Australia’s Original Sin – In Memory of James Noble.

2 Dec

Is what has been reported to have been done by Australian troops in Afghanistan an aberration or does it arise out of our national history?

Recently, in the Australian Lectionary, we remembered James Noble, Aboriginal Anglican Deacon.

“James Noble was baptised and confirmed in Scone in July 1895. The exact year of his birth is not known (?1876). Returning to North Queensland in 1896 he was active in missionary work there and later in North-West Australia. He was ordained Deacon in September 1925 in St Georges Cathedral in Perth. He died on 25 November 1941.

In 1926 James Noble was central to investigating rumours that the police had massacred Aboriginal people close to the Forrest River. He discovered evidence that people had been tied to trees and shot before their remains were dismembered and burnt. In 1927 Noble gave evidence before a Royal Commission of Inquiry which concluded that police had probably murdered eleven people but did not ascertain who should be held criminally responsible. Interestingly Lumbia, the Aboriginal who had killed a local pastoralist and was the reason the police were there, was tried and convicted.”

Over the last couple of weeks, we have been informed of possible war crimes committed by elite Australian troops in Afghanistan. There has been much dismay in the halls of Government, Defence and media at this accusation and the report vindicating the reporting which brought it to light.

The big question for all has been, how does this happen and how could Australians “behave” so badly? The immediate response has been to label it as a case of a few bad eggs in an otherwise good cohort of soldiers, the SAS. At no point have I heard the military hierarchy or those who send our troops on these missions put their hand up and take responsibility. On the contrary, they have been quick to state their dismay, horror and shock that it occurred and that somehow, they missed it because no one told them about it.

There are a number of myths that may explain why they respond this way:

  • The soldiers are well trained. Shortly after the Abu Gharib incident, I was part of a select group of Defence Force personnel invited to take part in a leadership seminar. The leader of the session was an esteemed lecturer from the ANU. In the course of his paper, he said that what happened in Abu Gharib could not happen with Australian troops because they were too well trained. I interjected and noted that my experience of being shot at and held at gunpoint for 5 hours suggested this was a myth. I went on to explain that under the right conditions we are all capable of behaving badly and we have no idea when that will happen or what it looks like. I said it was important we understand this so when others around us start to do so we are prepared for the possibility and can take the appropriate action.
  • Good people i.e. Australians, don’t do bad things. Often in discussion people will appeal to the fact that their great grandfather who stole land from local people was a good man. He raised a family, was loving and kind and went to church. He was a good man and could not be responsible for the bad things that happened. Only bad people do bad things and we set about demonising those who do in such a way as to avoid acknowledging any possibility that we or our family members are capable of or, in fact, do and have done bad things. This is a dangerous myth, and we use it when we talk romantically about Gallipoli, our troops exploits, our treatment of others from across the sea, our predecessors’ exploits of settlement and mission, and our treatment of those here first.
  • It’s the Individual’s Fault. When bad things happen, we blame the individuals involved not the system who created them. We recreate them as monsters to excuse us from any responsibility for what happened. It did not take long for all affected by this story to deflect responsibilities to the rotten eggs even those so-called rotten eggs have not been brought to trial. This is a failure to see that we, those who recruit, train and send to war young people, in this case, young men, have set them up not only to do our fighting for us but to take the blame when it all goes wrong. And it will go wrong.
  • They (those in charge) weren’t there and did not do it themselves, so they are not responsible. This is one we hear often and even in ordinary conversation, it lacks any intellectual support. If you live off the crimes of others you have responsibility. If your reputation is based on the exploits of those in your command, you are responsible for the good and the bad they do. This means each of us shares in the responsibility.

James Noble knew that well. In the incident mentioned above what happened was clear and there was no dispute it happened. There was no dispute as to who was involved, they had been there and “the Royal Commission of Inquiry which concluded that police had probably murdered eleven people but did not ascertain who should be held criminally responsible.” At least, I guess the police officers following orders were not made the scapegoats, in doing so all avoided having to be responsible for what happened.

Aboriginal Australians know this well. No-one has taken responsibility for the original sin in this country like those in power and the population, in general, decry a black armband view of history and use each and every one of the above excuses to duck atoning for the original sin.

The problem with the original sin, in this case, is that if left unrepented and unaddressed it finds its way into the lives of ordinary people and becomes visible, often in the most, catastrophic of ways – war crimes, domestic violence, PTSD, addiction and more. As Aboriginal people, we understand our country carries within it the wisdom and trauma of the past and we are to live out of the wisdom and work to resolve the trauma. Blood runs like floodwaters across our land and needs to be atoned for. If we do not resolve the trauma it will continue to impact our lives through incidents of violence and tragedy.

We know this because we live this in our experiences. We know this because we live the consequences of the colonisers own trauma which is passed down through the ages. Until we address it as a nation through such as the full implementation of the Statement from the Heart, we will continue to see what has been exposed in the Inquiry – good people doing bad things and not understanding why.

For those interested there are two books I recommend you read:

  • Bessel van der Kolk’s, The Body Keeps Score which explores why early childhood and past trauma, even trauma others have experienced before we are born, never leaves us and stays within us as gnawing interior discomfit. This is a must-read for the present situation if read with such as war crimes, child abuse, stolen children and more in mind.
  • It Didn’t Start With You by Mark Wolynn shows how the traumas of our parents, grandparents, and even great grandparents can live in our unexplained depression, anxiety, fears, phobias, obsessive thoughts and physical symptoms—what scientists are now calling “secondary PTSD.” Another must-read in these circumstances.

As James Noble knew, the third book if read post-colonially, which addresses this issue – it’s called the Bible and it might be a good place to start.

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