaled back by the Smithsonian.

(4) See Adam Hughes Henry, ‘Nationalism, Politics & War’, Journal of the Rationalist Society of Australia, (Issue 74, Winter 2006). This article examines the absence of “killing” (and the influence of the official nation state narrative) in official acts of war remembrance in Australia, United Kingdom, United States, and the Republic of Ireland.

(5) I use the term ‘sacred’ inspired in the Australian context by Ken Inglis whose work examines war memorials and commemoration. See Ken Inglis, Sacred Places, Melbourne University Press, Victoria. The war shrine in essence acts as the focal point for a type of ‘secular’ religion heavily enmeshed with the narrative of the nation state.