A great war devoid of any virtue: Paul Keating addresses remembrance service

Former prime minister Paul Keating addresses the Remembrance Day commemoration at the Australian War Memorial. Photo: Andrew Meares Senator Michael Rondaldson, Governor-General Quentin Bryce, former Prime Minister Paul Keating and Rear Admiral Ken Doolan during the Remembrance Day Ceremony at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra on Monday 11 November 2013. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

Former Prime Minister Paul Keating laid a rose with Governor-General Quentin Bryce on the Tomb of the Unkown Soilder at the Australian War Memorial on Monday 11 November 2013. L to R Rear Admiral Ken Doolan, Michael Bryce, GG Quentin Bryce, Paul Keating, Opposition Leader Bill Shorten and Defence minister Senator Michael Ronaldson Photo: Andrew Meares Photo: Andrew Meares

Australian politics: full coveragePaul Keating’s full speech

Remembering Australia’s wartime sacrifices should make the nation even more wary of ”grand ambitions and grand alliances”, former prime minister Paul Keating has told a Remembrance Day service in Canberra.

Mr Keating gave the commemorative address at the National Remembrance Day service at the Australian War Memorial on Monday, 20 years to the day since, as prime minister, he spoke at the funeral service to mark the interment of an unknown Australian soldier in the Memorial’s Hall of Memory.

To mark the anniversary, the Memorial unveiled an engraving of Mr Keating’s oration from that day, and an extract from the speech – ”He is one of them, and he is all of us” – has been added to the soldier’s tomb.

An earlier plan to remove the words ”Known unto God” from the tomb to make way for the extract of Mr Keating’s speech was abandoned after complaints from several people, including reportedly Prime Minister Tony Abbott.

Speaking on the 95th anniversary of the armistice, Mr Keating said the First World War was ”a war devoid of any virtue”.

”It arose from the quagmire of European tribalism. A complex interplay of nation state destinies overlaid by notions of cultural superiority peppered with racism,” he said.

As the crowd sheltered from the steady rain under umbrellas, Mr Keating said Australia’s participation in the bloody battles in Flanders, on the Western Front and at Gallipoli distinguished the nation, ”demonstrating what we were made of”.

”Our embrace of a new sense of human values and relationships through these events, gave substance to what is now the Anzac tradition,” he said.

He said the bravery and sacrifice of Australian troops reinforced the nation’s sense of ”independence, mateship and ingenuity, of resilience and courage in adversity”.

He said despite ”shockingly flawed and incompetently executed” military campaigns, supposedly ordinary Australians distinguished themselves ”by their latent nobility”.

Mr Keating said by his interment the unknown Australian soldier, whose remains were removed from Adelaide Cemetery near Villers-Bretonneux in France, would serve his country again by giving Australians ”a deeper understanding of what it means to be Australian as well as serving to remind us of the sacrifice of the more than 100,000 men and women who never came home”.

The former prime minister said he was heartened that so many young Australians found a sense of identity and purpose in the Anzac legend but said the nation’s stories and traditions ”should not stifle or constrain its growth as it needs to adapt”.

The true commemoration of the lives of Australians who had served in war, Mr Keating said, ”is to understand that the essence of their motivation was their belief in all we had created here and our responsibility in continuing to improve it”.

”Homage to these people has to be homage to them and about them and not to some idealised or jingoist reduction of what their lives really meant.”

He said the young Australians of today, would ”no longer be dragooned en masse into military enterprises of the former imperial variety on the whim of so-called statesmen”.

”They are fortunately too wise to the world to be cannon fodder of the kind their young forebears became: young innocents who had little or no choice.

”Commemorating these events should make us even more wary of grand ambitions and grand alliances of the kind that fractured Europe and darkened the 20th century.”

On Monday the names of two Australians killed in Afghanistan were added to the Roll of Honour along with 102,000 other Australians killed in armed conflict over more than a century.

They are the 39th and 40th soldiers killed in Afghanistan: Corporal Scott Smith, 24, a member of the Special Operations Engineer Regiment, who died in the explosion of an insurgent improvised explosive device on October 21, 2012, and Corporal Cameron Baird, 32, a member of the 2nd Commando Regiment, who was killed by insurgent gunfire on June 22, 2013.

The Governor-General, Quentin Bryce, and Opposition Leader Bill Shorten were among the dignitaries to lay wreaths at the Memorial’s stone of remembrance.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott, who attended a ceremony at Melbourne’s Shrine of Remembrance, was represented by Michael Ronaldson, the Minister for Veteran’s Affairs.

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