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Lest We Forget Our National Dysatisfunction

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“The most dysatisfunctional thing about Anzac Day is the dismissal of significant political differences”

Australia just celebrated Anzac Day. On the 25th April, 1915, the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps took part in an attempted landing of the Gallipoli peninsula in the Ottoman Empire, now Turkey. The naval assault became a protracted eight month campaign which ultimately failed. We might question why all our national heroes, from Anzacs to Ned Kelly to Burke and Wills, all gloriously fail—and often from some form of epic stupidity or narrowmindedness—but an unsuccessful war campaign is not the dysatisfunctional heart of Anzac Day.

Surely this was a bad idea at the time.

The dawn service is an opportunity to remember the fallen, those who died for their own loved ones, nationals, and future generations. We are invited to imagine core Australian values at work there on the beach: mateship, loyalty, hard work, egalitarianism, and I swear an asylum-seeking seahorse dies every time those values are invoked together, so now I feel even more terrible. As a cornerstone of national identity maintenance, Anzac Day is open to being potentially co-opted by jingoism and xenophobia, like snap-on plastic Australia flags for your VT Commodore. For others, it is an opportunity to reflect on what kind of country some of our great and great-great grandfathers were defending with their lives. All women had been allowed to vote since 1902, while Aborigines wouldn’t get the same right until 1962. The White Australia policy continued from federation in 1901 until 1973, so Anzac Day might mean something quite different for those marginalised in Australian society.

To be fair, this opportunity to reflect on social justice co-opts the Anzac commemoration no less than those who would reflect on all the ills attacking ‘normal’ Australian life. In a bad bureaucracy, they say the left hand doesn’t know what the right is doing, and vice versa. In political terms I would say neither the left nor right in Australia (and it would be a mistake to assume I mean the two major parties) have much understanding of how much they are engaged in the same reflective process each and every Anzac Day, but from totally different value bases. The difference between those core values is political. It is where the lines are drawn, and it is the front of Australia’s modern political agonism (which means we are arguing strenuously according to the codes of a civil democracy). So Anzac Day is of course hyperbolic national theatre—political theatre—though not exclusively so, when so many heartfelt interpretations of the occasion are reaffirmed each year by so many.

But I’m not sure how many get persuaded by this left-right political wrangling over big theatrical events like Anzac Day. These are two songbooks that generally don’t harmonise so well. Most ideologues are preaching to the converted. The phrase, “It’s just politics,” is used whenever a citizen, journalist or talking head loses patience with the issues under discussion, writing them off as pure strategic wrangling, implying very short-term gain, trivialising their importance. But politics is vital, as in ‘crucial’, but also biophysically vital: it plays directly into our health and well-being. The most dysatisfunctional thing about Anzac Day is the dismissal of significant political differences expressed through it, through the big footy clashes that take place as part of the theatre, through all the big cornerstones that beat us over the head with such an anaemic array of national identity values. Political parties curiously close ranks on these apparently stalwart national identity values, our mateship et al, and they do it because they’re scared a wrong word may cost them (and no-one cares about asylym-seeking seahorses). Anzac Day, while being intensely political, is supposed to be somehow above politics. The first Turkish president, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, linked soldiers from opposing sides in his 1934 address to returning soldiers, his former foes:

“Those heroes that shed their blood
And lost their lives.
You are now lying in the soil of a friendly country.
Therefore rest in peace.
There is no difference between the Johnnies
And the Mehmets to us where they lie side by side
Here in this country of ours.
You, the mothers,
Who sent their sons from far away countries
Wipe away your tears,
Your sons are now lying in our bosom
And are in peace
After having lost their lives on this land they have
Become our sons as well.”

There’s something quite beautiful here, but really? No difference? Then WTF, Mustafa? What mattered so much here? Was it all a big misunderstanding?? More fool the leaders who couldn’t sort it out at the time, and more fool the internationalist Johnnies cruising for a lark, as we are led to believe in the mythology.

