In 1918, on 11 November at 11.00 am, the guns of the Western Front fell silent. The
first global war ended after millions had perished. On November 11, 2008 the Freedom
Socialist Party marked the 90th anniversary with an anti-war forum. This date, when
we remember those killed, is associated more with the war-worshipping Returned and
Services League (RSL) than with socialists. But as Alison Thorne, in chairing the forum,
argued: “We must not allow this commemoration to be owned by conservatives. Tonight
we remember the dead and discuss how to build a movement to end all imperialist wars.”
Anti-war veterans speak out: from left to right,
Peter Hannaford, Keith Kaulfuss, and Chip Henriss.
Photo by Peter Murray
Keith Kaulfuss served in the Royal Australian Signal Corps from 1961 to 1967. In
acknowledging the local Kulin Nation and noting the lack of a treaty, he said that
Australia is a country still at war with its Indigenous nations. Like most young people
who signed up in the ’60s, Keith joined because he couldn’t get an apprenticeship.
Coming from an immigrant background and a strict upbringing, he found that “joining
the army also opened up the experience of the wider world.”
Chip Henriss, from the anti-war veterans group, Stand Fast, served as an army major in
East Timor in the late ’90s. He then left the force and began organising with the Timor
Sea Justice Campaign to stop Australia’s plundering of the fledgling nation’s oil. Chip
described how he navigated through “a huge range of mixed messages” to become a
socialist. He found that “the military is a reflection of society. There is bastardisation,
there is homophobia, and if you are different, you get picked on. But there are leftwing
people in the army, too.” Said Chip, Stand Fast “is challenging the idea that an anti-war
activist is in one box and former military personnel are in another.”
Peter Hannaford joined the Royal Australian Navy in 1964 to escape an apprenticeship he
hated. He described his world view at the time as “extremely limited,” adding, “I had no
idea when I joined that [Prime Minister] Menzies had already committed some Australian
military to the Vietnam War.” Vietnam is where he was sent.
All panellists shared ideas about how to prevent war. Keith called for building a mass
anti-war movement to “keep the politicians honest and accountable” and to “challenge
the media glorification of imperialist war and force the blinkers off.” Chip advocated
using the media: “Our challenge as activists is to get our voice out of Rupert Murdoch’s
profit-driven mouth.” Peter stressed the importance of understanding the causes of war,
which he put down to “private ownership and empire building.” He described how war
has been used as “a tool for perpetuating the capitalist system and promoting economic
growth.” He called for a “mobilisation of workers, students and those serving in the
military” to run society, based on socialist feminist principles.
The gathering explored how the military uses nationalism to pit workers against each
another. In World War I, thousands were killed in a single day, sacrificed in profit’s
insatiable and bloodthirsty quest for new markets. Vladimir Lenin, leader of the Russian
Revolution, famously summed it up: “a bayonet is a tool with a worker at both ends.”
Tragically, most socialists backed their own bourgeois governments.
Lenin led a small group of anti-war Marxists, known as the Zimmerwald Left, in
exposing this betrayal and calling for an internationalist socialist struggle against the war.
Marxists, then and now, have consistently argued the need to turn an imperialist war into
a class war: “Fight the bosses here, not the bosses’ war.”
Forum participants discussed how the Russian working class did exactly this. The
revolution started on International Women’s Day, when striking women workers took to
the streets of Petrograd and successfully appealed to soldiers to join them.
Resistance in the military manifests in many ways — organising against poor food,
pay and equipment, standing up to bullying and discrimination or calling for rank-and-
file troops to elect their own commanders. In certain historical periods — such as the
Vietnam War — it has taken on an anti-capitalist character.
Heeding the stories of these war veterans and lessons from history, the Remembrance
Day forum came to the conclusion that anti-war activists and the ranks of the military are
not naturally on opposing sides. We are working people, striving for a world that is safe
and free for humanity, not for profit. By joining together, we can make it so.