Friday, April 25, 2014

Anzac Day: remembering Joe and Albert and the horror and pointlessness of war

“If we really saw war, what war does to young minds and bodies, it would be impossible to embrace the myth of war. If we had to stand over the mangled corpses of schoolchildren killed in Afghanistan and listen to the wails of their parents, we would not be able to repeat clichés we use to justify war. This is why war is carefully sanitized. This is why we are given war's perverse and dark thrill but are spared from seeing war's consequences. The mythic visions of war keep it heroic and entertaining… .... The wounded, the crippled, and the dead are, in this great charade, swiftly carted offstage. They are war's refuse. We do not see them. We do not hear them. They are doomed, like wandering spirits, to float around the edges of our consciousness, ignored, even reviled. The message they tell is too painful for us to hear. We prefer to celebrate ourselves and our nation by imbibing the myths of glory, honor, patriotism, and heroism, words that in combat become empty and meaningless.”  
Chris Hedges

Here in Australia it is Anzac Day. April 25th. 

The day the nation remembers, both the landing (or more accurately the invasion of a foreign country) by Australian and other troops at Gallipoli, Turkey in 1915,  as well as Australians who served and died in all wars and conflicts (well some Australians, as they won't mention Aboriginal people who died in the Frontier Wars)

Thinking about the day brings to mind James Scott's fine book Domination and the Arts of Resistance in which he writes of the public rituals, performances and ceremonies- parades, memorials, state ceremonies- that the powerful use to distract attention away from the strategies they use to retain power. War and ceremonies celebrating war, of course, being among those.

I will spend the day reflecting on the horror and tragedy of war, and of Australia's history of fighting in other country's wars. I will think of my own family members who fought (and suffered) as a result of their war experiences. They had no interest in the glorification and memorialisaion of war.

And I will think of a former neighbor of mine. He fought in New Guinea in WW 2 where he saw the horror of war. He told me once that "war is just ordinary men with families and children killing other ordinary men with families and children...... unnecessary killing that’s what war is”. I wonder if his message will get spoken this Anzac Day.

A piece inspired by a conversation I had with him on the eve of the 2002 invasion of Iraq is below.

The piece was written in 2002 a few days after the Howard government's imperial ambitions resulted in Australia going to war in Iraq as part of the coalition of the willing. My son is nearly 18 now. We have moved and don't live on that street. I don't know if Joe is still alive. The Howard government is long gone, (although his disciples are back in power). But Australian troops are still in Afghanistan. Afghani children still die at the hands of  Australian and Coalition forces. 

As Chris Hedges reminds us- war is an addiction- it gives life meaning for those consumed by it, as well as for the political and military elite who speak in lofty tones and soaring rhetoric of honor and defending freedom and who knowingly send young men off to to die. What is the meaning of all this celebration of war?
Stories that go untold: Australia and war
Our street is always a cacophony of activity. From my office window I see it all. There are usually children everywhere. My son and I often count the number of children. There are 19 living on the street he tells me. Then he proceeds to tell me their names and ages and what year they are in at school.

They all play on the street, run in and out of houses and invent new games. They fight, argue and entertain themselves for hours. Their games always reflect something of what is happening in the wider world, of things they hear and see. In recent times the games have taken on more shooting and war like qualities. Goodies against baddies, policeman capturing baddies, ambushes, hiding from the enemy, shooting the enemy, people being shot. But I ask myself how can they not be affected by the terrible images of war.

Early on in this war of liberation (how I ask myself is it possible to liberate a country and a people by destroying both) my 6 year old son asks me “Daddy will we get bombed? Is Iraq near us?”. I try my best to explain that no we won’t get bombed and that Iraq is along way away from Perth. I try to show him on a map. He thinks about that for a while and then wanders off to continue his play. I ponder my son’s question. What must it be like for the children of Iraq who are being bombed? What would an Iraqi father say if asked the same question. 50% of the population are under 16. I am haunted by their faces and the images of children , the collateral damage, the casualties by this so called war of liberation. My son is safe but not Iraqi children who die in their hundreds under American (and Australian) bombs and bullets).

