The point of reckoning with the social organization of forgetting is, if it is anything, to craft a future different from the horrific past we have collectively inherited and differentially live in the present.
— Alexis Shotwell, Against Purity
What kind of times are these?
Early in the morning of September 11, 2001, I woke to the sight of my mother, crying and speechless, in front of our living room TV. Two buildings in New York have been hit by planes, she said eventually. Beyond the physical act of destruction, I wasn’t sure what this could mean. At school that day, my Grade Four teacher attempted to disperse rapidly metastasising rumours as if targeting flies with a swatter. Bin Laden is not hiding in Australia. Now, back to your work.
My sister and I saw it for ourselves on almost every channel that night: office workers plummeting, disembodied voices leaving frantic messages from behind immovable rubble. And then: a retaliation swift and brutal, so well-styled in propagandist rhetoric that it was possible to believe — at least as a nine-year-old — that it was justified.
The unfolding conflict and the rise of the Internet were the two backdrops against which my peers and I came of age in the West. The latter consumed us, and the former perhaps didn’t consume us enough. When you grow up with the televised echo of bombs detonated in deserts and shaky footage of skyscrapers crumpling like paper, you can neglect to search for answers or to ask the right questions.
In Australia, the events of 9/11 engendered a sense of emotional proximity, juxtaposed by the manufactured distance of Afghan and Iraqi cities on fire. Entire countries cleaved and brutalised, coiffed newsreaders’ clinical words like cool colours in a tableau, painted to recede from the eye. This ‘War on Terror’ became the central animating context of our times.
Last year I turned thirty, alongside other grimmer anniversaries: thirty years since the inception of the endless wars led by Western forces in the Middle East, twenty since the collapse of the Twin Towers and the subsequent invasion of Afghanistan. Last year was also when the Australian Government marked the anniversary by completing a withdrawal of troops, bringing an ostensible end to a murky chapter.
What kind of times are these?
This is a question posed by Adrienne Rich’s 1995 poem, which now appears to be both retrospection and foreshadowing. Rich was an American essayist, poet and activist known for her commitment to unearthing truths and asking uncomfortable questions. Rich’s poem has lingered in my mind for over a year now, its gauzy foreboding unsettling me in ways mirroring our times, like watching shadowed figures approach and knowing there’s nowhere to hide.
Where do we go from here? Withdrawing troops and declaring an ending does not seal a rupture or undo the destruction wrought. But it is perhaps an interval at which we can take stock, with our collective complicity in mind, in the hope that something can be salvaged. A way of remembering that is more than history for the next generation to lament before repeating; more than disembodied words and pictures on a page.
1. the old revolutionary road breaks off into shadows
There’s an uncanny symmetry to the very first and very last images of the War On Terror: bodies plunging to their deaths from a 110-storey building / bodies clinging for life to a departing military plane. Two final and futile exercises in agency, our revenge objective fulfilled a thousandfold. But what about our proclaimed goals of regional stability and justice for those oppressed? Here, it feels difficult to identify a net gain.
When I speak to an older family member about the West’s contemporary failures in Afghanistan and Iraq, he is quick to cite a kind of reactionary pragmatism as a defensible driver. The West was under threat. On the resulting carnage: Too easy to condemn in hindsight. How could they have known? I now can’t remember whether he stops just short of saying what he seems to mean: shit happens.
What falls under the umbrella of shit happens? Decades of destruction, lives and livelihoods considered collateral damage, the emergence of the world’s deadliest extremist movement, the coalition forces’ failure to articulate an achievable vision for either country.
Given the inherent hypocrisy of bringing a new war to already ailing peoples in the name of freedom, the findings of the Brereton Report — the culmination of a four-year investigation into allegations of Australian war crimes in Afghanistan — are perhaps as unsurprising as they are abject. The ‘bad apples’ narrative favoured by mainstream media is in certain respects the best case scenario for our national self-image, and simultaneously the greatest indictment of our collective capacity for self-delusion.
the old revolutionary road breaks off into shadows
Rich’s poem appears to reference Revolutionary Road, a 1961 novel by Richard Yates, who offered this insight into his chosen title:
[T]here was a general lust for conformity all over this country, by no means only in the suburbs—a kind of blind, desperate clinging to safety and security at any price.
