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On lives squandered in war for the greed and powerlust of the worthless few
By The Blue Collar Bohemian
24 April 2006

Anzac Day - the One Day of the Year, the day that "blooded" us as a "nation". Lest We Forget. As someone who, like many, has been touched, through the suffering of close relatives, by the scourge of war, I have mixed feelings about this day of national remembrance. I need to ask what exactly it is we remember, and why.

In 1915 Australian and other British imperial forces participated in a failed invasion of Turkey – a reckless attempt by that great fraud of the twentieth century, Winston Churchill, to seize control of the Bosphorus. Many soldiers died and were maimed on both sides, and the victory of the Turkish commander, Mustapha Kemal, propelled him to a prominence, from which, when the moribund Ottoman empire collapsed, he was in position as seize power as Kemal Ataturk, and become president of the Republic of Turkey.

Incidental unpleasantnesses were the genocide of the Armenians and the brutal exchange of Moslem and Christian residents of Greece and Asia Minor. This is the history, stripped of the jingoistic hoopla, of one stupid and tragic event among many during WWI. So what makes it special?

Apart from New Zealand, the other WWI allies concentrate on the Armistice of 11 November 1918 as the major commemoration of the war, so why April 25th? I suspect it is to divert attention from the atmosphere of revolt and dissent that many returning soldiers brought home with them and the steps taken to suppress it.

When the "victorious" troops returning from WWI to "a land fit for heroes" and encountered the flu pandemic and unemployment, their the response was split. Right-wing officer-led veterans' groups were bound by loyalty to the crown and became, publicly, the Returned Servicemen's Leagues, and secretly, the militias of the "White Army", "New Guard", "Old Guard" and the other smaller extreme right groups sworn to defending the "Empire" against "Bolshevism". These admirers of fascism, approached Sir John Monash to lead a military coup in 1931 (he declined), which is something to remember when conservatives rattle on about "threats to democracy".

Other troops had been radicalised by their war experience, and inspired by the Russian Revolution. These returned soldiers joined the labour movement, formed the Communist Party of Australia, or just nursed a seething bitterness against "the system" that conned them into a stupid and unconscionable war that killed 60,000 Australians and maimed and psychologically destroyed many more.

Postwar Australia was already split down the middle by the sectarian divide whipped up by the Labor traitors Billy Hughes and William Holman in the conscription referendums, the Irish independence struggle, growing opposition to the war and, importantly in NSW, the 1917 rail- and tramway strike. For the next forty years the strike engendered hatred between the staunch strikers who stayed out, and were sacked, or lost seniority when re-employed, and the scabs who crawled back and betrayed their union brothers. Some country towns were divided for two generations over the 1917 strike.

This was war's impact on two members of my family. My maternal grandfather, born in 1899, enlisted for the war, putting up his age to join his brothers in the "great adventure" of the war. He ended up in the carnage and insanity of 1917 France, fighting with other Australians in the brutal struggle for Pozieres and Villers-Bretonneux, where his three brothers died. He returned to a shattered and grief-struck family, married my grandmother, and got on with his life as best he could, working for the NSW railways and tramways, and raising a family of two daughters.

By 1930, with the onslaught of the Depression, he was unemployed. Until 1939 his family survived by boarding teachers in their war service loan home. When the second war started, grandfather put down his age to re-enlist for the sake of having a job, and was in military railway construction in Greece, Palestine, Lebanon and North Africa, where he was wounded. After the war, he returned to the railway, but soon retired on health grounds and was declared "totally and permanently incapacitated" (TPI) as a result of war service. He died at 70, having his final heart attack after a series of increasingly debilitating health problems. He died feeling betrayed by the country he went to war for twice, hating the RSL, Billy Hughes (who he blamed for WWII), "blood-sucking profiteers" (his term) and "war mongering politicians who never faced a bullet". This was strong stuff for a nine year old boy to hear from his grandfather, who said only the barest minimum about his war experience, while my grandmother would say to me, "Be careful not to repeat that, you'll get into trouble". In "democratic” Australia, where did that come from?

