Lest we forget: Anzacs and the aftermath of war

30 March 2020
While war commemorations often focus on the fallen, Professor Stephen Garton wants us to pay equal attention to veterans - an often overlooked, vulnerable population.
Two women wearing gas masks in Israel, World War II

Nell Duncanson and Isabel Plante Wearing Gas Masks, Israel, World War II, 1939-1943. Image via Museums Victoria.

Though some may think of Australian veterans as a small and increasingly elderly population, there are nearly 300,000 ex-Australian Defence Force service personnel in Australia today. Many of these people and their dependants have benefitted from our nation’s comprehensive repatriation system. Even today, there are more than 50 widows of First World War veterans supported by a war pension.

Professor Stephen Garton’s new, revised edition of his pathbreaking study of veterans and their families after their return from war, The Cost of War: War, Return and the Re-Shaping of Australian Culture, seeks to humanise these statistics.

In the lead up to Anzac Day 2020, made yet more sombre by the absence of public commemorations, Professor Garton provides an overview of the complex, sometimes conflicting cultural undertones of the Day: the need to commemorate the sacrifices made by service personnel, the desire to acknowledge their role in shaping our national identity, and the imperative to sustain our efforts to deal with the physical, psychological, and cultural wounds that war inflicts on veterans and their families.

While we rightly commemorate the sacrifices of Australians in war, we have ignored those who returned to Australia and their struggles to reintegrate into society

“While we rightly commemorate the sacrifices of Australians in war, we have ignored those who returned to Australia and their struggles to reintegrate into society,” said Professor Garton, Professor of History and Senior Deputy Vice-Chancellor of the University of Sydney.

The first edition of the book, published in 1996, focused on the First World, Second World, and Vietnam Wars. Since then, “much has changed, but much has also remained the same,” Professor Garton, an expert in Australian social and cultural history, including the veteran experience, said. In this second edition, published by Sydney University Press, he has added more material on the Korean War as well as commentary on more recent scholarship in the veteran studies field, like the impact of war on veterans’ families. “How wives and families actually coped with ill, emotionally distant, disgruntled and resentful men hasn’t received the attention it deserved,” he said.

“While many veterans returned to lead productive lives, Australians have been more reluctant to acknowledge that for other veterans, alienation; social discontent; chronic psychological problems; alcoholism; domestic violence; lack of interest in one’s family; a general feeling that civilian life was unsympathetic; a craving for the mateship of other veterans; and anger that governments were failing to recognise or reward their sacrifice were common sentiments.

“Many of the challenges outlined in the book remain pressing and relevant for veterans of Afghanistan and Iraq – and conflicts yet to come.”

Loren Smith

Assistant Media Adviser (Humanities)

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