On Anzac eve, when stories of glory and death fill the airways, I want to briefly recount the stories of six deceased men and their encounters with wartime. All of these are men I knew personally in their middle years, and all were about the same age, young men at the time of World War Two.
Perhaps I draw a long bow in alleging I knew the unknown soldier “personally” but I knew of him, or more properly “them”, one tomb in each of many countries. His tomb or grave has been a much revered and acknowledged symbol during all my life and his death and sacrifice is an important value and a sorrow to us all . I have much pity for him and his unknown family and I think his grave is a great expression of the total sadness of warfare. He is the first of my list of young men who suffered and sacrificed in wartime.
But the other five I have spoken to face to face, and about warfare. Three of them went to war and two of them saw active service. The other two did not serve but were both affected by war. The first three I speak of were relatives.
The second of my six was a volunteer in the Australian Navy. He served for some time. He was away from his family for an extended period. He had expected his ship to be deployed and it was, but in waters near to Australia. He worked hard, supported his mates and was prepared to make sacrifices, even the ultimate one. It turned out he did not see active warfare. He was a very caring person. He related to some of the other returned service men and made close friends with a few. He supported the RSL. He helped raise money for war orphans through Legacy. Later in life he and his wife received small, special financial benefits for his time of service. He was very grateful. But his time in the service was in some ways the most positive peak in his life.
The third tried to volunteer. He was refused as medically unfit when he volunteered. He was told that he had a bad heart. Whether he started the story himself in denial of his problem (he was a very young man) or whether it was others who started the rumours will never be known, but it was widely spread, even to his children, that he feigned this condition in order to avoid serving. He lived his life branded as a coward in this way. At the age of 41 he had his first heart attack and had to give up his career as a paramedic with the ambulance service. He died of another heart attack at the age of 46.
Like the third, the fourth tried to volunteer . The Australian Navy wanted him as he had skills they could use with their developing radar technology. Despite several attempts by both him and the navy he was deemed not eligible for service as it was considered he was already working in an area of sensitive essential services and was not released. He then had to answer some quite negative questions from many in the community, which he was not always in a position to answer. He felt deeply that he was not pulling his weight for the country. He then found, after the war was over, preferences in jobs and promotion were given, to some extent understandably, to returned soldiers and he had to stand behind them even though he was more qualified.
The fifth was a neighbour of mine. He had seen active service. He was decorated for his bravery in war. He had been captured by the enemy and spent some time in Changi. He had to spend some months on a hospital ship before he was well enough to return to Australia after his release from that prisoner of war camp. He was quite unfit to work because of his physical and emotional situation from his long period in that camp and became a TPI pensioner. He was a lovely, thoughtful man. He spoke very rarely of war and wartime but the few things he let slip about his time as a prisoner were heartbreaking. He tried to enjoy life in the here and now as well as and for as long as he could. He was devoted to his grandchild and other little children, including mine, also amused and delighted him him. He did not join the RSL and would not march on Anzac Day. He felt that marching glorified war rather than remembering and regretting it. He once said to me that very little was worth a war. He thought they inevitably resulted in more damage than the good they were allegedly trying to do or the evil they were trying to fight. He thought perhaps a justification was if one’s own country was invaded.
But as well as these five Australians I also knew well another man of the same age.
I met him, when I was a teenager in the fifties, as a refugee, a workmate of my father and then a friend of the family. He and I were closer than often between a child and an adult as I reminded him, I knew, of his own daughter who, with her mother, was killed in the allied bombing of Berlin. He had been a German soldier and he too had spent some time in an prisoner of war camp. This had been administered by the Allies. I would say his viewpoint and some of his experiences were somewhat similar to that of our neighbour. He also wanted a focus on the future, on love and kindness and acceptance of all. It was never a possibility that he could march at Anzac Day or join an RSL Club. He would not have wanted to anyway. He remembered the fallen, the soldiers on both sides and the civilians who were victims, every day of his life. His goal and dearest wish was that this should never happen again.
I think the attitudes and told experiences of these six men sum up much of what I feel about wars of that era. They did not always do good and the good that was sometimes done came at great cost to many of those who served and to many of those who did not.
But things have got much worse.
The development of technology means that many can be killed with no personal contact. Those who kill have no reality that they are killing other human beings just like them. Technology also means the enemy can be much more quickly demonised than ever before. “They”, the enemy as portrayed on instantaneous media coverage, are after all different from “real ” human beings like “us”.
The parallel development of more emphasis on psychological issues has also been significant. While this probably stems from attempts to understand and help with PTSD, what has been learnt has led to development of techniques to better train human beings to go out and kill other human beings with less doubts and more efficiency. I cannot see that as a good for soldiers or for the world.
Let us try to remember the dead and wounded soldiers from all wars and all backgrounds with great sorrow and thanks but without artificial glorification of such wars.
In their name and memory we must try to make sure we don’t find ourselves engaging in wars or supporting wars which are actually none of our business and which ought to be economically and socially shunned.
Let’s do less harm to real people.