Some notes on Henry Reynolds’ Archibald Baxter Memorial Peace Lecture

‘No war can be called just; they all use the same machinery’. So argued Professor Henry Reynolds (University of Tasmania) at tonight’s Inaugural Archibald Baxter Memorial Peace Lecture, sponsored by the National Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Otago. Reynolds opened his public lecture by making the case that pacifism need not necessarily be anti-patriotic. On the contrary, the best thing one can do for a nation, he argued – in the spirit of him whose name and witness were being honoured, the great Archibald Baxter – is to keep it from going to war. He also argued that wars beget war, and that a victory to any side only further perpetuates the violence in one form or another.

Unsurprisingly, Reynolds spent most of his time in what for him is familiar territory – Australia. He rehearsed his oft-played themes about Australia’s hidden wars (see his Black Pioneers: How Aboriginal and Islander People Helped Build Australia, Why Weren’t We Told?, The Other Side of the Frontier: Aboriginal Resistance to the European Invasion of Australia, and Forgotten War – all which are well worth reading), noting how between 1788 and 1928 (or, according to some other historians, 1934) Australia was home to large-scale wars between European settlers and indigenous Australians, and that the frontier conflicts (most of the wars took place in isolated regions) in Queensland saw the deaths of tens of thousands (Reynolds argues for a figure of over fifty thousand people – significantly more Australians than were killed in WWII, and on par with those who died in the war to end them all). And yet, as Reynolds and many others have noted, and John Pilger has recently made most public in his film Utopia, these hidden wars remain uncommemorated at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra, that ‘great emporium of white nationalism’ (Pilger) and pantheon of Australia’s most enduring and important cult – war. (On this, see What’s Wrong with ANZAC?: The Militarisation of Australian History edited by Reynolds and Marilyn Lake.) It is difficult to see how Australians will even begin to think honestly about its wars until this scandal is rectified.

Reynolds suggested that the calendar for military commemorations in Australia is fuller than the religious calendars ever were during the Middle Ages. He might be right, although there’s little at stake if he’s not. But drawing attention to the Edwardian conviction (surely it’s much older than that?) that nations are made in war, and that there can be no true nationhood without war, Reynolds is certainly right to call out the propaganda machines which publish ad infinitum the narrative that Australian involvement in overseas conflicts are the nation’s most important defining events, a fact which begs the question about what nationhood might have meant prior to 1914, and which does wonders for tourist operators arranging parties at ANZAC Cove.

Reynolds concluded with some discussion about the Boer War, noting that there were only four members of the Australian Parliament who voted against involvement, and that there was scarcely any discussion at all – either in Parliament or elsewhere – on either the legality or morality of the war. The new egalitarian democracies of Australia and New Zealand were keener to join Britain’s war than were the Brits, and the colonisers were desperate to secure the allegiance of her loyal subjects (including India), frightfully concerned that they might go the way of Canada or, God forbid, of the United States. The second half of the Boer War in particular saw numerous and widespread atrocities and human rights violations, violations which Australia felt no responsibility for – just as contemporary white Australia, ‘Team Australia’, feels no responsibility for its most costly wars, the one’s which took place upon her own soil – because this was, after all, Mother Britain’s war and not ours.

I left feeling grateful for the work of places like the National Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, emboldened in my own commitment to the ways of non-violence in the ‘broken middle’ (Gillian Rose), and thinking about the ongoing relevance of Desmond Tutu’s words (published in God Is Not a Christian): ‘There can be no future without forgiveness. There will be no future unless there is peace. There can be no peace unless there is reconciliation. But there can be no reconciliation before there is forgiveness. And there can be no forgiveness unless people repent’.

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