Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Hiding behind the uniform

by Sasha Uzunov

Veterans Affairs Minister, Bruce Billson, recently announced appointments to the council of the Australian War Memorial in Canberra. These people are entrusted with safeguarding our national military heritage. One of those named is former newspaperman, Les Carlyon, author of the hugely successful and crituically acclaimed book Gallipoli.

Carlyon, born 1942, is a media legend and an institution. He has been showered with honours and awards as a journalist, author and newspaper editor. Les is quoted in the media as an expert on the Gallipoli campaign and regularly writes on military issues for the Bulletin.

Yet, considering his enthusiasm for the Anzac legend and now his position as official custodian of our the national ethos, it's suprising he never volunteered for military service in Vietnam in the 1960s.

I've emailed him a number of times asking why he did not, but get no response. As a council member of the AMW he owes an explanation to war veterans.

I believe that if you passionately believe in the AZNAC legend then you need to practice what you preach, volunteer and serve in uniform.

In other words, you have to put your money where your mouth is. The ANZAC legend, forged in blood at Gallipoli on 25 April 1915, has become a popular topic for some of our leading authors. The notion of mateship, compassion, and courage under adversity resonates with a younger generation of Australians who are learning about the feats of the Kokoda Track or at Tobruk in World War II or the Battle of Kapyong in Korea or the Battle of Long Tan in Vietnam.

The generation who fought in Vietnam in the 1960s probably had the worst end of the stick. It was a time of questioning, when some of our society began scrutinising and rejecting the very notion of the ANZAC legend.

Ironically, some of the anti-war protestors back then are now staunch Iraq War supporters -- funny how the times change people. The ANZAC legend does not need to be over-eulogised because it can stand on its own. As a journalist who is paid to be sceptical I believe that the ANZAC ethos does exist. I saw it with my own eyes as an Australian infantry soldier serving in East Timor in 2001.

During a patrol on the border with Indonesia, our section came across four suspected militiamen or possibly smugglers. Three ran away and left behind an old man with a machete who was swinging it wildly, probably out of fear rather than in malice. Our forward scout, a young bloke with the surname of L... but whom I will call Dougy, was right next to the old man and under the rules of engagement could have shot and killed him in self-defence.

Instead Dougy wrestled the man to the ground. We were glad that no blood was spilt that day. In fact Dougy's actions made me so proud of him, as I used to think he was very immature and ahot head. We once had a punch up during a game of touch rugby.

You just do not know how men will react under pressure. Our section commander, a NSW Policeman in civilian life, grabbed the man and threw him across the border and told him with the use of body language not to come across the border again. I wonder if that old man is still alive today? If so, he has Dougy to thank.

Hugo says: Sasha Uzunov has reported from the Balkans and Iraq for newspapers in Australia and the UK and served as an Australian soldier in East Timor. While you may disagree with his thesis that serving your country is a pre-requisite for those who want to represent our military history via the War Memorial, there's no doubt his passion about the subject. It's a perspective that deserves an airing.


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