Whatever happened to the arts of peace?

‘Looking back, I was right’ said Simon Townsend, who was a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War, in 2006. ‘All of us who objected to the war, we were right.’

Even as Australia routinely mourns the senselessness of warfare, peace activists like Simon Townsend remain obscure in our national narrative. Vietnam is widely seen as a mistake, and conscription a disaster – yet anti-Vietnam campaigns are still mostly associated with hippie indulgence. Certainly, there was silliness in the anti-war movements. But weren’t those peace protestors also right? And didn’t they help to save our country from ourselves? What about the thousands that campaigned against conscription during the First World War, the Timor Leste solidarity movement, the interwar disarmament groups?

In the mass media and cultural institutions, we have just marked the 100-year anniversary of Armistice by continuing to fixate on warfare – at the expense of our remarkable history in peace. As many have observed, our history is seriously skewed towards war, and the First World War in particular. That the nation was forged at Gallipoli has become a point of bipartisan consensus. Australian governments have likely spent more than twice the amount on commemorations for the First World War than all other involved nations put together, with the Coalition recently announcing a cool half-billion funding boost for the Australian War Memorial. One wonders how far we’ve really come since Vietnam and ‘the assumption common to many,’ as the Canberra Times lamented over the Townsend case, ‘that courage is found only on the battlefields.’

The limitations and dangers of too much ‘Anzackery’ have been discussed at length. As Ben Brooker has argued, one of the costs of so much war talk is that our other national narratives get pushed to the side.

How can we empower other stories? The progressive tendency has been towards direct anti-Anzac resistance. Every year a leftie on Twitter sparks a social-media holy war, which has now become part of the festival.

Among professional historians, there has been a wealth of admirable work aimed at contextualising, diversifying, or deconstructing the Anzac legend. But one wonders if this critical attention does not just serve to reinforce the military fixation. As Peter Stanley wrote in a reflective blog post for Honest History:

My feeling is that, as a group, Australian military historians – and I include myself in this critique – have become unthinkingly complicit in a trend which (I think) exaggerates the traces of war in Australia’s history. We have been lazy in accepting the easy arguments that the traces of war in our society – which in themselves remain highly problematic – give war a special place in our historiography. Does it? Should it?

Thus, the irresistible pull of Australia’s warring past: even the resistance struggles to move beyond its terms. So here’s an alternative narrative: what if, instead of shouting back at Anzac, we publicly and shamelessly insist on our traditions of peace? It’s been a hundred years since Armistice, a century of interrupted peace-work. Can we find ourselves in that?


The impression of peace as something naïve, indulgent, even dangerous to aspire to is rebuffed by the actual material of peace history – beginning with the aftermath of Armistice. The leader in the Manchester Guardian on November 12 looked forward to the future:

If, as a people, we can be wise and tolerant and just in peace as we have been resolute in war, we shall build [the war dead] the memorial that they have earned in the form of a world set free from military force, national tyrannies and class oppression, for the pursuit of a wider justice in the spirit of a deeper and more human religion.

At this time, Australia saw a real flourishing of peace groups and peace thinking, from the Pacifist church to international socialism, from League of Nations societies to private reading clubs.

As elsewhere in the world, women played a vital role in the peace movements during the war and afterwards. The Women’s Peace Army (WPA), founded in 1915, operated under the slogan We war against war. One prominent member was the the Quaker pacifist and labour activist Margaret Thorp. Thorp’s thoughtful opposition to conscription and the First World War united socialist, religious and feminist elements within the WPA (these would see more friction later on). She argued that militarism was a threat to democracy, and that it had been ‘the curse of women from the first dawn of social life’. After the war, Thorp traveled to Europe to assist the relief effort; she later campaigned against the Vietnam War and organised the adoption of Vietnamese orphans. The Women’s Peace Army and similar groups staged vital conversations about the relationship between war, gender, and the market. The debates from this time are a valuable record of pacifist beliefs working themselves out under the pressure of world events.


There is a sense of inevitability about the Second World War, aka ‘the good war’, that betrays the complexity of the times – and which dangerously skews our sense of heroics.