In terms of our contemporary relation to Anzac Day, indeed, what matters here? Focusing on an international conflict from 97 years ago seems less important than focusing on the culture wars that are so rife in contemporary Australian society. Australian social progressives have more in common with Turkish progressives than they do with Australian social conservatives. “But there are no dead bodies in your metaphorical culture war!” I hear you cry. To that I point out the significant differences between traditional left and right approaches to public spending, who to give tax cuts and other concessions to, which business sectors to promote and dissuade, how much to spend on health, education, international aid, the military and police, public servants and research institutions. The tactics, technologies and affective experiences are certainly qualitatively different from war. But no dead bodies? Of course there are.


Beyond Belief, Easter edition

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‘all religions seem to carry the same message: “Stop being an arsehole.”’

You might think taking on Christianity at Easter would be like stabbing chickens in a barrel here at, and you would be right. What could be more on-message than a powerful institution that seeks to right what is most dissatisfied and dysfunctional in the mortal world, yet so often winds up perpetuating both? Great rolling wars, the hoarding of riches, political machinations, colonial adventuring, and more recently the denial of justice and equal rights to women, indigenous groups, homosexuals, and children abused by church representatives—its tragedy is almost matched by its irony. But it’s also just too easy, so we’ll be turning our blows aside at the last moment, seeking instead the flat-bladed mark of a more sympathetic ragging. We’ll even seek out religion’s most worthwhile parts, because while so many billions of people throughout history can be completely wrong, we’re nothing if not utter fashion victims.

I was a pious young Anglican at about twelve. Far more devout about my upcoming confirmation than most of the boys joining me, who were more or less forced into it by their parents (authoritarian weakness #1). My religious education teacher addressed us by surname only, an anachronism in the 1990s (authoritarian weakness #2). Mr Murray assured me that the family of my best friend, who regularly took in bedraggled borders from wherever, were nonetheless going to hell (authoritarian weakness #3).

Mr Murray had the brass balls to actually say: “I’m not saying I’m perfect, but I don’t drink, smoke, or swear.” We had all heard the punchline before: “Oh fuck I’ve left my smokes at the pub”, but good Mr Murray was all earnest denial. The punchline came during one of my frequent Friday detentions. I busted him through a crack in the door, sucking on a beer and a cigar. To be fair, I never heard him swear. It wasn’t our last disagreement.

I had another argument, this one much more recently, with a staunch old atheist. We agreed on everything, except my point that it was difficult to reconcile all the drawbacks of organised religion and religious belief, with the role they have played in framing moral order. So many good people, or just normal people trying to be good. So wayward, so naive and just plain wrong, but so often with the highest of intentions. The church justified colonial endeavours, true; but at the same time their missions were the only humane force restraining even further brutality. And not for nothing, the Pope did prevent a war between Argentina and Chile in the late 1970s. Atheist old man river was incensed, especially when I said his extremist position kept him from seeing how much we agreed on.

In many ways, around the world and throughout history, all religions seem to carry the same message: “Stop being an arsehole.” This is a difficult role to account for in its fullness, as our primitive animal brains urge us down the side of justification for the church and its good, or equally down the other side to utter condemnation. Then we mistake it for rationality. Much harder, morally and intellectually, to stay on the ridge that sees all around. This was why Jesus hung out with hookers.

Western atheists often make the mistake of denying their debt to Christianity. Secular society emerged in no small part from the European inter-faith wars, between all the different versions of Christianity that arose. Soon freedom of religion meant also freedom from religion. Liberty came in no small part from the Treaty of Westphalia. Is it possible that the values of Christianity somehow created a space in which to reject it? How very turn-the-other-cheek. My twilight-years sparring partner threw the big Enlightenment figures at me: Hume, Kant, Darwin. But their Christian credentials ranged from devout to ambiguous. Most of these big guns were desperate to rationalise God with an increasingly empirical order, rather than lead some secular revolution. My anti-faith interlocutor was filling history, retrospectively, with modern secular ideas. The denial of God is historically specific, relatively new, but hard atheism seems just as antiquated to me as being addressed by my surname in a boys’ school.

