You don't have to understand the world. You just have to find your own way around in it. - Albert Einstein

Friday, 25 April 2014

on ANZAC Day, or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Soldiers

source: Australian War Memorial

I used to be a pacificist. It was so simple - War is Wrong, any violence is wrong, anyone choosing to participate in it is wrong, and that's that. I knew how right I was with all the confidence and ignorance of a member of a generation that has never known war.

I grew up in Australia in the 1980's, where there was no war. The blackfellas had long been defeated and their history revised. War was something from history books, something that other, less intelligent countries still did, something you could see on the news, but it was never a part of my life. I was 13 when Australia went to the Gulf War, but I didn't know anyone who was involved, and couldn't see what it had to do with us at all. And because my priveleged, peaceful, Western society was all that I knew, I thought it was normal. I had an image of the history of the world as being mostly peaceful, interrupted by bouts of terror and violence occasionally. I didn't see how Anzac Day really had anything to do with me or my life.

The first suspicions that something didn't quite add up in this theory came to me when watching nature documentaries - David Attenborough and that kind of thing. I would watch these shows about animals living in the wild and I would be in floods of tears, distraught at the horrific violence and suffering that creatures in the wild will routinely face. Everywhere, the evidence said that the natural world is violent, the nature of life and survival is inherently violent. Mating, birthing, feeding, preying and dying - all so horribly violent, all so utterly natural.

Life went on. I got older, and my life diversified into areas I wouldn't have expected. I started to get to know people who had never had the luxury of the chance to articulate a pacifist philosophy. I watched as the world went about its business. I read and studied. I learned that contrary to my prior impression, humanity had been in some kind of state of war for most of its existence - that war is the rule rather than the exception. I realised that the media is far more interested in exposing the horrors of war than in participating in glorification propaganda ever since they realised they could make more money that way - and yet war is as big a business as ever. Increasingly, my hippy ideals just didn't hold up to the harsh light of reality. They were really falling apart by the time I found myself living in a seedy boarding house in an inner suburb of Sydney, the kind of place where you step over unconcious junkies in the hallway to get to your room, and violence was a seething backdrop to the everyday.

Even with all these swirling uncertainties, I was still pretty shocked when I first got to know Mr CJ and heard about his intense pride in his family's military history, and in his own profiency in the pugilistic arts. It took me a while to understand where he was coming from. He grew up being beaten up just about every day of his childhood, until he got big enough to fight back. The practise of violence was simply a matter of survival for Mr CJ and his peers. There was no point questioning it.

The first year or two we lived together was an intense process of challenging and reforming beliefs for both of us. I came to understand the truth of the role of violence and war in our society and history, and to not just apply a black-and-white blanket ideal to every situation without discernment. Mr CJ, meanwhile, came to understand the joys of a peaceful, loving social group, and different ways of dealing with conflict.

Besides these intense philosophical dialogues with Mr CJ, I put myself on a study course to learn more about the history of warfare and the role of war in my society, with a wide range of books, films and documentaries. I think it started with Band of Brothers. When it came on TV, Mr CJ wanted to watch it. He said it was a great show. It was the sort of thing I would have usually avoided watching, but I made myself watch that series and try to really look at the events unfolding from the perspectives of the individuals involved, rather than just writing it off with a 'War is Wrong' slogan. It was a powerful experience. Of all the texts I studied, this stands out in my memory now, a few years later. So does the stunningly beautiful film Joyeux Noel (Merry Christmas), the TV series Foyle's War and the book La's Orchestra Saves the World by Alexander McCall Smith, one of my favourite writers. The TV series M*A*S*H has had an incredibly deep influence on me, as I discussed in another blog post, here. I started to realise that war, like natural disaster and other shared traumas, brings out the best of humanity as well as the worst, and that nothing about the world I know could exist without the history of warfare - it's so inextricably linked with every aspect of our society. Of course, our efforts to reduce violence and conflict, and to engender a peaceful society, are also a fundamental aspect of our humanity - part of the best of us, something we can apsire to. As with so many things, the truth lies in paradox.

And finally it coalesced, an understanding of what Anzac Day is meant to be about.

Ultimately, it's a love story. A terrible and tragic love story, but no less proud of its love for the suffering it has borne.

The reasons for the Great War are still unclear to me now after trying to understand it for several years. Yes, yes, the Archduke was assassinated and all that. But still, the conflict itself is incomprehensible. How could people do such a thing? With respect to the politicians and governments that got us into this mess, the individuals who can sit in a desk and sign a paper that sends thousands of men into combat, well may we ask this question. But for the men who signed up to fight and found themselves amid a hail of bullets, thousands of miles from home, ninety-nine years ago today, I think I understand it now. I think most of them went to fight because they loved their families. Whatever they understood of the conflict themselves, the government sold them a way by which they could show their devotion to their families, and shipped them off to the war. And when they got there and saw the horror, they were so afraid. They wanted nothing more than to not go out there. But they looked around at the faces of their mates standing by them, and they saw that their mates were also afraid, but also, they tried not to show it. And they all looked at each other confronting their fear, and they decided that as long as their mate had to go in there and deal with this, well, they were going to stick by their mates and not let go. Nothing else mattered. For the first time in their lives, race and class and other social divisors were irrelevant in the thick of this passion. The orders were given, and that is what they did. They went into that slaughter because they were sticking by their mates, and they did not let go until the carnage claimed them, not a one of them.

Greater Love Hath No Man.

And that's what it is, at the core. That a man would walk into the living pits of hell and lay down his life for the love he felt for another person. And it should humble us, and remind us to be grateful for the heritage this love has laid down in our world, for all its tragedy.

I might have been from such a priveleged generation that was never called to war, but the war comes to many of us in different ways. For me, it has mostly been in my battles with depression. Of all the weapons I use to fight this battle, the most powerful is the love that I feel for my friends and family, and that they feel for me. I have no doubts that this love is the main reason I have not surrendered in battle, and why I'm still here to fight. In this way, the ANZAC spirit is alive in me, and in all of us who keep fighting to live and love another day.

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