In WWII the then Australian Prime Minister John Curtin in 1942 handed, what amounted to national autonomy, to an American military man, General Douglas MacCarthur in Australia's dire hour (as it were), with the Japanese at our doorstep.
Australia has maintained a volunteer military since nationhood whereby individuals choose a military career and in times of international conflict such as WWI and WWII persons volunteered to serve the nation. During WWII those men aged between 18-35 were conscripted to the Citizens Military Forces (not the army). It was these CMF men in 1942 that famously held back the Japanese on the Kakoda Track in New Guinea.
Australian voters rejected military conscription in WWI, yet in the post WWII years with the Cold War, saw compulsory national service, and during the Vietnam War years conscription saw young men selected by "marbles with birth dates" pulled from a jar.
As an historian, Well-Being Australia chairman Mark Tronson has kept one eye on such interesting military matters and moreover was fascinated with a recent Sydney Morning Herald article titled: "Placing value on valour' written by Malcolm Brown.
Military Awards Issues
The article took up the subject of whether a case can be made for increasing military awards long after the person had died. A Defence Honours and Appeals Tribunal was in hearing considering these issues through to the middle of March.
Some long retired military men were for letting matters stay as they were, that decisions made in WWI and WWII should not be altered all these years later. Others recognised there were other clearly acts of bravery and astonishing military accomplishment in battle, that was never recognised, or in hindsight should have received a higher recognition. These, they believe, should now be acknowledged.
The 1992 documentary film commissioned by the Commonwealth of Australia for the 50th anniversary of the 1942 Bombing of Darwin titled, "The Battle for Australia" had historians making the point that not one of those Australians defending Darwin and the sacred soil of Australia had been acknowledged. Three years later in 1995 a Medal was struck to give national and military credence to this defence of Australia.
Clearly says Mark Tronson, this illustrates that years later, acknowledgement can be made. Recently Australia celebrated the 70th anniversary of the bombing of Darwin where the 19 February has been gazetted as Military National Day joining such memorial occasions as the 11 November, the end of WWI.
Two matters for consideration
There was much to reflect upon in that Sydney Morning Herald article says Mark Tronson, and there are two matters he's been pondering, the first relates to the role of the military in the life of the nation, and moreover, the 'true or relative' value of our military personnel.
The first is that Australians are very wary of military leaders and he cites the demise of Singapore where the British gave up and surrendered where the Australians in the field, ever since, have claimed they were far from done. Cited are the disasters in WWI from British generalship where young Australians were sent to the slaughter. The treatment of the 39th battalion after Kakoda in WWII (cited above) is another example of very poor leadership at the very top.
Australians are moreover wary of the military as the nation's philosophical history illustrates a core value in civilian leadership (an example was General Monash WWI). The Australian public liken leadership to a sporting fixture, they like to see the scoreboard. The ballot box is their scoreboard for elected leadership. The Australian public have no say in military leadership selection or how to get rid of a "dunderhead" whose woeful decisions could cost the lives of their sons and daughters.
The second is more pertinent
The second issue is more pertinent and very much on the personal level. The article consistently asks questions relating to how servicemen felt in their "hour in battle" and displays an unresolved matter, as to whether the nation cares at all.
Cited are the actions of some such as Ordinary Seaman Edward Sheean. Sheean kept firing from the corvette HMAS Armidale, as it sank in the Timor Sea on 1 December 1942. Some survivors said bullets kept coming from beneath the surface as he kept up the fire.
Likewise, leading Aircraftsman Noel Shipp who kept up his fire on enemy positions in the Vietnam War as his helicopter crashed on 31 May 31 1969, even hanging outside the aircraft to get a better shot. Mark Tronson says we might also cite the more recent acts of supreme bravery of Australians in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The opposition to the Vietnam War in the early 1970's with political street protests across the nation had military personnel returning home after traumatic war time experiences. They experienced no national recognition or appreciation. Many sought to hide and were in effect, shamed. The post Vietnam War multitude suicide casualties tells its own story.
We can also cite the post WWI survivors who came home damaged beyond repair having seen what no man of such tender-years should ever be subject. The insult for the Australians were incompetent generals sipping French wine "well-behind" the lines in opulent circumstances and all the pleasures of life, sending their mates to the slaughter. This left an indelible mark upon these returned servicemen and their young nation.
Clearly, says Mark Tronson, the nation can never 'wear the shoes' of those who have witnessed battle at first hand. Moreover, military awards are inevitably relative and political. Many who should have received such acknowledgement never did. Perhaps no one saw what actually happened. Often an officer was celebrated for what his men achieved, at great risk and cost to themselves. They were the ones in mortal danger.
What the public see is a military man in formal dress being presented an award by a civilian, quite possibly the Governor General who is constituently the head of Australia's military. The soothing words convey very little, if anything, of the battle experience. But, this is the way it must be. Civilians are a deadly menace on the front line. Battle is the role of the military. There is a demarcation line. The civilian population rarely gets a true picture, the gut wrenching sense of abandonment is beyond words.
Mark Tronson says the human condition is that some military personnel have a penchant for battle, as some in the business world have a penchant for good decisions that makes lots of money, or an entertainer or actor/actress who has a penchant that the public acclaim.
The difference is that the military person puts their life on the line and for the many who "don't really care." This sadly, will always be the story. Mark Tronson says that whenever he "down the street" and sees a military person in uniform, he doffs his head in acknowledgement. It counts!
It also spells out the high respect for military chaplains gained over a century of warfare (Australians had Padres in the Boar War). Sacrifice is front and centre in Christian thought.
Proverbs 2 verse 3: Yes, if you cry out for discernment, And lift up your voice for understanding."
Dr Mark Tronson is a Baptist minister (retired) who served as the Australian cricket team chaplain for 17 years (2000 ret) and established Life After Cricket in 2001. He was recognised by the Olympic Ministry Medal in 2009 presented by Carl Lewis Olympian of the Century. He has written 24 books, and enjoys writing. He is married to Delma, with four adult children and grand-children.
Mark Tronson's archive of articles can be viewed at www.pressserviceinternational.org/mark-tronson.html