Saturday, April 27, 2013

Cry 'havoc' and let slip the dogs of peace

The sun never sets on war (2013) Kodakotype by Pants

ANZAC Day conflicts me. Saying that, it does and it doesn't. I find the hullabalooness of it appalling and that's unequivocal. I come from the generation that studied Alan Seymour's The One Day of the Year in secondary school. The play, written in 1959, slams the day as 'one long grog-up'* In 1959, many of the marching World War 2 veterans would have still been young men with the memories of horror and lost mates still raw. A day of inebriated mayhem was inevitable but unpalatable for the general population. The men thought they deserved it once a year as no one else understood. They were right but the world had moved on. These days we understand much more about the long-term impacts on combatants.

ANZAC Day faded into irrelevance throughout the 1960s and 70s, aided by a powerful resistance to Australia's involvement in Vietnam. Then along came the Bicentennial in 1988, and with it, a hunger for a unifying identity. Enter Gallipoli nostalgia. It proved the kiss of life for ANZAC Day which has risen from the trenches and become a juggernaut of gauche, cliched nationalism. The children and grandchildren of my contemporaries rejected our anti-war ideals. They are a generation or two removed from the personal experience of growing up with a parent traumatised by his war experience and are able to rewrite it as one great heroic and glorious quest, stripped of its futility. Somehow, a battle in far-off Turkey in 1915 which, incidentally, we lost, has become the defining event of nationhood.

There is something unnerving about seeing film of a nineteen-year-old bawling at Fromelles for a great-great-great-grandfather who fell a hundred years ago. Worse still are the ones who crack up at Gallipoli despite having no family connection. Sobbing celebs on Who Do You Think You Are? are bad enough - you expect histrionics there. Tick-box tragedy tourism I just find tawdry. And you can be certain that no one will be rushing home with a burning ambition to start a peace organisation.

The delusion of all this is inconceivable to me. I had long left Australia by 1988 and was not to return for another twenty years. When I first went to live in the UK in 1982, there were still huge swathes of the East End of London that had not been rebuilt after being flattened by the Luftwaffe. Unexploded bombs still made regular appearances on the evening news. Britain had been shattered by both world wars yet marked this only with a ubiquity of red poppies in mid-November and frequent reruns on BBC2 of The Dam Busters and Passport to Pimlico. That is the dignified way of going about remembrance. Getting all gooey over Gallipoli not only smacks of insincerity but discounts completely the price paid by innocents. War is not just a game for khaki toy soldiers. Where in our nation-shaping legend are the women who were pack-raped, the children who were burned in the their beds and the six million plus victims of the holocaust? Many Jewish survivors came to live in our cities after WW2. Where do they fit into our narrative? Where are the First Australians, the Aboriginal people, in this story? Where are the Vietnamese, Iraqi and Afghan refugees whose countries we helped more recently to shatter?

My father didn't talk much about the war. He was, by the patchy accounts we have, an ambivalent  participant - not gung-ho, more like making the most of a bad lot. There wasn't conscription in Australia during WW2. Pa Pants joined the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) in 1941, fought in the Pacific and remained in service until June 1946. He never marched on ANZAC Day. He died in 1981 at the age of 60. He was a strong and fit man and his war service was considered a contributory factor in his relatively early death. This turns out to be very important to Ma Pants who, at 83, is the beneficiary of enhanced pension and health benefits because of it. She belongs to the War Widows' Guild and always attends ANZAC Day services.

Ma Pants and I have just had a two-hour debrief by phone on her ANZAC experience. She was very angry and upset. An RSL** sub-branch official had used the ANZAC Day service to deliver a diatribe against immigrants and asylum-seekers and lambaste the current government. It was hateful and disgusting, she said. She was just as concerned that others didn't seem upset. I asked her if she'd responded in any overt way. She hadn't. We concluded that people probably just didn't know where to put themselves and that she can't possibly be the only person in her community who isn't a vile racist.

