Horace and how we got to war

Horace, at least for those who have a fleeting knowledge of his work, is famous for two lines – Carpe Diem and dulce et decorum est Pro patria mori.

Most people come across the second (It is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country) because of Wilfred Owen’s famous use of it in his poem Dulce et decorum est in the final stanza The Old Lie. Of course, well before that poem – perhaps the most famous of World War I – Owen had written The Ballad of Peace and War which expressed somewhat similar sentiments to Horace’s but war does tend to change one’s mind about things.

The blog was struck by the relevance of Horace in a week when it read Harry Eyres’ book Horace and Me and also took part in a workshop for the Australian War Powers Reform (AWPR) organisation. (The blog is a member.) AWPR grew out of the campaign for an inquiry into the Iraq War and how Australia got involved. In the UK they are still waiting, waiting, waiting Casablanca style for the Chilcot inquiry report into the war while in Australia we are waiting, waiting, waiting for a change to how the country goes to war.

The AWPR objectives are to: reform the war powers under which the government can commit troops to international conflict; and, get an independent inquiry into the decision to involve Australia in the 2003 illegal invasion of Iraq (that went well didn’t it?) and independent expert review of all current and future Australian Defence Force deployment to war with the reports being made public.

Australia is a bit of an anomaly when it comes to going to war. The US, UK, Denmark, Finland, Spain and Ireland (for instance) require a majority vote of their respective parliaments/Congress/Cortes before going to war. In Australia the Prime Minister makes the decision in a way similar to that of  Russian President Putin.

As the AWPR says: “In March 2003 the Howard Government launched Australia, as a member of the so-called ‘Coalition of the Willing’ into an illegal invasion of Iraq, the consequences of which were disastrous not only to the Iraqi people, but for the Middle East generally. It was able to do so because in Australia the power to make that most grave decision, the commitment of the men and women of the Australian Defence Force to armed conflict rests with the executive (Cabinet) – effectively the Prime Minister alone – rather than with Parliament.” Needless to say none of those involved have said sorry for the mess they created – John Howard being notorious for his difficulty with the word – and George Dubya still not sure how Dick Cheney made the decision for him.

“AWPR calls upon all members of the Federal Parliament to take responsibility for deciding any proposal to send Australian Defence Forces into war in a foreign country – the reasons, the strategy, the humanitarian impacts and how they will be managed, the legality, the end point and the financial costs.” There are some who are already trying to change the situation – the Greens and Andrew Wilkie for instance – and possibly some ALP members might be brave enough to start speaking out as well.

AWPR has also published a book How Does Australia Go to War? which includes essays by foreign affairs, defence and legal experts. It examines the history of Australia’s wars, compares it with other countries and explores new ways to ensure proposals for military action get tough questions and intense scrutiny. There is also a preface by former Prime Minister, the late Malcolm Fraser. The book can be obtained, in hard copy or online, from www.warpowersreform.org.au

Meanwhile the WWI centenary propaganda about war continues to get leavened by some more critical historical analysis. The latest State Library of Victoria Latrobe Journal Victoria and the Great War has a variety of articles demonstrating further (as Joan Beaumont did in her book Broken Nation) that Australian reactions to the war were more varied and complex than the official celebratory commemorative activities suggest. In a similar vein World war One: a history in 100 stories edited by Bruce Scates,  Rebecca Wheatley and Laura James tells the story through the lens of individuals and their experiences. The book features a chapter on waterside worker Alan Whittaker who was wounded at Gallipoli and then fatally shot by police at Port Melbourne during the 1928 Dock Strike. The annual Whittaker Commemoration is on again this year at Princes Pier on Sunday November 1 at 11 am. The organisers, including the blog, will use the event to call for the renaming of the Pier  which was named after the former Prince of Wales, later the Duke of Windsor, a notorious Nazi sympathiser and racist.

…. and incidentally Horace probably got a bad rap on the sweetness of dying comments, as Eyres says in his book, because the meaning of the whole stanza is more subtle and conveys instead the notion that “The universal condition of mankind, condemned to inevitable death, suddenly comes to seem just as important as dying for your country as a brave soldier.” Indeed so, says the blog who, never a very brave soldier, spent his time in the military trying to ensure that neither he nor his troops died before that other final inevitable condition hopefully some time in a distant future.