My father, born in 1919, (his father was too old for WWI) grew up through the twenties and thirties in a shattered postwar society of damaged veterans and sad widows, women who lost fiancees and then never married, and the war-debt poverty that led to the Great Depression. My paternal grandfather was a pharmacist in Dulwich Hill, who got his qualifications in a hard slog at night classes and by correspondence while working as a deckhand on coastal freighters and harbour lighters, so he wasn't a typical conservative shopowner. Dad went to Canterbury Boys High, passed his leaving certificate, and played rugby union to national standard. He enjoyed riding motorcycles, his last bike being an Ariel Square Four. He worked for his father while studying accountancy at night, a typical way of gaining qualifications at the time.

When WWII began he enlisted in the army to "do his bit". After initially fighting in North Africa and other parts of the Middle East he was brought back to Australia to retrain for jungle warfare in the Pacific. By 1945 he was fighting in New Guinea, where the event that changed his life took place, and has left its mark on his family and children.

I recently got some information about this event from a friend of my father, whom my aunt (my late mother's sister) met again after many years at a funeral. My father’s friend was with him in New Guinea when he was grievously injured only a week before hostilities ceased. On a jungle track in the highlands near Aitape, while on patrol, a grenade was snagged from his belt, losing its safety pin. After warning his mates to get clear he attempted to kick the grenade away to a safe distance, but it exploded, shattering his right leg and severely injuring his left. After evacuation and initial treatment he was given Penicillin. This almost killed him because he was allergic to it, and it permanently weakened his heart. He received no official recognition of this lifesaving, self-sacrificing act of courage.

Like countless others my father was reduced from a fit young man to a maimed and shattered invalid. No more rugby, no more motorcycles. So much opportunity snatched away from a life barely lived. His first family, with whom he had a daughter, soon fell apart from the stresses of his condition. I know nothing of this part of his life, and have had no contact with this half sister.

When he met my mother, and they agreed to marry, his mother told mine what she would be taking on, and how difficult it would surely be for her as the wife of a severely disabled war veteran, and what had had transpired previously. Nevertheless, they married and had two children before Dad died in1965 aged 48, cheated of his health and his rightful lifespan. I was six and my sister two when this happened. He never left a will, and my mother was so poor after his death we grew up in our grandparents' house.

My memories of my father and grandfather are precious beyond description. The things I did and learned with my Dad as a small child have influenced me to this day, and as time passes my understanding of the effort he put into making his time with us as normal as he could for us has increased my admiration for him. I can still see him in my mind's eye, coming in from work on a hot day, bathed in sweat, and taking off his artificial leg to relieve the pain in the stump. I remember going to the Limbless Soldiers' Association christmas parties at Nielsen Park, and being surrounded by men with missing arms, legs, and in wheelchairs, on crutches and sticks. I remember being vaguely surprised, when I started school, that the other boy’s fathers weren't disabled in some way, and the terrible difference I felt from my schoolmates after he died, as if I carried some mark. My sister was only two when he died, and feels even more acutely the loss of her father.

After Dad's death we were enrolled in Sydney Legacy, where the ideology of "National Sacrifice" was revered and promoted, and the loss of our fathers was marked by a remembrance ceremony every week at the meetings, where boys (it was always segregated) were taught to march around a gymnasium, do basic calisthenics and gymnastics, and to box.

It was all pretty horrible, but there were country holidays on farms organised for us, and an annual event called "Operation Float", where people with big motor boats took Legacy kids from Church Point to The Basin, at Broken Bay. That made the weekly ritual at least tolerable, but the whole thing was pretty alienating. During the time I was a participant in the activities the first kids whose fathers died in Vietnam began to turn up, and older kids who lost their fathers to WW2 were being conscripted for that war. I began to realise what a sick cycle of slaughter the whole thing represented, something my TPI grandfather remarked on just before he died.

So I dropped out of Legacy and increasingly developed an anti-militarist, anti-imperialist, anti-state, anti-corporation attitude. I'm sure the Legacy people mean well, but they are locked into the obscene paradigm of patriotism and militarism as "a noble duty" and "tragic but necessary". I suppose they have to believe in these things to do what they do, just as many war veterans lock themselves into a conservative perspective to live with what they've had to do in combat.

