Every 11 November there is a lot of talk from our politicians about the peril of forgetting – “lest we forget”.
We’ll hear it again today, as our leaders in commemoration speak of the “glorious dead” and “the fallen” – the Australians who “sacrificed” themselves in a “spirit” of Anzac, apparently to guarantee the “freedoms” (contestable, and an issue for another column) we now enjoy.
The language, ecclesiastical in tone, that politics has grafted onto Australian war remembrance for over a century now has served well the intended purpose of raising commemoration to a quasi-religion. Such language also tends to sanitise acts of public, mass commemoration from the putridity of war’s reality.
Remembrance is as much about what our cultural and political leaders willingly forget as that which they recall.
So this Remembrance Day, I’ll be remembering something Australia’s commemoration sector won’t remind you of: politicians will always jump at starting wars in which young combatants and civilians of all ages will die horribly in their millions.
Before Australia’s $600m, four-year festival of first world war commemoration (Australia spent more than any other country on remembering each of its 60,000 dead first world war soldiers), a Vietnam veteran, Jim Robertson, wrote a submission to the federal government about the tone of the remembrance.
He urged government to “try to avoid the utterly demeaning term ‘fallen’ when speaking of war dead – they did not trip over a stick or garden hose, they were drowned, burned, shot, gassed and eviscerated to lie face down in mud or sand or at the bottom of the ocean”. He was ignored.
But the point he was making is clear: do not sugar-coat the realities of remembering war with beatific language.
Any notion that most soldiers willingly sacrifice themselves en masse (as opposed to knowingly putting themselves in harm’s way to do an important job), also tends to abrogate political and command responsibility for their deaths. No less, it also makes it easier to shirk responsibility for combat survivors and their families, those who are bequeathed the drug addiction, the terrible domestic violence and suicide that played out in plague proportions behind tens of thousands of bolted-shut suburban front doors in the decades after the first world war.
The returned services officials were never much good at dealing with all of that; much effort was made to sanctify the dead, while keeping the limbless soldiers and the facially disfigured off the streets. And the suicide, vagrancy and addiction was never talked about. Instructively, there is now overdue debate about the obvious, undeniable need for a royal commission into the scourge of veterans’ suicide.
Impetus for a commission has gathered momentum on the back of a Change.org petition from Julie-Ann Finney, whose serviceman son David took his own life after being afflicted with post-traumatic stress disorder due to his Royal Australian Navy service. Today she is behind a “Vets We Forget” rally opposite the Australian war memorial, the focus of national official remembrance activities.
Instructively, the Returned and Services League national president, Greg Melick, opposed the idea of a royal commission, saying it would cost “an enormous amount of money” that might be better spent.
Inquiring into the causes of veterans’ suicide will save lives.
So, how might the money (the royal commission into institutional responses to child sexual abuse cost some $370m) be better spent?
On more commemoration perhaps?
No such debate accompanied the announcement that the federal government would profligately spend $500m on expanding the war memorial, apparently so that it might display more machinery of war, commemorate Australian participation in existing conflicts, and because of the questionable claim that the institution has a therapeutic role to play for veterans (which is not, incidentally, part of the AWM mandate).
Here’s an idea: how about allocating $370 million for a royal commission into veterans’ suicides from the $500m gifted, without question, to the war memorial expansion. That would really help the living.
If you can escape the politicians for some quiet, dignified reflection on the true human cost of war today, a haunting new book by Paul Byrnes, The Lost Boys – The untold stories of the under-age soldiers who fought in the First world War, is a good place to start.
It is one of the most poignant books I’ve read in recent years about Australia’s first world war experience.
Byrnes tells the story of Sydney clergyman Everard Digges La Touche, who’d decided that the best way he could serve his God was to die in war. He signed up for the first world war, gave away his possessions and took with him an acolyte – 15-year-old Jack Harris from Sydney, who’d enlisted after lying about his age. Both arrived on Gallipoli in August 1915, just in time for the battle of Lone Pine. La Touche, an officer with no experience, begged to be allowed to fight. He and Harris died soon after the battle began. He got his wish. He is one soldier who did sacrifice himself – and the boy, Harris, at the same time. There are many memorials to La Touche. For Harris, never found, there’s but one.
Spare a thought too for John Francis Naughton of Charters Towers. A bomb exploded in his hands during that same August offensive. He arrived in England, his hands fly-blown, with a note attached to his file reading, “Bomb exploded in his hands necessitating immediate amputation of both hands.”
He died 15 months later. Historians Bruce Scates, Frank Bongiorno and Rebecca Wheatley write, “Death did not end his indignities. Naughton’s body was left in an open grave in [London’s] Kensal Green cemetery; exposure to the elements led to ‘consequences’, as one anxious report put it, ‘better imagined than described’.”
That is the sort of thing that happens in war. Today, when we remember, we shouldn’t turn away from the dreadful, unpalatable truth of it, no matter what our lead commemorators say.
• Paul Daley is a Guardian Australia columnist
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