Lest We Forget


No matter how hard we try to avoid the truth, the fact is that the function of a soldier is to kill and despoil. And the purpose of the back-up staff the cooks, the engineers, the mechanics, the computer whiz-kids, etc. is to help the frontline soldier achieve their aim. They are all part of a killing machine. The same, of course, applies to the Navy and the Air Force. From time to time, the armed services may become involved in ‘humanitarian’ activities, but war is their primary object.

Thanks to Peter Nicholson

Thanks to Peter Nicholson

During World War I, a military padre once reminded his flock that ‘the soldier’s business is to kill the enemy.’ This rule still applies.
Killing whether it be by bayonet, rifle, machine gun, shell or bomb is a messy, bloody business. Nevertheless, a lot of people get much pleasure out of it. And a lot of people kill for patriotic, philosophical or doctrinal reasons. It is quite common, for example, for army chaplains to bless tanks with holy water.
Killing has long been romanticised, mainly in trashy novels and films. It has also been sanctified one lays down one’s life for ‘freedom’, one’s country or one’s God.

War is generally encouraged and legitimised by the government of the day. When he was Minister for Defence (or should that be Offence?) in the Hawke Government, Kim Beazley was photographed beaming cheerily in helmet and uniform. He did not earn the sobriquet ‘Bomber’ for nothing. The Governor-General, Michael Jeffrey, still stoutly defends the Vietnam War. He is, of course, a Major-General.
We leave the dirty business of killing, or occupying unfamiliar and dangerous territory, to our young men and now women. They leave their imperilled native land after farewell speeches by our senior politicians and generals the children look on, wide-eyed and puzzled, while the young mothers weep a proud tear.
Nowhere on any of the Australian Defence Force websites does it mention that soldiers are being trained to kill or maim another human being or occupy his/her territory. Instead of killing, there are references to ‘leadership’, ‘adventure’, ‘acquiring skills’, ‘honour’, ‘motivation’, ‘challenging situations’, ‘duty’ and so on all the clichés and euphemisms of the war machine.

One distinguishing feature of Australian and New Zealand urban life whether it be a rural settlement or a metropolis is the war memorial. There was not a family in either country which was not affected in some way by World War I, the so-called ‘Great War’. It has become embedded in our cultural consciousness and it is now blasphemous to criticise or question the involvement of our young men and women in war. Pacifism is still for the traitors and the pansies.
Nevertheless it is hard not to be moved by, say, Melbourne’s Shrine, Canberra’s War Memorial or an Anzac Day march. The trumpet sound of the ‘Last Post’ still sends shivers down one’s spine. This is because war and combat have become reified within all of us. War and killing are in our cultural psyche. Our obsession with the ill-fated Gallipoli campaign and Australia’s ‘coming of age’ proves the point.
There is a bloody madness, which our society prefers to overlay with cliché, solemn speech and sentiment. We cannot bring ourselves to face the reality of death, mutilation and destruction. It is not the dead, but ‘the glorious dead’; it is not the dead, but ‘the fallen’.

During World War I, it was forbidden to keep a diary or take photographs of the field of battle. It was too horrifying for the folks at home to see. This State-driven myopia is still with us: in the invasion of Iraq, journalists were either ’embedded’ in military units or actively discouraged from reporting while unsupervised.
My father ‘served’ in the Great War. He fought at the Battle of Passchendaele in 1917. He was a well-intentioned, kindly man; but I have to live with the fact that he was an 18-year-old killer.
It is doubtful if John Howard, Kim Beazley, Robert Hill or any member of either major political party has ever seen a child with their legs blown off, or a person with their brains dribbling from their nose.

Each bullet in that machine gun is meant to kill or maim someone.

Recommended reading:
The Boy Scout Handbook by Paul Fussell, especially ‘Battle Trauma’ and ‘My War’
Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon
An Intimate History of Killing by Joanna Bourke
Her Privates We (unexpurgated edition) by Frederic Manning

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.