Take 1938. Mid-year, Robert Menzies toured through Europe, including a stay in Nazi Germany. Menzies noted a ‘queer atmosphere’ in the country but spoke glowingly about roads and infrastructure and observed that ‘[t]he abandonment by the Germans of individual liberty and of the easy and pleasant things of life has something rather magnificent about it.’ In a letter to his sister, he wrote: ‘They have erected the state, with Hitler as its head, into a sort of religion which produces spiritual exaltation that one cannot but admire.’ Like many others, Menzies would favour appeasement even after the invasion of Poland.

In November, the steamship Dalfram docked at Port Kembla: it was chartered to bring pig iron (scrap metal) to Japan to feed the Imperial war machine. Japanese aggression in the Pacific had been evident throughout the 1930s, most notably with the 1937 atrocities in Nanjing. In solidarity with the local Chinese population – and out of concern that Australia too may become a target – 180 wharfies, led by the union leader Ted Roach, staged a walk-out and refused to load the materials. The Australian government responded immediately with immense pressure to resume the free movement of goods, culminating in a major stand-off with the unions. Attorney General Robert Menzies arrived in Wollongong to a howling reception, determined to end the strike. Eventually, in order to alleviate punitive action against workers elsewhere, the wharfies finally loaded the materials under protest. All told, BHP exported an estimated 70,000 tons of scrap metal to Japan in 1939-40. It was not ‘the good war’ yet.


Peace-work is often discredited as being at odds with the nation’s defence. But is this really the case? Recently, for example, British intelligence documents have pointed to a connection between the War in Iraq and the threat of Islamic State and terrorism.

In Australia, we might look back to the stance that trade unions and civil society took during Indonesia’s war of independence in the 1940s. As Dutch ships prepared to leave Australian ports, bringing military personnel and arms to buoy the repression of the nationalist movement, the maritime trade unions declared a series of boycotts known as ‘black bans’. Progressive Australians supported the independence movement in a number of ways, and by 1948 the Chifley government was prepared to take up the cause at the United Nations. In 1949, Sukarno’s foreign minister thanked Australia for being the ‘midwife’ of Indonesian independence, looking forward to close bonds of friendship between two forward-thinking young neighbours. Now, of course, such bonds have been frayed. Which is the greater threat to our safety in this instance: left-wing sabotage, or security-mindedness?


The history of peace doesn’t need to exclude the people who fought in the First World War or any other war. One could argue that peace is what they fought for, what they loved. There’s also the long tradition of veterans engaging in activism; many spoke out against the Vietnam War, the Gulf War, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Tom Uren was driven to progressive action by his wartime experience. The pro-Timor Leste campaigner Paddy Kenneally was one of many Second World War servicemen who saw the solidarity formed during the war in the Pacific as a reason to support and respect Australia’s neighbours.

Still, restricting our admiration for those with first-hand war experience means excluding many women, the disabled and chronically ill, numerous minorities, and people who simply don’t believe in fighting. Is it fair to withhold courage and mateship from Save Our Sons, a women’s movement that protested conscription throughout the Vietnam War?  They withstood public harassment, tabloid bullying, and even the spying of ASIO, but they continued to distribute leaflets, coach objectors, and hold public demonstrations across the country. The leader, Noreen Hewett, was an experienced activist, but most members were middle-class women taking their first steps in political life. ‘To me it was very special,’ Hewett remembered, in old age, ‘very special how people had to defy all sorts of attitudes, backgrounds, everything that they’d been in their lives to be brave for this occasion’.

Historians like Mark Dapin have begun to challenge some of the common claims about the fallout from Vietnam: that returning soldiers were denied their parades, that activists targeted them for harassment. The example of Nadine Jensen with the red paint has become mythic, although it seems to have been an isolated event. Maybe this image appeals because it reinforces the idea that civil society failed to show soldiers the respect they deserved. It pits the activists against ‘our brave boys’, casting the peace movement as an ally to the horrors of war – as one more thing the men had to endure, as something shrill and ad-hominem, and wanton.

Is that really the story of civil society during the Vietnam years? Did public opinion spontaneously turn against the war (and conscription), or was it turned, in part, by deliberate action from Noreen Hewett, Simon Townsend, and others? Military history favours the visible acts of decision and impact: the general on the hill, the whites of their eyes. Peace history must often make do with the vaguer claims of gradually changing public sentiment.  But it is no less commanding for this. As historian Paul Ham has written, in the context of Vietnam: ‘Bit by bit, like a great ship turning at sea, Australia’s support for the war gradually shifted direction. Like hundreds of little tugboats, the political misjudgements, draft resisters, death notices and protestors nudged Australian and American minds on a new bearing.’

