Commemorating Indigenous War Veterans
For me, like many, war is personal. My father, as a naïve 19 year old kid, experienced the fears and traumas of war in the shadowed jungles of Bougainville.
But although he carried that war in his soul for his whole life, he recovered well, supported by his nation. He was welcomed home as a respected veteran. He was rewarded for his war by free University and subsidised home loans. His wife, my mother, received child endowment for each of us four children. He got work by right, lived and moved where he chose, mixed freely with his family and friends and colleagues. He sent his children to school, or even hospital, confident that we would not be taken. He could teach us, with confidence, to trust the police, because they were there to protect us. He was a free man; he became a beneficiary and a creator of this nation of ours. In short, he was a respected citizen of white Australia.
I stand before you as a beneficiary of those benefits, that freedom, that respect that my father was given as a war veteran. Jim lived a good life, and passed that good life on to me, and so on to my children. We were lucky. And our nation did us proud.
But, over the last 20 years, I have slowly come to see, also our nation’s failing; it’s betrayal of those who it would not accept as citizens. I have met many Aboriginal people whose parents fought in that same war; who fought to defend our nation, and yet whose lives have been so profoundly different to mine.
See, if Dad had been Aboriginal, as their Dads were, he would not have been an Australian Citizen. If he had been Aboriginal he would not have received that recognition as a veteran of war; would not have been allowed into the RSL clubs, or into the pubs to have a drink with his mates. He would not have been eligible for that free University; that subsidised housing loan. Mum wouldn’t have received that child endowment. Dad wouldn’t have even been allowed to marry Mum if she – or he – had been deemed too black by the government. Dad and his family would have had to be out of town by 6 o’clock. Half his wages would have been kept by the government. His older children could, like him, be excluded from school at the whims of white parents. He would not have been allowed to own property in most places, but been bound to live on the reserve or in the mission.
We, his children, could have disappeared at any moment, removed by the Police for no reason but our Aboriginality. For too many people I’ve known – that’s what happened. A father’s heart broken. Childhoods shattered. Lives bent into the shape of control and bitterness, rather than love.
Two men fight in a war. One is supported to give his children and grandchildren good lives. The other is controlled, excluded, and maybe broken to the point that his children, and grandchildren and great grandchildren still feel the effects today.
It was wrong. In this, our wonderful nation was wrong.
But how am I – how are we – to deal with this today? I can’t change what happened. None of us can. And I turn to so many Aboriginal veterans and families, and they don’t ask for guilt. They don’t ask for shame. They ask, remarkably, for nothing more than acknowledgment as equals, partnership in the work of healing, and justice under the law.
We are not personally guilty for what happened in the past, unless we turn away from it. We are not guilty for what happened in the past, but we are responsible for the future. Each of us can ask ourselves: what can I do to build a future of partnership and trust? How might I honour those who my nation and my forebears refused to honour at the time?
My answers? Well…
I can give thanks to the families of those Aboriginal men and women who served and fought and sometimes died for our nation and our lives of peace.
I can listen to, and learn about, their story and their experiences. Because I can only become part of the healing if I understand the nature of the wound.
I can acknowledge – genuinely, passionately, publicly – the pain and the unfairness of those experiences, and acknowledge the courage, and resilience, and generosity of so many, in surviving those experiences. Through that acknowledgement I can help the past rest. Because just as the remembering of the pain of past wars helps us build peace, so the remembering of past injustice helps us build trust.
And I can stand together, shoulder to shoulder with the descendants of these veterans and play my part in the healing and empowerment that will carry us all forward to a brighter, fairer future.
Gratitude; understanding; acknowledgement; commitment. My small offerings to these Veterans we honour today, and to their families. If all of us can make our own small offerings, I’m sure that we, together, can honour them in the greatest way of all: ensuring their descendants have the opportunity to lead rich, fulfilling, nourishing lives; filled with dignity, hope and love.
Speech, by Tim Muirhead. Delivered at ‘Commemorating Indigenous War Veterans’ Ceremony WA State War Memorial; Kings Park. Perth on Wednesday May 28th 2014.