The frontline soldier


In the 60s and 70s, there was a TV program called Combat. It celebrated war and violence, and was part of a 50-year-old spate of war movies and TV serials. (From the fifties onwards, ‘war’ became popular, and the Western culture couldn’t get enough of it.)

Combat concerned a group of American GIs who fought in Italy and France in the last war. They were cigar-chomping, unshaven, wisecracking, brutal young men, led by one Sgt Saunders — a veteran — tough-talking, but with a heart of gold. Combat was the longest-running Second World War program on American TV.

Significantly, it is being re-run in the US, and you can buy Combat DVDs from The program honoured the frontline US infantryman. (For TV war buffs, Sgt Saunders was played by has-been actor, Vic Morrow.)
Charles Manson, the seventies hippie and mass-murderer, claimed he was brought up on Combat. ‘I’m from the Combat generation, man,’ Manson said. ‘If they’re scared of you and you’ve got guns, you’re just a wonderful human being.’

Combat Missions, Reality TV series

Combat Missions, Reality TV series

Recently, on — of all places — Sixty Minutes, I caught a glimpse of war on the ground in Iraq. Richard Carleton was hosting a program about the Australian increased troop commitment to that unfortunate country.

The program concerned a small group of American soldiers, who were searching a house after a tip-off that insurgents might be sheltering there. The soldiers were young, heavily armed, covered with war gear, and savage.
The soldiers kicked the front door in, ransacked the house and terrorised the inhabitants — the grandparents, the mother and father and the children.

After all the shouting and screaming, it turned out that a ‘mistake’ had been made — there were no insurgents. The senior soldier — a sergeant — apologised to the terrified parents, who were cowering on the floor and tossed US$50 toward them. All in a day’s work, you might say.

Images of US troops in action in Iraq, remind me of the German Wehrmacht in Poland in September 1939. I was seven when the last war broke out, and remember it quite clearly. The German invasion was the triumph of the strong over the weak.
In the Sixty Minutes grab, the US soldiers were Sgt Saunders’ men — it was a war movie. It was Combat re-run. It is not too difficult to imagine Charles Manson barrelling a battle-scarred Humvee down a Baghdad highway.

Charlie Manson would have made a damned fine soldier. He would have been quite at home in Iraq or Vietnam, saving the world from Evil — as would John Wayne, Sylvester Stallone, Nicholas Cage or a host of other Beverly Hills actor/heroes.
Until World War I, soldiering was a minority occupation. But conscription and the involvement of industry in war changed all that.

After some seven million combatant deaths, things altered somewhat. The brave, young citizen/soldier became embedded in the Western culture. However, he always fought for a ‘just’ cause.
Also embedded in the Western culture is the anxious young wife, with babe in arms, waiting for her soldier-husband to return safely home — the soldier having done his duty for his country. (Listen to, for example, the Dixie Chicks singing Travelin’ Soldier.)

This is particularly relevant to America and Australia, who, because of geography and good luck, have escaped the ruin of war. We have, indeed, been fortunate.

Because I carry with me the baggage of World War II, there is a dismal familiarity about Iraq. I have, in a sense, seen it all before. And I am not convinced that the cause is ‘just’ and that democracy has come to Iraq. All I am aware of are the terrified children and the despoliation of Poland in 1939; then Russia in 1941. All you can say, I suppose, is that Abu Ghraib wasn’t as bad as Auschwitz.

The death, misery and fear continue on into the 21st century, at the hands of the young soldier.
Hollywood has made the frontline soldier a character all of its own. But he is present in other countries, too.

The behaviour of young Russian soldiers in Chechnya was hardly meretricious — in fact, it bears a distinct resemblance to the behaviour of the soldiers of the ‘coalition of the willing’ in Iraq. The British and Australian soldiers may be better disciplined, but it seems threatening and bullying go with the training.

Soldiering is about killing – there’s no getting way from it. You can be trained as a mechanic, cook or computer programmer; but ultimately, the ‘profession’ is about killing. The Australian Defence Force should be called the Australian Offence Force.
Our culture invents ways to avoid the thought of death and pain in war — by language and by ceremony. For example, the dead are the fallen; a sniper is a sharpshooter; to occupy and subjugate is to liberate; civilian deaths are collateral damage.

The ceremony is the awarding of medals, the slow march, the war memorial, the upturned rifle stuck in the ground, the military funeral. We do this to anesthetise ourselves.
Anesthetising is natural in Australia, because we are far away from the dead child, the terrified family and the refugee’s cart.

We can fall back on the tragic cliches — Anzac Day, the grieving mother, the anxious wife, the war movie, the intoning of the army chaplain, the solemn speech by the politician.

And where would we be without the programs on TV?

Paul Fussell: The Great War and Modern Memory, Oxford University Press, 1975 (25th anniversary edition printed in 2000) and Wartime, Oxford University Press, 1990

W.G. Sebald, On the Natural History of Destruction, Random House, 2003

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