In this debate of monarchy versus republic, we will hear from all those who travel the many walks of life in Australian society, but at its end, are the thoughts of those who lay down their lives in service of their country the only opinions that will truly matter?
Do we need the monarchy? Sparked by the royal wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton, this debate has been recently renewed, and is once again a topic of public conversation. Do we, the general ‘peacetime’ public (there are not bombs raining down upon our heads, after all), really need the monarchy? On the face of it, perhaps not. But, I think that this question doesn’t necessarily concern those of us not in uniform. In fact, I don’t believe it concerns we civilians at all. Let me explain.
Where the issue of monarchy or republic really comes into play, and almost perhaps explicitly so, really is in the theatres of war. When the question of precisely why one is entertaining charging that machine-gun nest comes up, or exactly why one is blinded and deaf in a trench, praying to whatever God you believe in while mortars rain down around you (“there are no atheists in a foxhole”), it’s important to consider just why one is not just enduring, but actively engaging in such an horrific experience.
In these cases a monarchy becomes a living symbol, like a flame or a torch, that one is defending, out of a sense of loyalty or honour, or out of a feeling of indentured servitude, if one has been drafted into the situation unwillingly. A country, or republic, on the other hand is a bit more of a nebulous entity, especially when the country to whom the soldier belongs is not itself directly under threat — but even when it is. I would argue that historically, armies seem to fight more fiercely, and defend more vigorously, when led by a leader ‘by divine right’ rather than one appointed or elected by the population at large.
Witness World War II, and in particular the axis countries of Germany and Japan. Hitler was indeed a dictator, but the Germans themselves placed him in that position — he had no birthright to rule. Conversely, Japan was governed by an emperor who had an accepted divine right, by the Japanese, to do so. From historical evidence, the Japanese appear to have been far more eager to throw themselves at the enemy in defence of their Emperor than the Germans were in defence of Hitler. Eventually, the Germans fell over from both battle fatigue and in-rank infighting — a collapse from within — while the Japanese suffered less from such frailties, and complete victory required the deployment of a couple of atomic bombs — destruction from without. This crucial difference in stature translated into subsequent post-war proceedings against the leadership of those vanquished — while the German hierarchy was vigorously prosecuted for war crimes — and. had Hitler lived, presumably he would have been taken to task doubly so — Emperor Hirohito not only avoided prosecution, but continued, at least ceremonially, in his role as Japan’s head of state until his death in 1989.
Had they laid their hands on him, Hitler would have given absolutely no quarter by the Allied forces fighting in Europe, but yet Hirohito escaped his atrocities untouched. This is a curiosity of history that leads us to another question quite relevant the debate at hand: are a people stronger in wartime led by an elected official, or by a head of state elevated by divine right, or right of succession? The bombing of Britain during WWII was a terrible event, but the recollections of Britons who survived it tend to touch on the strength given to them by then-Princess Elizabeth’s radio broadcasts, or her ceremonial service in the military. The American soldiers were arguably driven far more by their generals than their commander-in-chief, elevating those such as MacArthur to almost legendary status — but, it would be difficult I think to say that the Americans fought out of a fondness for these military icons, and perhaps more out of fear of them. To the American people, WWII was about preventing the spread of the evils of Nazi Germany, and obtaining satisfaction against the Japanese for the attack on Pearl Harbour — more about fighting against something rather than fighting for something. I think this is a distinction that requires a great deal more exploration and thought.
In peacetime it is easy to dismiss these arguments as silly and sentimental. It would appear to the average member of the Australian public that one ought to feel more motivated to defend the ‘land of gold and green’ rather than some monarch of another country who resides thousands and thousands of kilometres away. But, I would myself hesitate to jump too quickly to the conclusion that we do not need them at all, and they should be done away with without a second thought. In times of war — especially war at home — a populace needs absolutes, and the monarchy provides that, at least in the matter of ‘supreme leadership’. There is no ambiguity; if the existing occupant of the throne is killed, we know who is next in line, and next after that. There are no worries of elections, of disputes of who will be in charge — we know that already, and so there is no need to trouble oneself with such details in a time of extreme strife.
When it comes to who and what you’re fighting for, you simply need to pull a coin out of your pocket, and flip it over a few times. You’ll find a symbol of your home, and a symbol of the one who personifies God’s dominion over it, whichever God that might be, if any at all (you might still have reverence for a Queen or King regardless.) Can you do that with an American coin? Symbols of an overwhelming bureaucratic establishment united by one of the world’s bloodiest wars combined with a strikingly impersonal, bold-serif “In God We Trust”? Personally, I don’t think they’re the same thing at all. (In fact, I’ve always found the American penny to be quite the scary thing. But that’s an entirely different discussion.)
It’s fair to say the cultural identities of the former British Royal Dominions, and the personal identities of their subjects, have been forever shaped by these differences in iconography. Could Australia become a republic? Perhaps. Could Canada? Perhaps, but very, very unlikely. The Queen is like Hockey in Canada; they’re both spelt with an honorary initial capital letter out of a fondness held by the Canadian spirit. Admittedly, I don’t see that royal reverence quite as much in Australian civilians — but as to the question of who leads either country, I think that matter ought best be left to those who are willing to fight and die for us, rather than those who will ultimately be defended by their blood.
To those Australians in uniform — when you’re turning over that coin in a filthy trench somewhere, waiting for your chance to die in defence of your nation, who, or what on its faces would give you the most comfort, the most strength?