But still these stories – and the world of thought behind them – go largely neglected in Australia’s national narrative. Are we so afraid of being sentimental, of seeming corny? It’s not like the culture around Anzac isn’t sentimental. Something else is at play: our savvy realism is a cultural product. The ‘arts of war’ have the zeitgeist on their side.


‘For business leaders,’ states an article in the Huffington Post, ‘reading The Art of War is a rite of passage; quoting from it is de rigueur.’ Soldiers and Spartans are evoked at Harvard Business School, in boutique gyms, at corporate sports events. Sun Tzu, Homer, the ironist Machiavelli – the intellectual heritage of war punches well above its weight.

But what about peace? John Gittings’s superb book from 2012, The Glorious Art of Peace, is a rare study of the intellectual heritage of peace-making. A retired Guardian journalist, Gittings argues that there has been a ‘rich discourse’ about peace since ancient times, and that it has been often grounded in realism. This discourse includes the work of such thinkers as St. Augustine, who favoured a religious ‘just warism’; the humanist Erasmus; Immanuel Kant, with his programme for European peace; and the present-day university ‘peace studies’ field.

What Gittings gleans from these thinkers is a set of considered positions. There is the empirical argument that war, in a sober cost-benefit analysis, rarely proves worth the price: that war-leaders tend to be acting in emotion, self-delusion, or short-termism. The need for compromise and external mediation is acknowledged. It is also held that peace and war are not the exclusive domain of the gods, but exist within the realm of argument and action. Finally, the longer-term prospects of peace necessitate the well-being of a whole society, and an international harmonisation.

Peace theorists also distinguish between ‘negative peace’, the absence of war, and a more positive idea of peace as something to built, to be defended and perfected. As Robert Maynard Hutchins, the American educationalist, wrote:

The goal towards which all history tends is … peace pure and simple, based on that will to peace which has animated the overwhelming majority of mankind through countless ages. This will to peace does not arise out of a cowardly desire to preserve one’s life and property, but out of a conviction that the fullest development of the highest powers of men can be achieved only in a world of peace.


This kind of talk is not popular. The ‘p-word’ itself can be taboo in serious circles – even academics in Peace & Conflict Studies sometimes strategically avoid it. The arts of peace are pushed aside by a ‘culture of war’ that sees war as always more interesting, more natural, and better for progress. ‘There is a tendency,’ notes Gittings, ‘among self-avowedly hard-headed “Realists” to show a strange dislike for the arguments of peace. ’

Why might that be the case? Historians have something to answer for, here. War makes for popular reading, particularly in Australia. Big History tends to focus on ‘big ideas’ outcompeting and outlasting each other, while ‘clash of civilisations’ writing has reinforced the phony inevitability of both the Cold War and the so-called ‘War on Terror’. As Arnold Toynbee wrote in 1954:

Wars are exhilarating when fought elsewhere and by other people. Perhaps they are most exhilarating of all when over and done with; and historians of all civilisations had traditionally regarded them as the most interesting topic in their field.


In late capitalist culture more broadly, competition and conflict are enshrined as our factory default by dint of a latent, shoddy Darwinism. The claim that war brings the greatest scientific and social innovation is baselessly repeated. (One might cheekily respond this state of affairs was really due to temporary state socialism.)

Sports, too, makes use of the language of war. As do politics. Modern political culture, based around the nation-state and national history, is better suited to world-at-war than international solidarity. There might also be something about Australia as an unreconstructed frontier nation, the frontier being a site of continual challenge and defence. Or is it the Protestant view of the soul being fallen, making peace doomed from the start by despicable us?

To an extent, our society is tickled by war, drawn by instinct to its promise of great moral clarity – we cannot wait to turn on the traitors, abandon the weak. To gain a sense of who we are by fighting enemies, not by bickering amongst ourselves. In this context, to speak of peace – admitting its idealism and its danger – is radical in itself.