This Easter, in Australia at least, the question of religious relevance is again, er, relevant. Australia is one of the most secular Western nations, in which it is common to harbour suspicions for religious zeal. The ABC’s QandA program recently pit unlikeable but respected professional atheist Richard Dawkins against Catholic Cardinal George Pell, to often incendiary effect. They spent far too long debating the nature of existence, only coming to social issues late in the game. Dawkins mishandled the matter of Darwin’s faith, as well as the yawning chasm between his theory of evolution and subsequent social Darwinism. Pell was well prepared, to his credit, though he couldn’t avoid looking foolish when talking about the Jews, when dicing around such issues as atheists going to heaven/hell, the difficult evidence of evolution up to homo sapiens sapiens, and literal interpretations of both Genesis and of communion. Pell had to go into PR mode on these issues, playing language games that risked inflaming true believers, presumably for the sake of those future souls who might be saved. But armed with arguments the Catholic church has been loathe to update, he simply couldn’t have performed better.

In the next day’s papers, most gave the ‘win’ to Dawkins. Only the shrill and irrational conservative Greg Sheridan at The Australian thought Pell came out ahead. But what neither advocate was unable to resolve was 1) how much faith most Australians put into reason- or evidence-based accounts of the world, including evolution, and 2) how much most folks still want to believe in a benevolent authority with some kind of design especially for them. It’s easy to fall one way or the other, in an effort to stay consistent, but it’s hard to explain how so many people keep a foot in each argument.

Once I was swerving through Perth traffic with a fine lady, and we spied out several triple-1s on licence plates, which had a grand significance for her. Each triple-1 is apparently a chance to express some “intentionality” to somehow magnetise the good shit to you (aka: make a wish). Like too many friends to count, she will snort breakfeast through her nostrils at the mention of God, and yet believes irredeemably in a benevolent universe. Isn’t it lonely, these religious hippies ask, to get on with no faith that something out there loves me? Yes, I say, it’s lonely. Social connections mean more. They ask: how can you live in a randomised world without meaning? Well, I say, chance simply makes everything that happens that much more significant, compared to what could have happened just as easily. Unlike preordained destinies, I’m never waiting for the other foot to drop.

In Marc Cohn’s signature tune “Walking in Memphis”, I always hang out for the affective narrative peak of that song: “She said, / Tell me, are you a Christian, child? I said, / Ma’am, I am tonight!”. As Cardinal Pell articulated quite well, religion exists to provide existential peace of mind, a response to a yearning that takes hold for many of us more or less often. Dare I say, that’s the precise space was set up to address. If we can suspend the question of how true those sandal stories are, or how relevant they are to social values thousands of years on, there is surely still merit in religion’s function. Some social studies have claimed along these lines, that faith leads to a level of robust stability during adversity and happiness more generally. The jury might be out for a long lunch on this one, but anecdotally at least, I’m listening. I’ve seen people firm in their beliefs live more sure-footed, though they can create chaos around them by virtue of what falls beyond their narrow perspective. If they were more dysatisfunctional, they would be better people.

Pell claimed science cannot provide a comparative existential guarantee, and Dawkins agreed with him, branding the existential question of purpose silly. Well played, Dawkins, though you are also not dysatisfunctional enough. People are silly. We ask silly questions, want, demand and do silly things every day. Besides, many people find scientific explanations and questions about the universe humbling, awe-inspiring and deeply compelling in ways that are comparable to religious belief: the concept of in/finitude, the nature of matter, the vexingly simultaneous simplicity and yet comlexity of observable laws. Those who actually seek to understand dark matter, string theory and quantum mechanics are no doubt rewarded with some kind of existential kick, contrasted with myself, who can’t understand how the toaster works. Let’s admit it now—for those of us to whom the causative workings of switches, buttons and pills remain a mystery, our belief in science isn’t much more than magical. If I press this button at the right time, hey presto!—Lily Serna will appear on my television screen. And thank God for her.