While Yates’s novel spoke to the quotidian conformity of middle-class Americans in the 1950s, Rich’s poem illuminates the dark side of a country espousing democratic values and the violence that can be inflicted when people and governments commit to self-deception at all costs.
Mateship, the underdog, a fair go: Australia’s formulated ideals may seem quieter and humbler than those of the US, but they are no less conducive to strategic denial. It would not be unreasonably cynical to speculate that the Brereton Report will be used as a bureaucratic instrument for forgetting rather than for reckoning.
A true reckoning would involve an acknowledgment of the casualties of this conflict as the latest in a long line of victims of Western hubris, and the role of Western imperialism in the growth of Islamic extremism. It would involve accountability for lives treated as second-class, that shatter in countries we relegate to holding facilities for damages outside our collective consciousness. Our blind, desperate clinging to safety and security carries a hefty price tag, and deferring it doesn’t make it go away.
2. our country moving closer to its own truth and dread
In the discussion of geopolitics, one runs the risk of flattening the ‘we’, as I have done above. We is powerful, a galvaniser, an appeal to the limbic need for a collective identity and pack safety. We is also a mirage, shimmering from a distance only to vanish under closer scrutiny.
In the years following 9/11, Australia’s ‘we’ — or its illusion — shattered hard and fast, while simultaneously undergoing weaponisation in the name of war. Our way of life, our freedoms were louder ideals than ever before, even as they crumbled from inside. War became not just a fact, but a way of life. War-as-mindset.
Writing about the intersection of technology and militarisation, British writer Frances Stonor Saunders observes:
[W]arfare becomes ‘a permanent boundless exercise … against a wide range of non-state adversaries’. Not the Thirty Years War, or the Hundred Years War, but the forever and everywhere war – war itself as a kind of super-world.
This seems an apt description for not only surveillance technology but for the state of our societies more broadly. Many of us have acquiesced without protest to the constraints and ambiguities of this new world, believing them impossible to resist, and believing the related measures to be somewhat justified in the name of safety and security.
Some of us, even people of colour, can avoid the system’s worst if we perform the correct dance of deference and submission. Others, unprotected even by faithful conformity to the ‘good migrant’ narrative, have learned firsthand the system’s aptitude for enacting an extremism of its own kind. Australian Muslims (and those that wider Australia groups in with them for reasons of proximity or ignorance) have weathered more than two decades of the rot. Targeted surveillance, government-sanctioned dog whistles, televised propaganda dressed up as education and entertainment, day-to-day aggressions both downplayed and ignored.
Though the official War on Terror may be drawing to a close, its legacy continues to radiate harm. Australia’s refugee policy stands out as a particularly toxic by-product. Many asylum-seekers have entered, without other options, into this war-as-mindset nightmare against an amorphous enemy and with no discernible end. Rabid, unconcealed depravity, filling the moral sinkhole at the intersection of racism and militarisation. This is not somewhere else, but here.
What’s especially interesting, though, is the paradoxical nature of our domination: the vulnerability demonstrated by our efforts to harm asylum-seekers who reach our shores. We aren’t simply indifferent — we act out a deranged vendetta via policies that are both inefficient and expensive. We do this because we are scared, not because of any terrorism risk posed by those found to be refugees, but because the porousness of borders reminds us of their inherent falsity, of the truths they keep at bay, however imperfectly. Truths that implicate our country and its allies, time and time again.
I’m reminded of an observation made by bell hooks:
… we are all terribly afraid most of the time. As a culture we are obsessed with the notion of safety. Yet we do not question why we live in states of extreme anxiety and dread. Fear is the primary force upholding structures of domination.
hooks was writing about the US, but her words can be applied near-seamlessly to our own collective psyche. Perhaps refugees remind us of the instability, the proximity to loss, that pervades every society and structure without exception. An instability from which nobody is granted immunity, only an illusion of it. A fear so totalising, unmitigated even by wealth and opportunity, that we refuse to give it a name.