The endless repetition of "They shall not grow old as we who are left grow old … Nor the years condemn" etc, the reinforcement of belief in the monarchy, the state, the flag-worship, only generated a closed and unquestioning cycle of obedience to state power and the cult of militarism. It all seemed to be on the point of eclipse when I was in my teens, forever discredited by the disgrace that was the Vietnam War. We thought only lunatics or terminal reactionaries would join the military, and all the rituals of Anzac Day and other militaristic occasions would fade away with the men who were there.

What happened since has defied reason. From the mid-eighties on, the "rehabilitation" of the sad and broken veterans of the Vietnam War has come together with the orchestrated vilification of war opponents and the peace movement in general, as if they were the people who conscripted the soldiers, sent them off to a contrived war where their "allies" dumped filthy chemical weapons (the defoliant Agent Orange) on them, where they were complicit by association in the US atrocities against the Vietnamese population, and where they inevitably found themselves on the "losing side". This cult of militarism has led to the fetishisation of Gallipoli, transformed every April into a theme park of dinki-di dumbness, cricket ground style flag waving and meathead-oriented "entertainment" (the fucking Bee Gees for fuck's sake) you would expect for the kind of Cronulla-Crowd Patriots who dominate the commemoration these days. Never think, never reflect, never ask why it happened, never question why the mistakes of Versailles were never learned, why the youth of the world continue to be sacrificed to the Molochs of Empire, Greed and Death-cult Religions.

How convenient that the amnesia of the horrors of Vietnam arrived in time for the loathsome little quislings of the Howard government to exploit it yet again; for these lackey agents of the global greedmill of corporate capitalist militarism to defile the memory of my father and grandfather, and his long dead brothers, and every other soldier from anywhere conned into fighting wars on behalf of the most loathsome scum on the planet, the toady politicians in the thrall of the gloating rich men who have always waxed fat on the misery of humanity, and the rape and degradation of our environment.

Hitler would have been no-one, done nothing, without the order-followers, the little Eichmanns that made it all possible. In Vietnam, when ordinary soldiers realised the obscenity of what they were doing, they turned their weapons on their own officers. If that had happened in 1914, or 1915 or 16 or 17 or 18, to a greater degree than it no doubt did, if western troops had joined their Russian comrades in slaughtering the imperialist beast in 1917 and 1918, the twentieth century would have indeed been a "Land Fit for Heroes". While it was not to be, the sentiment was not unknown at the end of WWI. Consider the words of poet Siegfried Sassoon, in this 1918 poem called "Fight to a Finish".

The boys came back, bands played and flags were flying
And crowds of yellow pressmen filled the street,
To cheer the soldiers who'd refrained from dying
And hear the music of returning feet.
"Of all the thrills and ardors war has brought
This moment is the finest", (so they thought).

Snapping on their bayonets to charge the mob,
Grim fusiliers broke rank with glint of steel.
At last the boys had found a cushy job,
I heard the yellow pressmen grunt and squeal.
And with my trusty bombers turned and went
To clear the butchers out of Parliament!

Don't expect that one to be prominent in the Telegraph Anzac Day feature, but it is as relevant now as it was in 1918. And if there was ever a government and propaganda mongers it should apply to, it should apply to the Howard government and its creatures in the media. There is no irony that the greatest spruikers of "patriotism" in Australia in 2006 are, like their predecessors, agents of a foreign imperial power. And, as followers the ideas of Leo Strauss, they don't have to believe a word of it themselves, just get the voters to believe it.

What anyone contemplating a military adventure should also know is that once the state has used you for its filthy purpose, you shouldn’t expect much in return. As any ex-soldier with Agent Orange poisoning, nuclear radiation exposure, depleted uranium contamination, psychological damage or physical injuries (or all of the above) knows, if it’s really going to cost them, you're on your own. After they've used you up, you're just spat out. One-way patriotism indeed.

When my thoughts on Anzac Day turn to the fallen, whether they be those damaged men who nurtured me for such a short, precious time in my childhood, or the countless others whose lives have been squandered in war over the centuries for the greed and powerlust of the worthless few at the top of this society, I will feel a terrible grief at the waste of it all. And disgust at why they died and suffered in vain.