Bob Gould, 1999

Padraic Pearse McGuinness’s concern for war memorials

Source: Unsolicited submission to the Sydney Morning Herald, not published. September 1999
Proofreading, editing, mark-up: Steve Painter

A curious feature of Paddy McGuiness’s campaign for the secession of Balmain from Leichhardt municipality is his story that a privatised Balmain council could give the war memorial better upkeep.

This conjures up the rather extraordinary mental image of McGuinness, who is about as military a figure as I am, saluting the memorial as the sun goes down.

This picture of P.P. McGuinness trying to sell his elitist proposals for local government by wrapping himself in ancient patriotism is bizarre.

I have an image of McGuinness being vigorously haunted by the ghosts of his parents, who defiantly named him after Patrick Pearse, the gallant Irish poet who wrote the 1916 Irish Declaration of Independence and was then summarily executed by the British, along with the other leaders of the Easter Rising.

Another ghost that might haunt him is John Anderson, once professor of philosophy at Sydney University, and one of McGuinness’s heroes when he was young.

On July 9, 1931, Anderson, in his first presidential address to the Free Thought Society, said:

An idol is an object treated in such a way as to prevent or hamper discussion and criticism. Thus a superstitious regard for, or loyalty to, the state or the country is a noteworthy feature of modern political life. But sayings such as “your King and Country need you” appeal to prejudice and supersition and will be criticised by freethinkers. War memorials, too, are political idols and religious ceremonies connected with them are merely fetishes for the purpose of blocking discussion. They prevent critical thinking about the character and conditions of the last war and thus about war and social relations in general.

This speech precipitated the first of Anderson’s many public controversies. He was attacked by Tory politicians and the Sydney University senate, and was only saved from being sacked by the fact that Jack Lang was in power and the Labor education minister, Will Davies, defended Anderson’s right to free speech.

Anderson was expressing the widespread uneasiness in the labour movement about how the explosion of war memorials in Australia in the 1920s, which is so intelligently and movingly described by Ken Inglis in his book, Sacred Places: War Memorials in the Australian Landscape (Miegunyah Press, Melbourne, 1998).

The problem was that these memorials, of which there are proportionately more in Australia than anywhere else in the world, celebrated the truimphalism of ruling-class British Australia embodied in the "blood sacrifice" for Britain during World War I.

The reality was that World War I and conscription divided Australia bitterly, with the secular working class and the Irish Catholics on one side, successfully defeating the conscription and being very sceptical about the wary, and on the other side, jingoistic establishment British Australia.

Many members of the working class and the Irish Catholic community who fought in that war ended up thoroughly disillusioned. My father, Steve Gould, was a good example. He volunteered in 1915, partly to "see the world", as he put it. He got through Gallipoli, but was blown up by a shell in 1918, losing an arm and receiving other injuries.

Nevertheless, the survived and lived until he was 80. After the war he became a school teacher and Labor activist.

My father had a complex attitude to World War I. He proudly wore the retuned soldiers’ badge, as he reckoned he and his dead mates had earned that right, but he rarely went to Anzac Day ceremonies, as it sickened him to see the base officers, who had sent his mates out to be killed, up in front of the march.

He was expelled from the ALP, along with is his leader, J.T. Lang, and the Victorian politician Maurice Blackburn, for opposing conscription during World War II. Incidentally, the conscription proposals were vigorously opposed in the Labor cabinet by Arthur Calwell and Eddie Ward.

My father lived long enough to lend strong and emotional support to our campaign of opposition to the Vietnam War and conscription in the 1960s.

Despite family bitterness about World War I, adult relatives of mine signed up to fight in World War II, which as a whole did not cause major divisions in Australian society. Most working class people are not absolute pacifists.

From the point of view of most Australians World War II was justificd, pretty well the "only good war", as the American novelist Studs Terkel put it.

It is interesting to note the current public discussion of killing in war. A number of social invstigators have discovered that in all wars up to Vietnam, men in the front line were very reluctant to shoot to kill, and many men did not shoot at all, so strong is the human reluctance to kill other humans.

As a result, military training for the Vietnam War was "improved" and the number of soldiers willing to shoot to kill apparently was pushed up, for instance in the US army, from 20 per cent to about 90 per cent. Such are the benefits of modern science.

The Vietnam War was, like World War I, in the end very unpopular. We who opposed it were eventually proved correct.

However, we were not hostile to the young regular soldiers and conscripts who were forced by our political leaders into that unjust war.

We actually campaigned in the best interests of the soldiers and I am proud of our effective and ultimately successful campaign for the withdrawal of Australian troops from Vietnam.

The Australian military involvement in East Timor is very much like World War II, in that it has overwhelming popular support, including leftists like myself.

So far, this very careful military intervention has been relatively successful, with a minimum of combat, and the way the Australian forces and their commander, General Cosgrove, have exerted military force without much shooting has been very impressive.

Supporters of this intervention, such as myself, are holding our breath and hoping that the situation stays that way, and there will be few names from this potentially quite dangerous operation on future war memorials.

Despite the necessity and justice of some of Australia’s past and present military activities, I have a very ambiguous attitude to war memorial, such as the one McGuinness expresses concern for.

I understand the reactionary purposes of many of those Tories who pushed the campaigns to build the memorials in the 1920s, but I also understand the desire of relatives and friends of the dead to remember the lives and heroism of those who were lost.

The memorials should be preserved and respected, but we should never forget the reactionary and dark side of many of the wars that they commemorate.

McGuinness and I were sometimes friendly and sometimes acrimonioius acquaintances when we were young in the 1950s. I remember, with a certain respect, that McGuinness was first arrested and charged when he refused to stand up for God Save the Queen at the pictures in Double Bay.

I much prefer that memory of the young McGuinness defying the patriotic cant of the 1950s to the Janissary McGuinness of the 1990s.