For all the talk of mateship, opportunity, milk and honey, we inevitably reduce ourselves to our greatest shame and our greatest fear. We move closer to our own truth and dread / our own ways of making people disappear.
3. I know already who wants to buy it, sell it
Wars, borders and domestic incarceration are obvious bedfellows. They are spatial fixes for the evidence of marginalisation and oppression, ways of keeping the other at bay for the avoidance of truth and the appearance of harmony. They are big and loud and strapped with guns, making it easy to overlook their quieter, more insidious counterparts: practices of history and remembrance.
How will the War On Terror be taught in Australian schools, if at all? It is too easy to imagine a version of events that circumvents the truth to avoid culpability, and even easier to imagine a complete omission. We’ve seen it before.
When former Education Minister Alan Tudge expressed concern that a greater emphasis on Indigenous experiences in the Australian curriculum would risk “dishonouring our Western heritage”, he demonstrated that the subjugation of Australia’s First Peoples is alive and in action. Tudge’s dog-whistle sheds light on the parameters of the project: physical violence, structural violence, systemic forgetting. Over-incarceration, interventions and enforced gaps in curriculum as different heads of the same beast. Attacking the problem from all angles.
Curriculum acts as a kind of virtual archaeological site, pointing to the knowledge that is valued and the forgetting that is enforced at any given time. The slave trade, the colonies and protectorates upon which the West amassed its bloodstained wealth, the Western crimes and overreach that sowed the seeds for ‘terrorism’ as we know it today — these aren’t accidental omissions. The obfuscation of historical patterns masks the continuity of the colonial-imperial project, rendering events static, seemingly inevitable, rather than calculated and deeply intertwined.
Without context, Australia’s involvement in the War On Terror can be successfully misrepresented as an unfortunate necessity owing to extremism and an alliance with bigger global powers. Uncensored history, however, allows us to understand the War On Terror as deeply compatible with Australia’s colonial-imperial legacy. The razing of villages and the torturing of civilians can be dismissed as the work of a few bad apples only if one does not realise that the entire orchard is planted on ghosts and bones.
Forgetting is also successfully enforced via organised remembrance. This may appear counterintuitive, but controlling the narrative is an efficient way to dictate what — and how — people remember. This takes the form of state-sanctioned days of remembrance, corporate sponsorships of commemorative events, news corporations that dictate the flow and duration of our attention in ways that serve the bottom line.
Consider this: Australia’s one prescribed day per year for meditating on the cost of war is also the day on which we valorise Australian soldiers for their noble efforts on the battlefield. ANZAC Day entwines the ANZAC myth with contemporary conceptions of war, and invites Australians to take shelter in the romance of the past. A short circuit forms in the brain: war = valor; the cost = our loss. As Afghan writer Bobuq Sayed wrote on Australian coverage of the Brereton Report:
…support hotlines for ADF veterans and their families were shared alongside articles about the Brereton Report. No such resources were shared for Afghans and their families, as though the emotional impact of the war crimes and loss of Afghan life were a necessary casualty.
The enmeshed projects of colonialism, imperialism and capitalism should cast a wide shadow of suspicion over the role of the state and corporations in making sense of the past. Government and corporate sanctioned forms of remembrance should be regarded as useful insofar as they legitimise hard-won human rights struggles, but suspect in the likely terminus of their ambition: preservation of power via the status quo.
This is why media outlets stoke racism and fear, and why public protests are increasingly criminalised. This is why our governments maintain a purported commitment to reconciliation and Closing the Gap whilst upholding a private commitment to supporting corporations that destroy Aboriginal lands. They will buy it, sell it, make it disappear.
Resistance involves learning to distinguish between justice and rhetoric, between atonement and sleight-of-hand. The distinction involves remaining alert to the ways in which our attention is bought and sold, divided and conquered; remembering corralled into toothless, spineless forms.
