View From the Hill
Remembrance Day Assembly 2017: Keeping the PeaceWe are here today to remember the tragedy of war, and by commemorating the end of the first World War at 11 am on November 11th, 1918. Let me tell you what I learned from a letter written just a month before that date. When growing up I had a very old grand uncle, my father's uncle, Uncle Bill. He was a stone mason, very strong and able to split large pieces of sandstone with two hits of his chisel. We knew he had been a soldier on the Western Front in the first World War, and had survived, but he never ever talked about it. When he died, we found a letter he had written to his mother while on a break from the Western front, just a month before the end of the war on 8th October 1918, just over 99 years ago this week.
The letter is such a rare and unique document we sent it to the Australian War Memorial and it now lives as a little national treasure in the National library. It gives voice to a very young man about the same age as our oldest year 12 students, and provides a remarkable picture of life for a soldier in that terrible conflict. He was a scout who used to patrol in no man's land at night, seeking enemy troops and even capturing enemy soldiers. But when writing to his mother he wanted to assure her that all was well and he was only in limited danger. Australian soldiers were beginning to build a reputation for being good at what they did. Here is one paragraph from his long letter:
“Well the truth is Mum, we have no need to be frightened of the Hun himself. He has long since given up on quarrelling with the Australians. German prisoners tell us its just like running into a stone wall. They fairly hate us. One officer told us we were good fighters but were on the wrong side. Well Mum give me bully beef in preference to sauerkraut any day.”
I learned from his letter how Australian soldiers were earning a reputation for being very good at what they do, and almost 100 years later, that reputation is now well established. There are big powers today who like to go into battle with Australians by their side. The reason they do is that Australia’s defense forces are, like the phrase Qantas never crashes, renowned for not stuffing up, getting the job done and staying till the end. But I was surprised to learn more recently that Australia’s military are famous for something else.
A few years ago I heard a Lietenant-Colonel on the radio speaking about his experiences in the Solomon Islands where Australian troops had been sent to restore peace between warring tribal groups. The Solomons is a small island nation in the Pacific, very poor, and without the benefit of all the things we take for granted: law and order, hospitals, schools, and goodwill between people, all the things that make a peaceful life. We take for granted that you can go to Chatswood and go to the bank without being shot up by rival gangs fighting for control of the suburb. We take for granted that adults can vote for the government they wish without an unelected government being imposed on them.
In some countries very close to Australia, these things don't happen: life can be marked by battles and fights between different groups in the community, even what we call civil war. When that happens you need soldiers to be able to stand between the fighting groups, to stop the fighting and to get the guns put down. Then you can enable all the things that have to happen to build a peaceful life: you can bring in teachers for the children, engineers to build sanitation, hospitals for the sick, carpenters to build houses, industry to make things, support farmers to grow food, and you can hold elections to allow people to vote freely. But the soldiers have to stop the fighting first and make peace. This is what the Australian Army did in the Solomon Islands 2003. They went there to make peace and to keep the peace: they were peacekeepers. The colonel I heard on the radio made an interesting statement, he said that one of Australia's greatest exports, that’s the things we send overseas, is peace.
So I looked up what he meant, and I was astonished to find that Australia's troops have the longest record of peacekeeping in the world. They were the first ever peacekeepers sent by the United Nations to Indonesia in 1947. Since then, we have sent Australian troops and police on 62 different missions, to Asia, the Pacific, Africa and even Europe. This is a remarkable record: since the Second World War Australia has been involved in a number of wars: Korea, Malaya, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan. That’s five major conflicts. But there are 62 places where Australia has been a peace- keeper, stopping the fighting, enabling all the things that need to happen to build a peaceful life.
One of our greatest achievements was in East Timor where we helped one of the world's smallest countries emerge as an independent nation. The soldiers stood between the warring factions, the pro and anti- independence groups, and enabled an election to be held, the first ever real election ever held in the country.
What we learned from this action was the need for training in peacemaking as much for making war. In the Army headquarters now there is a Peace Operations Training Centre as part of its headquarters in Canberra.
And we also learned that peace making comes at a price: warring gangs don’t just stop shooting because soldiers stand in between them. Australian soldiers have died on peace keeping missions, and we remember them today.
So now I understand what the colonel meant when he said one of Australia's greatest exports is peace. We can be just as proud of our army as peacekeepers as we ever were of them as soldiers. The soldiers once only made war, but now they also make peace. And I like to think that my old uncle Bill, if he were alive today, would be out there making peace as much, and as well, as he once made war. Lest we forget.