I have, for a while now, been contemplating the possibility of writing a few posts about war and, in particular, the way in which we Australians approach our military history.
ANZAC Day, and all that goes along with it, has become (for all intents and purposes) like something of a ‘State Religion’ for Australia. It’s all there: the tradition, the ceremony, the sacred space, and the requisite mythology that must accompany such things.
As such, I am acutely aware that whatever I say on this topic, unless it simply affirms the status quo, will no doubt upset some people. To express a point of view that does not conform to the official script has the potential to be viewed as disrespectful at best, sacrilegious at worst. This is why I have chosen to wait until after ANZAC Day this year to write. In the midst of the extraordinary emotion of it all, I see little possibility of reasonable discussion and debate. My hope is that now, after the intensity of the day itself has passed, we are in a better position for such discussion. I guess we will soon see.
In this post, then, I want to discuss what I see as one of the core untruths of the whole ANZAC tradition. Quite simply, I want to challenge the idea that the tragic death of so many young men (and women) has any meaning at all.
Please let me explain.
For many, the idea of fighting—and dying—for one’s nation is a good and noble thing. From at least the time of the Roman poet Horace onwards (and no doubt before), it has been expressed quite clearly that such a notion is to be admired. As Horace expressed it: Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori (“How sweet and right it is to die for one’s country”).
It is my firm belief, however, that such deaths as we commemorate on ANZAC Day were both unnecessary and obscene. Young lives wasted in the service of reckless fools who treated them with scornful contempt as expendable pawns is not ‘sweet’ or ‘right’ or ‘noble’. It’s a tragedy of epic proportions!
Such patriotic, nationalistic propaganda is to be challenged and opposed, not applauded.
Of course, there will be those who will suggest, in light of what I have just said, that I am being disrespectful to the memory of those who fought and died—that I am an ungrateful wretch who does not appreciate the ‘freedoms’ for which our brave servicemen-and-women fought and died.
To those people, I would simply say four things:
Firstly, I have no doubt that many of our servicemen-and-women—at least before they experienced the horrors of it all—absolutely believed that what they were doing was the right thing to do. Many went out of a sense of duty and a belief in the nobility of it all. This does not, however, make it so. It is more a testament to the power of patriotic rhetoric, and the effectiveness of official propaganda machines. The numerous testimonies from many who fought, however, show that such propaganda was often shown up quickly for what it truly was when the horrific reality of war was made known. Such testimonies speak of the futility of it all, and sometimes detail the sense of betrayal felt when such realities were made known.
Secondly, I am also convinced that there were many acts of tremendous courage and bravery in the midst of battle. Again, however, this does not make it ‘right’. Human beings are amazing creatures, and are capable of truly incredible things under certain circumstances. That soldiers would perform acts of exceptional bravery in the midst of raging battle comes as no surprise. That they were put into such situations is cause for regret.
Thirdly, I passionately believe in caring for returned soldiers who have been scarred physically and emotionally by their experiences. I am not one of those people who would spit on or despise returned servicemen-and-women. I believe it is our responsibility as a nation to properly care for those who have fought ‘on our behalf’, even if I don’t endorse (or even passionately oppose) the fighting itself. Multitudes of returned soldiers experience significant physical and psychological wounds that require long-term/permanent care. The reality of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is alarming, and we need to do so much more in regards to the wellbeing of those who are experiencing such things.
Finally, there is very little or no case at all for suggesting that any of the wars that Australians have fought in have secured our ‘freedoms’. Nearly every one of them have had nothing at all to do with Australia itself. WWII might be argued as a possible exception here, but it can only be argued as such if we were to believe that our ‘enemies’ in that war popped up out of nowhere. War does not begin in a vacuum. There is always a context, and the years (or even decades) before war officially breaks out are extremely important to keep in mind. Once war begins, it is easy to argue that we are simply ‘responding’, but it is rarely, if ever, truly the case.
But there is a more subtle untruth that creeps in too.
Many people I speak to, who do see through the patriotic nonsense of dying for one’s country as ‘sweet’ or ‘right’, nevertheless still fall for the lie that I call the ‘myth of retrospective meaning’.
This argument acknowledges the bogus nature of what Wilfred Owen called ‘the old lie’, but nevertheless falls victim to the belief that, even if we accept the futility of the fighting itself, and even if we call out the incompetence and wilful neglect (and perhaps outright evil) of the leaders who sent so many to fight and to die, we can still invest their deaths with meaning if only we live our lives in such a way that their ‘sacrifice’ wasn’t wasted.
This is a popular, and powerful, lie.
There is nothing that we as a nation, or I (or you) personally, can do to make such deaths ‘worthwhile’. Trying to retrospectively invest the meaningless with meaning is as futile a pursuit as the wars themselves.
As far as I can see, this is just another (perhaps more subtle) attempt to keep the myth of noble war alive. The problem is, it’s just not true.
What’s worse, it seems to lead only to the justification of sending yet more into ongoing battles. Nothing changes. No lessons are learnt. More lives are needlessly lost.
I have thus come to the conclusion that such an argument is nothing more than an insidious attempt to overcome the cognitive dissonance that inevitably arises when we seek to confront the Old Lie in the context of the State Religion of ANZAC tradition.
The truth, to my mind, is that the only thing we can do to truly honour the memory of those who fought and died is to embrace the horror of war in all its terrifying reality and let it break our hearts to the point that we can no longer tolerate the sending of soldiers to fight and die in meaningless battles ‘in our name’.
We must acknowledge the utter meaninglessness of it all so that, once our collective conscience is pricked by the magnitude of such wasted life and potential, we might collectively agree: “never again”.
Though the facade of untruth is certainly more comfortable, I believe such reflection is necessary.
Lest we forget.
Dulce Et Decorum Est
(by Wilfred Owen, 1917).
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.
Gas! Gas! Quick, boys! – An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling,
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime…
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.