Since began, I’ve become a much more consistent fan of Alain de Botton, who uses philosophy and the history of ideas to help improve people’s lives. (He still might not belong in the philosophy section of the bookstore, however…) Last week he appeared on the ABC discussing ideas about religion he expressed also in a TED talk entitled “Atheism 2.0”. Amongst other ideas, he focuses on the helpful functions of religion in human lives, offering a much more sympathetic view of Christianity than most atheists afford. When it comes to mastering our dysatisfunctional natures, I’m with him. Stay atop the ridge! I say. Don’t vault down one side or the other, merely to claim consistency. Merely to say you believe in something. It’s not worth it.

Apologising to Japan: a proto-dysatisfunctional retrospective

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‘Whether I like it or not, I am part of the rationale against you, that led to the US atomic bombings’

While new posts will now be every hump day fortnight, this is my proto-dysatisfunctional attempt to repair my relationship with Australian history and with erstwhile enemy of the state Japan. This endeavor was posted on The Drum Online last August.

My letter was met with 113 comments in 5 hours. Of that, 85% was nationalist trolling. About 10% of that trolling honestly attempted to raise legitimate objections to my material, but couldn’t help spinning off-topic into invective about dying Aussies, which was nothing to do with the US decision to drop two nuclear bombs. The remaining 15% expressed relief that the dominant historical narrative was being questioned, and at least one of these was a WWII vet. Meanwhile, 0% of the criticisms refuted a single point made with any evidence or informed anlaysis, which is not surprising since most of my research was sourced from US historical and governmental institutions. Some tried deriding my inner-urban latté elite pretensions, perhaps unaware that I readily self-identify:

dysatisfunctional latte elites

After 5 heady hours, comments were closed by the editor, and the reply I submitted twice was ignored. Why did apologising for needless atomic experiments on a population somehow mean I was against Australia defending itself from the Japanese military threat? I wondered. I had some great email exchanges with folks who tracked me down through my university, who started off angry and went off feeling heard, and perhaps realising the topic was less mutually exclusive than they initially assumed. If there is one reason above all others why this online reconciliatory exercise from August last year fits with the aims here at, it’s the attempt to acknowledge and navigate life’s inherent contradictions and absurdities.

You can see from this dysatisfunctional commemoration, back through last week’s dysatisfunctional babies, the week before’s dysatisfunctional activism, and the week before that’s dysatisfunctional starting over, that we each have many and diverse relational elements to our worlds. They all need sustenance. They all need to be shared and honoured. I hope you are doing that where it needs doing this week.


Originally posted at The Drum Online

Dear Japan,

Today marks 66 years since your city, Hiroshima, faced the world’s first ever nuclear attack, and I thought I would write to apologise.

Public commemorations take place every year in Australia’s major cities, in parks and outside major churches. They are organised by a cavalcade of anti-nuclear, peace movement, human rights, socialist and environmental conservation groups, with speakers from major and minor political parties. But these efforts aren’t apologies as such, and with all due respect to committed organisers, they’re nothing personal. Not from me.

So first and foremost, Japan, no apology is worth the screen it is written on unless you can be sure I understand what I am apologising for. As you know, at approximately 8.15am on 6 August, 1945, the United States dropped a gun-type atomic bomb called Little Boy on Hiroshima. Between 70,000-80,000 people, or approximately 30 per cent of Hiroshima’s population, were killed instantly by what the subsequent US Bombing Survey termed “inefficient” nuclear fission, which nevertheless cleared 12 square kilometers of the city and 69 per cent of its buildings.[1] I am sorry that Little Boy was not even less efficient; in fact I wish it had failed altogether. Another 70,000 of your people were injured, with 90 per cent of doctors and 93 per cent of nurses among the casualties, significantly disabling treatment for the injured and substantially raising the final death toll.[2]