The ‘culture of war’ depends on this: the assumption or insistence that war is immutable, that conflict is humanity’s natural condition. This is the real danger of the way we fixate on war in Australian history. It’s not enough to resist ‘Anzackery’ by saying war is dreadful, since the riposte is that it’s natural. Against the normalisation of fighting, we need to re-normalise Australian peace. Not just the resistance to war, but the allowances of peacetime: the moral standards that we hold ourselves to in safety, and that we jettison when faced with the urgencies of conflict.


And then there’s a darker thought: what if really, when we talk about Anzac, we’re getting exactly what we’re looking for? Not the energising quickness of precedent, but the dun sentimentality of long-ago suffering, something we’re powerless now to affect?

While ‘Anzackery’ doesn’t quite glorify war – it’s too gory for that, too insistent on the folly of leaders – it really does seem to normalise it. There is always a war raging somewhere. It is what it is. For Australia, it’s the worst of our middle-power status: we are guiltless for war but damned proud to have been.

The heart of Anzac is not heroics but suffering: we focus not on the defensive war in the Pacific but on a distant conflict waged, in the common view, almost by accident. With no living veterans, and no beloved war poets, we relive it through a familiar procession of neoclassical icons: the obelisk, the honour roll, the slouch hat and the poppies. Anzac occurs in the passive voice alone – the boys did not go but were sent; they were lied to, and errors were made. (But who did the lying, who made the errors? And who fought against all those errors and lies?) Like the vast military monuments all through the country – ‘Nothing is as invisible as a monument,’ so Robert Musil – the Great War is remembered at the scale of greatness, far off what any one person can change.

Jo Hawkins has observed that Anzac pop history books encourage readers to ‘identify with the victims of war rather than those who sent them to fight.’ The simultaneous glory and senselessness of ‘Anzackery’ converge on this point: a passive view of history, an overall relinquishing of the power to act.

Which is not to say that the Anzacs should be charged with the war. But someone was responsible for the war and for our part in it. And if it truly was a ghastly, pointless waste of life, then where are our statues for the anti-conscription activists? The culture of war, and ‘Anzackery’ in particular, is a mandate for inaction. If conflict is natural, peace-making’s indulgent – or worse.

In a magnificent piece for Meanjin, Sarah Gory reflected on the story of William Cooper, who walked across Melbourne to the German consulate in 1938 to hand-deliver a letter protesting Kristallnacht on behalf of the Australian Aborigines League. Gory powerfully described her difficulty in coming to accept that Cooper’s actions had no ulterior motive:

This, of course, is the reason we need to learn and to share stories like William Cooper’s. Stories that counter the colonial narratives we’ve been told our whole lives, narratives that teach us that acquisition and exclusion and individualism make us powerful … I realise something I’ve always known because it is in my DNA; it is empathy that gives us strength.

The anniversary of Armistice is as good a time as any to refocus our attentions towards the arts of peace and away from the technologies of war. Thucydides wrote that peace brings its own ‘honours and splendours and countless other advantages, which are free from danger and would take as many worse to enumerate as when we describe the evils of war.’ Both the institution of Anzac and its progressive rejoinder have much to say about the evils of war – but to the honours and splendours of glorious peace, we could dedicate a little more attention. The price, and the reward, might be that history depends on us.





Image: ‘Vote No Mum, they’ll take Dad next’ (1916). Australian Labor Party Anti-Conscription Campaign Committee, Australian War Memorial  [AWM RC00336]

Alexander Wells

Alexander Wells is a writer based in Sydney. His work has been published in Homer, Newtown Review of Books and the Harvard Advocate. He also volunteers at the Addison Road Community Centre, where he recently co-curated an exhibition on local peace movements over the last century.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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  1. Opposing and draft dodging the Vietnam war wasn’t a peace walk in the park by the way; advocating for peace involved taking a public stand and being endlessly harassed and vilified, or relying on underground networks to escape what became a personal tragedy, war as fate. I witnesed some conscriptees and non-conscriptees do the former, and never becoming public heroes to tell a more than worthwhile narrative.

  2. So true – peace work requires courage and sacrifice, too. That’s one of the reasons we created an Honour Roll for Peace at Addison Road Community Centre in Sydney. It’s a public, community-generated monument to people whose contributions to trying to make a better world and resist war so often get overlooked. You might like to dedicate a plaque to some of those you know of…

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