Geraldine Doogue is civilian patron of the Australian Peacekeeping Memorial Project. She presents ABC RN's 'Saturday Extra' and ABC1's 'Compass' programs.
Why do some national stories capture our attention and move to the realm of myth and others don't?
Peacekeeping has somehow never quite found a place within the ANZAC warrior tradition, as the Australian War Memorial Council demonstrated recently by unanimously rejecting a petition which called for the names of 48 Australians who have died on peacekeeping duties to be added to the Memorial's honour roll, which commemorates the nation's war dead.
Australia has now been keeping the peace for 65 years. It is a proud history in which serving Australians have shown extraordinary commitment in settings where our direct national interest has not always, strictly speaking, been at stake. And it clearly played a considerable role in securing Australia a seat at the UN Security Council.
Australian peacekeepers work either under the auspices of the UN or in coalition arrangements on operations that often see military, police and civilians working side by side. They help rebuild nations, often community by community, building bridges between warring factions. Their lives are on the line in less obvious ways than in full conflict. This work does not lend itself to dramatic manoeuvres of the sort that create legends. By its very nature, peacekeeping is a slow, step-by-step process where victories are often small.
The nature of peacekeeping began to shift in the early 1990s. The end of Cold War meant more resources and greater will to intervene in conflicts around the world.
Before this, peacekeeping was largely about protecting the buffer zone between two warring nations; being a politically neutral force to ensure that the rules of ceasefire were kept. Post Cold War, peacekeeping morphed into 'peacebuilding', introducing a whole new body of work: building stable economic and political frameworks for stability in states rent asunder by chronic hostilities. It now assumes a military and civil approach, more flexible and enforceable than before, with almost an engineering mentality brought to bear.
Retired General Mike Smith is the Director of the Security Sector Advisory & Coordination Division in the UN Support Mission in Libya and a proud promoter of peacekeeping as an ethos of advanced skills and Australian cleverness. He says there are many reasons for maintaining an Australian presence in peacekeeping activities around the world.
'We do it to do good in the world', he says. 'And there are strategic reasons, to maintain stability in our region, or areas of importance to Australia. We do it to take nations out of conflict and keep them out of conflict. We do it to rebuild and move forward, because if we don't, nations stay poor, unstable, and ungovernable.'
Yet little of this has found its way into the national psyche, partly because peacekeeping hasn't yielded big characters, aside maybe from General Peter Cosgrove. It sports no Simpson and his Donkey, no Weary Dunlop, no Vivien Bulwinkle. What lies behind the lack of national acclamation? More on that in the second post in this series.
Photo by Flickr user Corpus Rex.