Three days later, at 11:01am on August 9, while your government officials were still scrambling to ascertain the extent of damage done and the nature of this new threat, the US dropped a second, implosion-type atomic bomb called Fat Man on the city of Nagasaki. An estimated 40,000 people died in the initial blast, with 60,000 more injured.[3] By January 1946, approximate acute deaths range from 90,000 to 166,000 for Hiroshima, and from 60,000 to 80,000 for Nagasaki, whose inhabitants were somewhat protected from the blast by an undulating geography.[4] I’m sorry we don’t spend enough time here in Australia on such details, even on our anniversary together. Like the official photos of the blasts from afar, and the banning of any photo-documentation at ground zero, let alone of victims – even after so long – you can understand most of us just don’t want to get too close to the event. It makes us terribly uncomfortable.

I’m sorry that while both cities were undeniably military targets, they were also major civilian centres. Had I been alive at the time, no doubt my personality, politics and skill-set would have all conspired to ensure I had nothing to do with the design, development, and attack strategy. Nevertheless, the atomic bombings were done for me, for my alleged freedom, so I apologise sincerely for constituting part of the rationale against you. While I had nothing to do with US president Truman’s initial public statements about seeking to avoid civilian casualties, I do apologise for my country’s lack of widespread outrage when so many scientific and political leaders’ statements were revealed to be untrue over the ensuing decades.

Truman’s statements are particularly galling, mind you, given that all potential targets were selected for their strategic significance and urban civilian density, as well as to maximise blast potential and incendiary damage. By ruling out the other 66 cities that had already been significantly firebombed, by considering the surrounding geography – particularly of mountains to focus the blast – and by having both bombs explode in mid-air, the Targeting Committee could achieve what they called “the greatest psychological effect against Japan”, and generate an event “sufficiently spectacular” for the global community.[5]

I am sorry that despite much conjecture over the years, international courts of justice will never convene to prove either the strategic necessity or cruel opportunism of either bombing. That’s just not fair, to be denied closure either way, especially when your own leaders were tried and either imprisoned or executed for their part in hostilities. No wonder your people remain in a thoroughly ambivalent state regarding wartime accountability for atrocities in the Asian war theatres, including an unresolved and vexing sense of victimisation at the hands of Western powers, that goes back to being shot at by Commodore Perry’s cannons in 1853.

While the jury is undeniably out, I’m sorry that two days before Little Boy was dropped on Hiroshima, Truman learned that the Twentieth Air Force had mined all your major harbours, thus finalising a comprehensive blockade that would literally as well as figuratively starve you, with or without a mainland offensive.[6] Truman himself advised one of his senators two days before Nagasaki’s bombing, that the Japanese would “very shortly fold up” with the Russians entering the war.[7] It is apparent from Allied leadership correspondence that your defeat had been a question of details for most of 1945, and there is a good case to be made for the late Soviet entry into the war as the decisive factor in you accepting unconditional surrender at last.[8] So I guess I’m sorry that most Australians believe that the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki succeeded in ending the war and forestalling a grueling home invasion of your lands, when the case against this rationale is so easily available from decades of declassified US state sources.

I’m really sorry that your government had only just dispatched a delegation to Hiroshima to investigate the extent of its destruction when Nagasaki was bombed. By not waiting for the coercive military and political effects of Hiroshima’s devastation to ripen, the US decision to test its more advanced, implosion-type atomic device seems far in excess of meeting short to medium term strategic objectives toward ending the Japanese conflict, and more relevant to meeting America’s longer term strategic global objectives. On the 60th Hiroshima bombing anniversary in 2005, I read in the West Australian broadsheet about Truman’s ‘courageous’ and ‘morally-astute’ qualities, and this was echoed throughout the country’s media. I wondered at the time why his moral fibre needed to be pronounced so overtly. This body of easily available documented historical evidence demeans the entire human race at your people’s expense, and I apologise.