Having gotten herself home and calmed down, she began to think through what protest action she might take. I suggested that the man was almost certainly in breach of his organisation's Code of Conduct and that it might be a good place to start. She could write a letter of complaint to the RSL firmly requesting that he be disciplined. She was at pains to make clear that she would defend his right to think what he likes in the privacy of his own warped mind and that her main objection was that he had exploited the most solemn of occasions in the most disgraceful way imaginable. It is wicked to hijack a remembrance service and distress a captive audience of mostly elderly people who have come for reasons of very personal tribute. Ma Pants was there to honour the contribution made by her husband - my father. He risked his own life defending the freedoms this man was so risibly trashing.

We talked a lot about freedom of speech. I think the rules are straightforward. One's rights extend only to the boundary of the rights of others. If you use your freedom of expression to oppress others or rob them of their own rights, then you are not freely expressing, you are committing a crime. Australia does have laws against hate speech but they are impotent in most jurisdictions, including the one Ma Pants lives in. Just because the law is an arse doesn't mean the man isn't an arsehole. Ma Pants and I are in agreement that such a speech in a public forum, although repugnant, would have been acceptable. It is better to allow bigots to speak in an arena where they can be challenged rather than concede to them the moral high ground by refusing them a voice. Silencing them is certainly not going to change their minds but reason has an outside chance.

Once we'd worked our way through all of this I asked Ma Pants,

'Why is ANZAC Day such a huge thing here when war memorialising isn't anywhere else?'

Her answer was immediate,

'Because the RSL is so powerful,'

'What?' I responded with incredulity, 'vested interests did all this?'

I shouldn't have been surprised. The whole country is in service to a couple of billionaire mining magnates so why shouldn't the country's biggest chain of boozers have a finger in this lucrative pie? Suddenly it all made sense and right away I knew we wouldn't have been the first to make this connection, so I opened a line of enquiry. (I've had house guests so was a bit behind on the news.)

A few days ago, Don Rowe, President of the New South Wales RSL set a cat amongst the pigeons in this interview with The Sydney Morning Herald. He is furious that the clubs are exploiting the ANZAC tradition for unseemly profit via alcohol sales and gambling. He says,

''Our business is a not-for-profit charity looking after the welfare of veterans and ensuring they are properly cared for.''

I hadn't realised that the money machine that is the RSL club and the benevolent society that is the RSL branch are separate entities. The RSL clubs are very big businesses and a major component of their business model is gambling. As a follow-on from Don Rowe's outburst last week, The Sydney Morning Herald has today printed this article describing how a war widow in her late 80s fed her entire life-savings of $750,000 into the one-armed bandits at her local RSL after the death of her beloved husband.

I feel vindicated that my instincts about ANZAC Day were right. It always seemed so phoney. We're gullible and have been manipulated in the most cynical way. I'm sure it's much easier to see from a distance. When I left this country ANZAC Day was on its last crutch. A generation later, it's the second biggest occasion of the year and the only day apart from Christmas Day where most of the shops don't open, at least in the morning.

By chance, English friends now living in New Zealand happened to be staying with me on ANZAC Day. I asked them if it was anything like this in New Zealand. It isn't. After a long day's sightseeing, we stopped to buy beers. Mr NZ, schooled in the fine art of beer-hunting by beer-ignorant Pants was sent in to get a six-pack of VB. It sounded highly erotic to Mr NZ. Waiting outside, Ms NZ and I watched a dapper veteran exit the bottle shop with his brown-paper bag of 'grog'. A small man with a full head of perfectly oiled hair, his suit was adorned with so many medals, you wondered how he was able to walk. There was no way you could avoid being moved by the dignity with which he carried himself. He had to be over ninety years old and looked very frail. His quiet presence demanded respect. The one thing you couldn't, wouldn't do, was begrudge him a drink. It was a long way from The One Day of The Year. Ms NZ, a lifelong pacifist, whispered something like, 'good for you old fellow.'

And that is the bit that conflicts me. It must be possible to care for our veterans and honour our war dead without the twisted hoopla and jingoism that allows, and possibly even encourages, the hideous vitriol that Ma Pants had to endure at her ANZAC Day event.

*Australian for piss-up.

** Returned & Services League - an organisation for veterans and serving military personnel.