Peter Underwood’s Anzac battles

Nine years ago today, in his fifth Anzac Day speech as governor of Tasmania and just months before he died in office, Peter Underwood urged Tasmanians to “seek out the truth” about the 1914-18 “Great War” and how we might avoid repeating it.

In that speech, Underwood quoted historian Joanna Bourke: “For politicians, military strategists and many historians, war may be about … territory or … national honour, but for the man on active service warfare is concerned with the killing of other people.”

We should remember and honour all our Anzac veterans, Underwood said, “for they went to where they had no wish to go, and did what they had no wish to do, because they believed that they had to do so in order to give us peace and freedom.” 

But remembrance and honour were not enough: “We must actively strive for peace on a daily basis and … properly honour and remember those who were killed or wounded while their country engaged them in the business of killing, by declaring 2014, this centennial year of the start of the War to end all Wars, the Year of Peace.”

His words aroused a storm of protest. The governor should resign, Andrew Bolt wrote from Melbourne. RSL state president Robert Dick said many veterans had called to say the speech was insensitive, disrespectful, political and inappropriate. He was called a “pompous pacifist”. Some felt he should be barred from attending the 2015 Anzac Centenary, an idea that got traction over following days.

If critics were shocked, they hadn’t been listening. Anzac Day, Underwood said in his first speech in 2010, marked “the most appalling and disastrous military and naval engagement in which so many of our soldiers and sailors died or were wounded and the survivors defeated”. 

“They may well have been heroic,” he said in 2011, but “but the business of war is never itself heroic… It is ugly. It is horrible. It is terrifying. It is lonely and it is painful. We mustn’t let all those fine words about the Anzac Spirit gloss over the horror of war.”

In 2012: “Formally honouring the dead and injured is not enough. Anzac Day is a day on which we should also ask those hard questions about the meaning of wars, their causes and outcomes in order to become resolute about peace… [or] about fighting when fighting is a … necessary and unavoidable act of self-protection.”

In 2013, Peter Underwood took apart the purple prose of an army officer of a later era who wrote of soldiers, as they died at Anzac Cove, passing on the “torch of freedom” to comrades following them. The writer would not have said this, said Underwood, had he himself been in that “deadly hail of … bullets and shells that saw so many young men ripped apart”.

Who could disagree with any of this? I missed out on Vietnam because my birth date was not drawn from the barrel in one of those bizarre 1960s conscription raffles, so I never had to dodge a real bullet. But I can relate to the governor’s words just as I can to those of the Tasmanian Vietnam veterans interviewed by Mercury writer Amber Wilson last week. 

Underwood would surely have agreed wholeheartedly with the point of Wilson’s article – that the war service of returning Vietnam soldiers did not get the recognition it deserved – and with veteran Byron Nicol’s plea that Tasmanians learn the history of the Vietnam war to appreciate “what they’ve got and what we’ve been through”.

This is complicated. In 2012 Underwood quoted musings of the English philosopher A.C. Grayling about “a few fat old men who stay at home in offices” sending “thousands of youths to be maimed and killed” – a sentiment that never rests comfortably with the young men who return from the battle. Fighting the politicians’ war makes it their war too.

Contrary to detractors’ accusations, Underwood was not a pacifist. In the public furore over his 2014 speech he made it known that he was not and had never been a Quaker. In 2012 he identified a “necessary and unavoidable act of self-protection” as reason to fight. It’s worth noting that only one of the many conflicts involving Australian contingents, World War II, directly threatened our territory.

Honouring and caring for our veterans – as we do, as we should – does not mean accepting without question the mindsets that sent them into battle. Peter Underwood was a wise and thoughtful man and a governor of consequence. He deserves our gratitude.

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