To be fair, civilian area bombing was one of the great tragedies of both European and Asian war theatres, developing in an ad hoc way as both sides sought to cripple the enemy’s morale and domestic ‘total war’ machine. The Allies bombed Dresden and Hamburg. Germany bombed Rotterdam, ‘blitzed’ London and other British towns. Japan bombed Shanghai, Nanjing, Hankou and Chungking among others. The USA bombed 66 Japanese cities in total, but arguably did more damage to Tokyo in six hours in March 1945 than either atomic attack, with a moderate consensus around 100,000 killed. Little Boy and Fat Man didn’t drop into a vacuum; America just did it better than anyone else. Everyone ignored, in the end, the outlawing of such actions in the Hague convention of 1923, and no country was in a moral position to point the finger too hard.

And it’s equally important to point out that no-one understood you, and no-one knew where you would stop your colonial adventure, which unfortunately took place about a generation too late. Especially here in Australia, reports of your submarines in Sydney Harbour were apparently terrifying. I am sorry that while parts of our community here in Australia commemorate the Japanese dead on August 6 every year, most of the country does not, and that we commemorate our own war dead even more. I’m sorry that when we spare a thought for those at Nanjing, Pearl Harbour, Darwin or throughout Asia during the war, many of us won’t admit to thinking you deserved the bomb just a little bit, even as we affirm how much we detest it and regret the whole sorry mess. I’m sorry that by the time we’ve considered all the war dead, the way we want to live today and rather ephemeral ideas about what our nation stands for, our commemoration for your dead ends up being more of a celebration on this side of the Pacific Ocean, that we lived and that we beat you. And of course, that we weren’t the ones atomic bombed. I sincerely apologise for anyone who tries to justify bombing you on ethical grounds. While such betrayals of the mind are understandable, they are not justified. Perceived safety is surely not an ethical matter.

Finally, perhaps you wonder why I am apologising. After all, I didn’t have anything to do with the design of the bomb, or with the decision or strategy to attack you with it. I didn’t vote for Truman, Churchill, or even Chifley. And anyway, you did keep my grandfather imprisoned at various POW camps, including the infamous Changi Prison in Singapore. If you didn’t ruin his life exactly, you certainly transformed it. Who knows if that’s why he drank so much, and who knows how that affected my mum and how she raised me. On my own drunken walk home through the streets of Tokyo’s western suburbs, my friend Mitsu and I realised both our grandfathers fought each other; not directly (my grandfather was a medic, for starters) but against each other nonetheless. And they were, in a very real way, fighting for Mitsu and I, who would not be born for decades. We inherit from the past our own conditions of living. We inherit the burdens, responsibilities and sacrifices, as well as the opportunities. Whether I like it or not, I am part of the rationale against you, that led to the US atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. All this I owe to you, Japan, when I apologise. It seems like most people are content to regard history as a series of brutalities that allowed us to learn and know better in the future, and here we are, supposedly enlightened. Attacking you with atomic bombs, even if it was to protect our way of life, wasn’t a distant historic brutality at the time it happened. The past is not safely removed, and we in the present are not safe from the leaders we don’t want, or the interests we forget we hold. When it comes to perceived safety, I’m really sorry but it’s nothing personal.


Luke Stickels

Luke Stickels is a writer and doctoral candidate at the University of Melbourne, studying Japanese history and political theory.

  1. Harry S. Truman Library and Museum, “U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey”, 19/6/1946, retrieved 15/12/9.
  2. ibid.
  3. US Department of Energy, “Nuclear Age Timeline”, retrieved 4/8/11.
  4. Rezelman, David, Gosling, F. G., Fehner, Terrence R., “The Atomic Bombing of Nagasaki”, The Manhattan Project: An Interactive History retrieved 16/12/9.
  5. “Minutes of the second meeting of the Target Committee, Los Alamos, May 10-11, 1945”, retrieved 15/12/9.
  6. Nishi, Toshio, Unconditional Democracy: Education and Politics in Occupied Japan, Stanford: Hoover Institution Press, 1982, p.30-1.
  7. quoted in ibid, p.31.
  8. ibid, pp.23-32.

Originally posted at The Drum Online