4. to talk about trees
In July 2021, Australian troops withdrew from Afghanistan. Committed to hard borders during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Morrison Government’s negligence stranded dozens of persecuted Afghan interpreters who had worked alongside Australian troops, risking their lives at the hands of the Taliban. After two decades of grievous error, it’s unclear if we’ve learned much from our mistakes.
The closing line of Rich’s poem references To Posterity, written by Jewish poet Bertold Brecht. He wrote:
Ah, what an age it is
When to speak of trees is almost a crime
For it is a kind of silence about injustice!
It was 1939 and Jews were being forced from their homes. Writing from exile, Brecht was commenting on the ethics of occluding injustice, whether intentionally or inadvertently, through a focus on beautiful or trivial things.
Applying Brecht’s meaning to the present day involves considering the silence within our (in)actions: compulsive denial, mindless consumption in place of civic responsibility, paying lip service to ideas we neglect to embody. When we treat history as solely epistemic in nature, we relegate it to the dormancy of dusty books and lecture halls. When we conceive of remembering as primarily a mental-emotional process, we enable systemic forgetting.
A failure to articulate the through-line of history, to act upon it, is a kind of silence that permeates the noise of our times. Decolonisation and justice are increasingly buzzwords, but their opposites are still enabled by the denial, ignorance and inaction that constitute the settler process, even in purportedly liberal communities. As a challenge to this, settler-Canadian academic Alexis Shotwell draws on Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s work on the concept of unforgetting to propose a resistance built upon “insurgent remembrance”. Shotwell writes:
[This] involves a shift from knowing about particular things to taking action in particular ways informed by that understanding. This is because more is at stake than the truth.
What if we conceived of remembering not as a passive cognitive process but an action, a resistance? Not a sigh or a grimace — a that was tragic before a swift change of subject — but an abandoning of distraction? Exhuming history from the enforced slumber of books and archives, resuscitating the power of collective action independent of state or corporate manipulation.
Rich’s poem concludes:
in times like these
to have you listen at all, it’s necessary
to talk about trees
Rich’s meaning in her use of ‘trees’ diverges from Brecht’s, but it is equally instructive. Here, trees recognises the ways in which oppressive systems can neutralise and co-opt once-radical language and concepts. It recognises that fear and denial run deep — resistance requires invention, attention, even beauty.
Through the project of insurgent remembrance, we can move from a redacted and relegated history to a more radical definition, one that manifests deeply in the present and demands responsibility. A collective resistance that renews itself continuously to evade negation. It is in this way that we can avoid remembering as a form of propaganda, nostalgia or forced closure.
In Bosnian-Australian writer Dženana Vucic’s poem titled We Repeat, she writes:
Twenty years later people call it what it was:
genocide, a word that only exists in past tense.
It has definition, purpose and, in the present,
would require us, if only to stop it.
Other words that exist only in past tense
We are not required.
How will remembering the War On Terror require us? Memory is profound when it transforms the present and shapes the future. As anything less, it is only another way to forget. Unless we are cultivating a memory practice that compels action, we are always, in Brecht’s meaning of the phrase, talking about trees.
Adrienne Rich, Collected Poems: 1950-2012, W. W. Norton & Company, 2016
Alexis Shotwell, Against Purity, University of Minnesota Press, 2016
bell hooks, All About Love: New Visions, HarperCollins US, 2000
Bertold Brecht, Selected Poems, Harcourt, 1947
Bobuq Sayed, A New Generation of War Criminals, Meanjin, 2020
Bobuq Sayed, Our National Culture of Denial, Meanjin, 2020
DeWitt Henry and Geoffrey Clark, From the Archive: An Interview with Richard Yates, Ploughshares 3, 1972
Dženana Vucic, We Repeat, Running Dog, 2021
Frances Stonor Saunders, Where On Earth Are You?, London Review of Books, 2016
Lisa Visentin, Indigenous educators back ‘truth-telling’ in national curriculum, Fairfax, 2021