Volume 49, Number 6, June 2011
Dangerous ground WE REPORTED in the April issue of MEDAL NEWS that the Australian Government was planning to set up an inquiry to look at the issue of retrospective awards—particularly the Victoria Cross—for certain individuals. It appears that on April 16 an “independent Defence Honours and Awards Appeals Tribunal” was announced with a view to looking at “unresolved recognition for past acts of naval and military gallantry and valour”. Senator David Feeney, Australian Secretary for Defence has announced that 13 cases will be looked at and that he has “directed the Tribunal to make recommendations on the eligibility of the listed naval and military members to receive the Victoria Cross, the Victoria Cross for Australia or other forms of recognition for their service”. Now this is bound to become an emotive issue and one that is likely to polarise the medal hobby, the armed forces, historians and even the general public and if you thought the debate about the legitimacy of the Victoria Cross for Australia was heated, might I suggest “you ain’t heard nothing yet”. My own opinion on this matter should be well known to readers—I am firmly against changing history and really do feel that once you start by opening a can of worms like this there simply is no going back and the whole thing gets quickly out of hand. It seems to me that over the past decade or so there has been a movement towards righting the perceived wrongs of the past—we have had Governments apologising for things that happened centuries ago, plans to pardon those who broke hard and fast rules and now, apparently, a fresh look at honours and awards for acts that took place decades ago. Now, of course, it may seem very noble to reward people for gallantry years after the act and it may seem honourable to apologise for making mistakes—but is it right? And is it necessary? Throughout history there have been countless examples of those in authority getting things wrong. Sometimes their mistakes are acknowledged at the time and sometimes it isn’t until decades later that their actions are perceived as incorrect. When such mistakes are noticed in time, when the wrong can be righted and the effect of the mistake negated, then I am all for ensuring that something is done. But when the mistake is one only noticed years later, with the benefit of hindsight and a different moral code, then I am not so sure that trying to “right the wrong” does anybody any real good at all. After all, who is to actually say a mistake has been made at all—yes, by today’s standards it might be seen as wrong, but that doesn’t automatically make it so in the context of the time it was actually made. Plainly the act of apologising for certain foreign wars, etc,. is pointless—the government that apologises has no real connection with the government that went to war, and even if it did the fact remains that the war was perceived as correct at the time, by men who believed it to be justified. Today we might not agree with or even understand such justification, but that is irrelevant—we aren’t living their lives or in their era, so to judge their actions by our own morality is ridiculous. Similarly, to pardon those who we today see as victims rather than criminals is equally nonsensical; again we can’t put ourselves in the shoes of those who made such judgements a century ago, so why should we even try. This being the case, the same must be said when it comes to retrospective gallantry. Undoubtedly many men on the Australian list deserved medallic recognition and undoubtedly many others throughout history have been overlooked (Paddy Mayne, DSO and three bars but no VC comes to mind immediately) and there are probably hundreds of cases where medals, honours and decorations weren’t awarded when they perhaps should have been. Perhaps the awards weren’t made because of politics or maybe the individual was overlooked for personal reasons (rubbing your CO up the wrong way was always a good way of not getting a medal). But whatever the cause, the fact is that the awards were not made at the time and to try and gauge today whether they should have been or not is asking for trouble. If this Tribunal does recommend 13 new VCs, where does such an inquiry stop? If any of the men on the list are posthumously given a medallic award of any kind what is to stop families or regiments from petitioning to have their man thus honoured—if not with a VC why not a DSO, MC, DCM or MM? To allow such retrospection now, to tinker with history and try to view it with the rosecoloured spectacles of today, can do no good. Yes, the families of the men so honoured will be justly proud; they will, undoubtedly, be pushing to have their loved one honoured in the highest possible way and I don’t want to take that away from them, But looking at the bigger picture I fear that if they are successful it could prove not only contentious but also very divisive—after all, if we are looking to retrospectively award then isn’t there the potential to retrospectively strip a man of a medal too? If governments are to start giving out new honours to men whose actions took place decades ago, then what is to stop them looking again at some awards that were made and deciding—in the spirit of the righting of wrongs—that actually, using the brand new moral compass of today, such and such an award was not justified and that it was made for political reasons only (or worse jingoistic, if not racist ones) and thus shouldn’t stand. Dodgy ground undoubtedly but ground that is already being trod with this Tribunal. I await the outcome of it with interest.
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