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Remembering and memorialising Australian peacekeeping

By Jo Coghlan - posted Thursday, 18 October 2012


There are currently 14 wars and armed conflicts occurring globally. In a period of increasing conflict in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia, images of soldiers and war have filled our news screens. Less attention is given in the national and international press to the role of peacekeepers. This suggests Australia society has a selective cultural and political imagination when it comes to war mythology.

For Alistair Thomson (Anzac Memories, 1994), soldiering in war is binarised as either heroic or as "hard times shared by good mates". Public memorials and rituals of remembrance transform both into a single homogenous narrative naming the fallen and giving meaning to their sacrifice, normatively as for nationhood. At the heart of war mythology are public expressions of gratitude by a free nation.

Public memorials perform an authentication function for society giving name to the dead and allowing 'ordinary' Australians, as Eric Hobsbawn suggests, to construct a sense of collective solidarity. This in turn maintains Benedict Andersons' notion of an 'imagined community', hence nationhood. Symbols, such as public memorials, perpetuate the myth of the digger allowing it to become the myth of the nation. With war and digger mythology maintained by public memorials, the memorial must protect the iconic sacredness of the fallen soldier.

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Public memorials to the fallen are found in most regional towns in Australia, as plaques, trees of remembrance, statues of lone soldiers with head bowed, and rosemary bushes and pines planted from seeds bought home from Gallipoli. Our capital cities have larger symbols including the Shrine of Remembrance and the Shrine Reserve and culminating in Canberra's Australia War Memorial.

Most however are 20th century additions to Australia's cultural landscape providing what Ken Inglis (Sacred Places, 2005) calls the "privilege for posterity". Prior to this monuments honouring the fallen were rare, the most noted were the memorials to the Eureka rebellion between British soldiers and goldminers in 1854. It is from here the term 'digger' entered the national lexicon. Initially a 'birth of the nation' event, it along with its principles of mateship and the digger were appropriated by war historians to iconise the fallen in World War One.

Recently, the Australian government has given $10 million to symbols remembering the Eureka rebellion, now named as the Australia Centre for Democracy at Eureka. In doing so, a significant narrative shift has occurred from memorialising the fallen to celebrating early democratic struggles. In contrast only $200 000 has been committed to any public memorialising of peacekeepers. As a result Australia's cultural and political landscape today remains void of public memorials to fallen peacekeepers.

Since 1947, Australia has generously and continuously contributed to regional and international peacekeeping operations. More than 66,000 Australian peacekeepers have served in over 60 conflicts under Australian or United Nations (U.N) command. The first Australian peacekeepers served in the transition from Dutch colonisation to Indonesian independence. Between 1950 and 1985, under U.N Command, Australian peacekeepers have been in continuous service in Kashmir and Australian observers have been in the Middle East since 1956. Australian peacekeepers acted as observers in the U.N. operation monitoring the ceasefire between Iran and Iraq in 1988.

More recently, peacekeepers have served in the Solomon Islands leading the New Zealand, Papua New Guinea and Tonga peacekeepers in the Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands (RAMSI) missioned to assist the Solomon Island government in restoring law and order. In 2004, Australian Adam Dunning was shot during peacekeeping operations. Adam Dunning's name does not appear on any public war memorials.

Peacekeepers were generally unarmed military observers. Their role in security governance was heightened during the Cold War when neither sanctions nor other forms of enforcement were geo-politically sustainable. As a result, unarmed military advisors increasing became military advisors with enforcement powers, used when necessary to immediately restore peace and long-term to ensure safety and security.

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As peacekeeping operations, the aim is variously to help maintain cease-fire agreements, to stabilise conflict situations, to create environments conductive to peaceful settlement, to help implement peace agreements, to protect civilian populations at risk, or to assist laying the foundations for durable peace. A core mission of the U.N, Australia is the 12th highest financial contributor to U.N. peacekeeping operations, contributing almost two per cent of the U.N. peacekeeping budget, or about $1 billion dollars a year.

Australiais the world's first and longest serving contributor to peacekeeping operations. This year marks the 65th anniversary of Australian peacekeeping. Yet, there is uncertainty about how many Australian's have died in peacekeeping operations, mainly because of how war is classified.

Australian soldiers killed in Cambodia or Rwanda, for example, were initially classified as dying in operations "not war-like" however bureaucratic decisions overturned this classification and soldiers killed in those conflicts are now acknowledged in honour rolls at the Australian War Memorial. The number of peacekeepers killed, but not acknowledged on official memorial honour rolls, range from 47 to 88. Australian peacekeepers killed in 65 years of operations are not publically recognised at the Australian War Memorial and there is no official memorial that recognises their contributions or deaths.

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About the Author

Jo Coghlan is a lecturer in the School of Arts and Social Sciences at Southern Cross University.

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