Joe is a noticeable figure on our street. Every day around 5pm Joe shuffles gently and quietly down the street. It is his daily circuit around the block and Joe always passes the front of our house. I am often sitting here in my office and I see him slowly wander by. Usually he has his walking stick. Joe’s gait is slow but determined. He is ever watchful of all the activity taking place on the street. I see him pause to watch the children- my son, the neighbors 2 boys and other boys from the street. Joe is one of those people who watch children play, perhaps remembering his own children at that age or his own childhood. Joe tells me he is 85 and has lived in this neighborhood for 50 years. He bought the land and built the house 50 years ago It cost him 160 pounds to build his house. Paid by a war loan he tells me.

It is Sunday afternoon and I am standing out the front deep in thought, an eye on the children who have gone down the local park to play footy. My 6 year old son has put on his new footy boots and gone with the older boys to play footy at the park. I am melancholic, pessimistic, depressed at the state of the world. And haunted by the terrible images coming out of Iraq. Of women and children shot by Coalition forces.

As Joe comes by we start talking. I ask him how he is. He talks to me of the daily events of his life, of his daily walks. I tell Joe I am thinking about this terrible war and the innocent lives lost in Iraq. “Ah War is a terrible thing” Joe tells me. When he speaks of war I listen. You see Joe speaks with authority about war . He has been there. He has seen men die. Men shot. Men blown to pieces.

You see Joe fought in WW2. He spent 4 years in New Guinea fighting the Japanese. He saw men die horrible deaths. Joe does not speak of war as honorable, as ethical, as just. It is not about big geo political agendas and plans. No war is just ordinary men with families and children killing other ordinary men with families and children. And of innocent men, women and children in foreign countries being blown to pieces in Australia's name. Simple as that. “Unnecessary killing that’s what war is” Joe tells me.

Joe’s words cut through all the bullshit of our political leaders, of our media commentators and all those embedded and other journalists. He speaks a simple truth. War kills ordinary men and women in their thousands, even million and they die in terrible horrible ways. Soldiers, mothers, fathers, husbands, wives, lovers, brothers, sisters, children. Just like us.

Joe speaks a truth like journalists such as Robert Fisk and Chris Hedges who tell us of the brutality and terrible nature of war and of the hypocrisy of political and military leaders.

Joe's words remind me of a fundamental truth: that most political leaders and commentators who adore and promote war have never been to war. Like John Howard who seems to have some romanticized and sanitized view of the honor and dignity of war fought for just causes ( like securing USA military interest, imposing American might and advancing American -and  Australian- corporate profits) Or George Bush, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfield who send others off to die while fiercely avoiding military service himself.

Joe tells me that he drove tanks in the war. In the jungle the tanks could not do much. They could follow paths and tracks and support infantryman some time. But in the jungle they were of limited use.

One day he was told that someone else – a superior office - was going to command his tank. Joe was not pleased at the time but an order was an order. He had to drive another tank, further at the rear. Joe told me that later that day the tank he was supposed to be in was blown up by some enemy mines. He saw it blow up in front of him. Saw his friends and colleagues die. His voice trailed off as he told me. It was as if he was contemplating the fortunes and misfortunes of war. That he was alive but others weren’t and here he was nearly 60 years later on an autumn day in Perth talking about it to me.
“War is a terrible business” he told me again. “ I saw that myself”

When he came back from the war and had children of his own Joe told me that he said to his wife that he would never let his children go to war to fight. If war came again he was going to take his family inland, out to the remote WA bush country where he was born and that knew well. He would hide his children away from any war.

My mother’s brother- my uncle- fought in the Western Desert and in New Guinea during WW2. His life was thereafter affected by that experience, not just because of the health effects of malaria.
After his return from war he wanted nothing to do with all the celebratory war talk. He had no time for groups like the RSL. He used to say that those who talked the loudest about war were usually the ones who had never seen the real action close up. I am reminded of Albert’s words and of Joe's words and of the truths they knew.

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