Australians pride themselves on being egalitarian and reward their fearless leaders for ordering their men and women into the field of battle to fight to maintain their values; democracy, classless society, unrestricted movement, uncensored speech and equality.
What many Australians fail to comprehend is the roller coaster ride and anxiety experienced by many Indigenous soldiers when they join the military services: The adrenalin charged highs of training and fighting for their country and the depths of despair from the humiliation of racism that comes from the broader community post military service.
My father’s brother Alf enlisted from Bourke in northwest New South Wales to fight for his country between September 1942 and January 1946 and did so with distinction as a Private. This act of gallantry was made even more remarkable considering the total desecration, a generation earlier, of his father’s Kullilli tribe in far southwest Queensland by invading pastoralist sanctioned by the government of the day.
My mothers first cousin Dave Wharton join the AIF in 1941 and on his return from active service felt the full venom of racism from white leaders in his home town of Cunnamulla. When Dave’s best mate Billy Rickets, a non-Indigenous Digger, died in an horrific fire at a local hotel he immediately sought endorsement from the RSL to be a pallbearer at his funeral. Given their close friendship and the fact that they fought side by side in the trenches against the enemy Dave was confident he would be given the nod of approval. Dave was distraught when the RSL stubbornly declined his plea for compassion.
On November 11, 2004 (Remembrance Day) I read with utter disdain in The Courier-Mail a front page headline, “Army racism shame”, about the story of a young Aboriginal soldier Damien Palmer, 19, who could no longer endure persistent racist abuse from fellow soldiers at the Townsville Lavarack Barracks. He made the ultimate statement of despair and chose the inglorious path of suicide. What went through the mind of that handsome young man in his last moments at that infamous military base?
Damien’s mother, Madonna Palmer, in The Australian on November 19, 2004, said her son “went from living with us and four months in the army he was dead”. Mrs Palmer added that her son would be alive today if “he didn’t go in there”. She concluded her comments by saying, “As a recruit you’re told never to do anything to disgrace your uniform but their behaviour is just appalling”.
I also read with dismay that another “dark-skinned” soldier had his armour removed from his flak jacket leaving his torso vulnerable to gunfire while out on dangerous patrols. Other Indigenous soldiers had their bush hats and camping gear emblazoned with offensive slogans.
Many social commentators remarked that the front page photograph, which accompanied the story, of 22 white soldiers sporting pathetic KKK white bed sheet hoods over their heads while four black soldiers sat on the ground in the front row, wasn’t racist because most of the black soldiers were smiling.
I’d argue that they’d smile too if they were one of four Caucasians ordered to sit in front of twenty two angry Black Panther militants in a remote setting.
Neil James, Executive Director, Australian Defence Association, Canberra, made the following observations in the Daily Telegraph, November 13, 2004, in response to the question, “Should the soldiers at the centre of the Ku Klux Klan scandal be court-martialled?”
People getting worked up about the spoof KKK photo taken by a soldier need to take a deep breath. For over a century Australian “Diggers” have been justifiably famous for their sense of humour in adversity. Humour is a major constituent of military morale, often spontaneously employed, from the bottom up, in inverse proportion to the dangers and hardship involved.
The Daily Telegraph also canvassed my views on the matter and printed the following comments;
Shame on Prime Minister John Howard for condemning the white soldiers for their actions while watering down federal racial vilification laws that should address that despicable racist act. Shame on Defence Chief Peter Cosgrove on his rhetoric of abhorrence at that photograph while condoning the promotions of officers involved in the discharge of wanton racism on his watch.
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