Do people really understand what the complex craft of peacekeeping means?
Do they know it’s not some sort of military-lite affair, but intelligent, imaginative work that often demands more nous than a straight war? And do we Australians grasp that we are pretty good at it?
The English novelist Thomas Hardy put it bluntly: “War makes rattling good history but peace is poor reading.”
These questions exercised me during a moving ceremony last week in Canberra. After a decade-long quest, a memorial to Australia’s 70 years of peacekeeping was finally unveiled on Anzac Avenue.
The man doing the honours, Governor-General Sir Peter Cosgrove, entered our imagination due to his peacekeeping work in East Timor, where he was head of the United Nations’ INTERFET (you can’t escape acronyms in this arena).
I was the civilian patron of a committee set up in 2006 under the stewardship of Major General Tim Ford (retired), who wore the blue beret proudly during peacekeeping work in the Middle East in the 1980s.
Our goal was to raise money for a memorial to accompany all the others acknowledging Australian forces’ service, to ensure that the Australian men and women who have devoted themselves to the task of peacekeeping over the decades were not taken for granted.
The memorial venture’s military patron was General John Sanderson, who restored hope to the stricken Cambodian people post Khmer Rouge. Former AFP commissioner Mick Keelty represented police who’d served, while I represented all the public servants, engineers, teachers, election monitors and others who contributed vitally.
When I accepted the invitation to be patron, I thought that a combination of government money, philanthropy, defence industry donations and personal giving would see the booty collected quick-smart.
But it took years longer than I’d imagined to raise the amount of money needed to design and construct the memorial.
Peacekeeping, we discovered, is not seen as sufficiently notable to raise the sort of emotions that open pockets.
Gradually, I realised that the military itself — collectively, rather the individuals who served — was not sure the whole project was necessary either.
I suspect many saw peacekeeping as second class, in comparison to orthodox military work. The warrior myth holds enormous sway over our deepest feelings and is reinforced by literature, film and television.
There have been documentaries about Rwanda, but I have only ever seen one TV feature — Answered by Fire, starring David Wenham — devoted to the dramas of Timor in 1999.
Yet peacekeeping is full of drama: it means convincing communities wracked by years of conflict to even dream of peace once more. There is often no formal script for action or hierarchy, as in a usual war. Soldiers, civilians and policemen frequently have to make decisions all by themselves.
“You come back changed,” said former peacekeeper Peter Mattey, who served in Rwanda, in the booklet accompanying the ceremony.
John Turner, a colleague of Mr Mattey, was haunted by what he had seen in Rwanda for years after coming home, but found people reacted by telling him to get over it, “it was only peacekeeping”.
Another former peacekeeper, Justin Quin, said that in Cambodia “every man and his dog had a bloody weapon … it was pretty common to see a lot of tracer flying through the sky at night”.
Vietnam veteran Gary Hunter remembered Uganda, where “tracer bullets every night were going over the roof of the building where we were stationed.
“We didn’t hear gunfire every night back at base at Nui Dat, [during the Vietnam war] not as much as Kampala … that’s how bad it was. It was very scary,” he said.
In the slog of raising the Anzac Avenue memorial, I developed such respect for those who remained relentlessly committed to lionising the complex cause of creating peace, and to their mates who’d contributed selflessly.
This humble civilian journalist learned a lot about sheer grit and not giving up.
The big anniversary, my committee colleagues insisted, was September 2017, 70 years after Australia sent its first four referendum monitors to Indonesia, which at the time was emerging from Dutch colonialism.
Donors finally agreed, and the last cogs were set in motion. The memorial was unveiled last week (though lights symbolising the liberty of peace weren’t quite ready).
Now, of course, it all seems so obvious. Eighty thousand Australians have taken part in 62 peacekeeping missions. We are the fourth-biggest donor to the UN peacekeeping funds. And the need is growing, not diminishing. This work matters.
Looking at the range of men and women last week in Canberra, proudly displaying their medals and blue berets, I found myself wishing that more of them were writers, or poets: people who had written about their courage, generosity and independent decision-making so that we might better understand what’s been carried out in our name.
I dream of seeing an Australian version of Homeland or the Israeli Netflix sleeper sensation Fauda, about behind-the-lines Mossad work.
There was barely a dry eye in the crowd last week when a young Rwandan-Australian man, who had been helped years ago by an Australian peacekeeper, led the parade dressed in the slouch hat of the Australian Army — the institution to which he’s now committed his life.
But we could know and revel in this noble work so much more.
It might not display the derring-do of the warrior myth, but peacekeeping represents the same epic commitment, and those 62 missions deserve a place among Australia’s finest hours.