Terrible paradox

Downstairs in the Australian War Memorial in Canberra is a ‘Discovery Room’ aimed at children from kindergarten age to years 6 and 7. The room has a mock-up trench, the bridge of a World War II Corvette, an Australian kitchen/dining room, circa 1939-45, and a bivouac/command post from the Vietnam era. It is also given a ‘one-family’ theme via photographs of three generations of men from an Australian family who served in the two world wars and Vietnam. Children visiting the Discovery Room are encouraged to dress up, the boys as combat soldiers or seamen and the girls as nurses.

The last time I looked in the Discovery Room was during school holidays. Lots of kids were running around in their borrowed uniforms and I overheard one of the museum’s volunteers, an older woman, talking to some parents. They were looking at the photos of a family. One shot depicts a helicopter, picking up soldiers in the jungle in Vietnam. The volunteer was telling a story about the day a Vietnam veteran was looking at the photographs in front of some kids. The vet said how brave the chopper pilots were and how he had been rescued by one when he was wounded. ‘The kids had eyes like saucers.’ The veteran described how difficult it had been for the airmen to get him aboard the helicopter because he was ‘slippery with blood. There was blood everywhere.’ The volunteer turned to the parents. ‘Of course we would never tell the kids things like that.’

As I walked through the rest of the museum, it struck me that many of the galleries had something childish about them. The Vietnam exhibit, for instance, with its Bell helicopter and life-sized soldiers on patrol that reminded me of Action Man toys I had played with as a kid. Upstairs, you can look at the WWI dioramas. Though the purpose of these is avowedly again to show ‘what it was really like’, they remind me of nothing so much as playing with toy soldiers when I was a kid. In the WWII galleries, you can stand in a simulator, which gives you the noise sensation and vibration of a Lancaster Bomber taking off. Very exciting.

The point I’m making may seem obvious: if you take the terror, killing and maiming out of war, what you have is something like a kid’s game, a parade with drums and bugles, or a church remembrance service. The emotions evoked by ‘remembering’ in these contexts tend to obliterate the fact that war is about killing and maiming and the terror consequent upon that activity. We remember in order to forget.

The word ‘sacrifice’ is particularly potent and leads to the false analogy, common in the literature of WWI, that likens the soldier to Christ. But Christ is not part of an army whose avowed intent is to kill the enemy in combat. The idea of the soldier as Christlike tends to elide the killing. It enables us to remember the fallen as victims rather than perpetrators; it enables us to remember and to forget.

Testament of Youth, Vera Brittain’s autobiographical study of the years 1900-1925, tells the story of a young English woman’s experiences before, during and after WWI in which she served as a Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) nurse. Her brother, Edward Brittain, and his friends Roland Leighton, Victor Richardson and Geoffrey Thurlow were all of the generation who completed their Public School education in the fateful summer of 1914. All of them volunteered. All were killed in the course of the war, including Leighton, who had become her fiancé.

Brittain’s account of her losses is sheer. But her book is not emotionally indulgent. There are some challenging and clear-eyed perceptions about the human response to war that go beyond conventional renditions of ‘tragedy’ or ‘pity’. In the following passage, Brittain analyses the nostalgia she feels on recalling her arrival at Malta, aged 22, to work as a nurse, in late 1916:

It is, I think, this glamour, this magic, this incomparable keying up of the spirit in a time of mortal conflict, which constitute the pacifist’s real problem—a problem still incompletely imagined, and still quite unsolved. The causes of war are always falsely represented; its honour is dishonest and its glory meretricious, but the challenge to spiritual endurance, the intense sharpening of all the senses, the vitalising consciousness of common peril for a common end, remain to allure those boys and girls who have just reached the age when love and friendship and adventure call more persistently than at any later time.

When I taught undergraduate midshipmen and cadets at the Australian Defence Force Academy, this passage always created a heated discussion on attitudes to war and motivations for career choice. Every year, around Anzac Day, I want to share those discussions with a wider audience. For it seems to me that Australia, in its obsession with Anzac, Gallipoli and the military tradition that stems from that squalid defeat in 1915, is in danger of placing the ‘glamour’ of war at the heart of its cultural mythology. I do not mean by this that parades, memorials, services and ceremonies intend to glorify war, or that they lack a dimension of honouring the dead. Rather, what concerns me is the artificial and vicarious reproduction of emotional responses to war like those described by Brittain at the expense of other, balancing perceptions about the loss and cost of war and the aim of combat: to kill ‘the enemy’.

There are no easy answers to the dilemma of how best to memorialise war. The need to comfort the bereaved and to honour those who have been through the shattering experience of combat is obvious. That in attempting to do so we create the conditions that will encourage future generations to think of war as glamorous and sacred, an activity that confers a special status on ‘ordinary’ men and women, is a terrible paradox.

And it is not simply a question of reintroducing maiming and killing to the public via photographs on the television or in the War Memorial. The only physical pain we ever feel is our own. Fear at second hand is a titillation. Images may be seen as exciting, invigorating, and vicariously moving. We like to look at horror through parted fingers. The popularity of graphic war films stands as a reminder of how fascinated human beings are by war.
It would be good, I think, if the War Memorial could incorporate into its displays something, somewhere, about shell-shock, battle fatigue, post-traumatic stress syndrome and the impact this has had on the lives of thousands of Australian families over the years.

Something about the difficulties of homecoming after war would be salutary. I also would like to see the Discovery Room try at least to introduce into its rationale the idea that war isn’t all fun and games.

The Englishmen of Vera Brittain’s generation were schooled in such a way as to embrace the idea of sacrifice in war for country and Empire. It would be nice to think that Australia in the 21st century might find something other than the Anzac myth to define its identity.

Adrian Caesar is a Canberra author and poet whose book The White won the Victorian Premier’s Award for Non-fiction in 2000



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