Repaying our debt to Aboriginal soldiers

Aboriginal soldiers pictured at a memorial event earlier this year. Image courtesy ABC Indigenous.

The story of Indigenous men and women who served on the front lines in major battles, in intelligence, in transport, in logistics, in hospitals and in dozens of other roles is absolutely central to our military history.

Leave them out and you leave the story only half told. Take their numbers from the front line and the thin khaki line becomes even thinner.

There are inspiring stories of the courage and sacrifice of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians across the globe, from the Zulu plains of South Africa, to the trenches of Belgium and France, to the dugouts that stood between Rommel's tanks and Tobruk, to the north of Australia, the muddy tracks of New Guinea, the battles in Korea and Vietnam, and other places of service and sacrifice.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians were fighter pilots and infantry officers, they escaped from behind enemy lines, they manned the big guns, they watched our coasts. They were stockmen who mustered and killed cattle to feed troops and they were women who enlisted in the army, air-force and navy and served as nurses, communications experts, logistical support and many other crucial roles. They were also wives, mothers, aunts, nieces and sisters carrying the worry for those in combat abroad.

At our nation's time of greatest peril, in 1942, it was Torres Strait Islanders, the Tiwi Islanders and the Yolngu of Arnhem Land who kept watch on our northernmost border.

How many Australians know that Matthias Ulungura, a young Tiwi Islander, captured - and disarmed - the first Japanese serviceman taken as a POW on Australian soil in 1942?

We should never forget also that many Indigenous families served proudly over many generations. Grandfather, father and son - and today daughters too.

Many were prominent medal winners. Others served in more than one conflict, and did so with great distinction.

But this is not just a military story. It's a story about who we are and what we can become.

Let me explain.

Going back to the Greeks and Romans, there's been an acknowledgement that fighting for your country entitles you to full citizenship. If you are prepared to die for your nation, the nation owes you that at the very least.

The rights and privileges of citizenship - like the right to vote, to equality under its laws, to be granted opportunities, and to call on its common funds in time of need - should be yours.

It's a simple matter of justice.

The fact of large-scale and repeated Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander enlistment in the defence of Australia carries with it a sense of extraordinary commitment. Because it's not the first time they've had to do it.

Aboriginal people fought for their country after 1788 and the struggle continues to fully commemorate those heroic battles.

That conflict produced some of the bloodiest actions of Australia's history. Slowly but surely the missing parts of that story are being filled in by committed and intelligent historians.

One day it will be universally understood. And so will the military service of the first Australians in defence of Australia in the many decades since 1788 - in the Army, Navy and Air Force, and in countless support roles in the civilian population also.

Sadly, the patriotism shown by many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians who have served their country in wartime was not repaid in equal citizenship.

As many veterans or their descendants have told us, they went off to fight for Australia in the hope that it would hasten political and economic equality when they returned.

But, time after time, men returned home from the momentous battles to save the world from Nazism, fascism and militarism, only to find their children had been taken from them and placed in institutions, with no legal right of becoming a family once again.

They returned home not only to be denied a soldier-settler block, but sometimes to find their own lands - Aboriginal lands - taken and parcelled out to their former comrades.

Wounded, psychologically damaged, they came home to find themselves denied the veterans entitlements enjoyed by the non-Indigenous soldiers and sailors with whom they had shared danger and death.

They were even blocked from joining the RSL.

And too many of course didn't return. Buried in mass graves near the Somme or in Ypres, or in watery graves in the Mediterranean and the Pacific - tens of thousands of kilometres from their traditional country and culture - their families were sometimes denied the support and thanks they were surely owed. No homecoming was ever theirs.

These men and women went to war on the reasonable assumption that when they returned the shackles of mission life and government control would be loosened, and the discrimination they faced in health care, education, employment and social welfare would be ended.

Those hopes were betrayed. And their patriotism went unrewarded.

The lesson is obvious: this must never be allowed to happen again.

But there is cause for hope.

One of the early realisations as we conduct this research is that things have improved. Starting with Korea, then with Vietnam, greater equality for Indigenous servicemen and women has been gradually achieved.

They have suffered, obviously, as all servicemen and women have, from afflictions like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and the consequences of the use of Agent Orange.

But things are improving. And today many young Indigenous men and women proudly serve in the Australian Defence Forces as equals in almost every sense.

It's my understanding - or at least my hope - that today overt discrimination against Indigenous servicemen and women in the Australian Army, Navy or Air Force is simply not tolerated.

The RSL - to its great credit now - is today a valued partner in the reconciliation movement.

So things are turning around. People should stay optimistic.

Despite this improvement, though, there's one additional thing we must do to turn these serving soldiers into true citizen-soldiers. We need to recognise them in our Constitution.

Today when our Indigenous warriors put themselves in the firing line, they do so for a Constitution that is silent about their past and which actually still contains racially discriminatory clauses.

It's hard to believe that in 2014 - one hundred years after so many Indigenous Australians marched off to fight for the Empire - our Constitution still contains powers that can still be used to harm us.

But, sadly, it is true.

The fact that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians fought for our country is yet another powerful reason for recognising us in our Constitution.

If you fight for your country, it owes you equality. If you fight for a Constitution, it should recognise you as an equal. If you can fight for freedom, you should be entitled to that freedom too.

Otherwise they're empty words and all that sacrifice has little meaning.

It's as simple as that.

This is an excerpt of a speech given by Professor Mick Dodson at the launch of ABC's Untold Stories documentary series. 

Image courtesy ABC Indigenous.

Updated:  10 August 2015/Responsible Officer:  College General Manager, ANU College of Law/Page Contact:  Law Marketing Team