Remembrance Day 2012

“Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori”

These words from Horace have survived since ancient times.

Yet more often nowadays we read it in other contexts like:

Ezra Pound: “some in fear, learning love of slaughter; Died some “pro patria, non dulce non et decor.”

Wilfred Owen’s excoriating Dulce et decorum est:

“If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent  for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.”

I think of my ancestors and their comrades who fought in the Australian forces, some gone, without remains for a grave, just a name on a wall. Ordinary people caught up in horror of war. Not of their choosing, not of their making. Yet they did their duty. They fought. They stood by their mates. They died in distant lands.

Lest we forget

ANZAC Day: remembering some ordinary diggers, not famous, not important #ANZAC

Another ANZAC Day and another day to remember the sacrifices made by Australian and New Zealand forces. Those who serve in battle never get off lightly, even if they manage to survive seemingly unscathed.

This year I remember some family members – Claude and Tim from Crows Nest, and Henry Demas – who fought in the Second World War. These men were ordinary working class blokes, not famous, not important. Based on stories and their military records they were larrikins with some disrespect for hierarchy and authority.

Local boys from Crows Nest in Sydney, Claude and Tim fought in North Africa and the Pacific. They sailed to the Middle East and were at Tobruk for part of the siege. After being withdrawn from Tobruk and following a training period in Palestine they took part in the two epic battles at El Alamein (first battle of El Alamein and second battle of El Alamein) before returning to Australia in time for offensives against the Japanese in the New Guinea campaign. Their fourth and final campaign took place in British North Borneo.

Claude and Tim returned at the end of the war. But they did not return the same as they had left. Not physically damaged, yet they were each damaged in some ways.

Claude returned as an extremely angry man. He became an alcoholic, abandoned his young family, lived an itinerant existence and died alone in a veteran’s hospital on a Christmas Day in the 1960s. Ironically, after so many years of wandering away from his family, the hospital in which he died was only a few minutes away from his family who were celebrating Christmas. A sad end to the life of a man who, by all accounts, was intelligent and easy going in his youth.

Tim – a polite, kind and unassuming man – married, worked in a factory and lived a quietly medicated existence until his death in the 1980s. He never could sleep very well after the war and only rested with the help of medication and beer. Always a natty dresser, Tim never left the house without wearing a ‘proper’ hat; and he maintained meticulous personal hygiene throughout his life.

Washing and carefully drying his feet was an extremely important ritual for Tim several times a day. As a young child I did not understand any of this. I never understood why he was so obsessed with keeping his feet clean and dry. But I bet if we’d fought in tropical New Guinea and Borneo during that fierce fighting in impossible jungle terrain we’d want clean and dry feet for the rest of our life too.

I can truly understand why the generation of men who went off to fight in World War 2 wanted to come home and live quietly ordered lives. I can see the attraction of a world where supper was on the table at 6pm and everyone was safely behind their white picket fences.

Henry Demas was much more unlucky than Tim and Claude. He was part of the Australian 2/18th Battalion and was taken prisoner by the Japanese at the fall of Singapore in February 1942. This is such a sad story. He survived Sandakan – one of the most horrific parts of the war in the Pacific – until the war was almost over. Henry survived several of the Sandakan Death Marches only to die very close to ANZAC Day in 1945 – 28 April 1945. That simple fact made me cry. The Japanese surrender was only a few months away in September 1945. To be so close to the end and not survive seems terribly poignant.

But then only six men survived the horror of Sandakan, which some refer to as “Australia’s holocaust“. The exact numbers of the dead at Sandakan, as recorded by the Australian War Memorial: 2428 “known” dead: 1787 Australians and 641 British.

“They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.”
Source: The Ode

Lest we forget.

Palestinian question – an interesting insight

Just recently came across an old transcript of an interview with Martin van Creveld (one of my favourite military writers – he wrote good books on command in war and technology of war). He gives a really interesting perspective on the problems Israel is having in Gaza, strangely enough things have not improved any since this 2002 interview.

Foreign Correspondent – 20/03/2002: Interview with Martin van Creveld:
Reporter: Jennifer Byrne
“Professor Martin van Creveld, of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem is Israel’s most prominent military historian. In this interview with Jennifer Byrne he claims that despite the recent increase in Israel’s military operations, the huge Israeli defence forces will inevitably lose to the Palestinians.

Byrne: Thanks for joining us tonight on Foreign Correspondent. How has it come to this, Martin… how is it that the mighty Israeli army – one of the world’s most powerful – with its helicopter gunships, with its tanks, with it’s missiles, can be losing to this relatively small, relatively under-armed if fanatical group of Palestinians?

Van Creveld: The same thing has happened to the Israeli army as happened to all the rest that have tried over the last sixty years. Basically it’s always a question of the relationship of forces. If you are strong, and you are fighting the weak for any period of time, you are going to become weak yourself. If you behave like a coward then you are going to become cowardly – it’s only a question of time. The same happened to the British when they were here… the same happened to the French in Algeria… the same happened to the Americans in Vietnam… the same happened to the Soviets in Afghanistan… the same happened to so many people that I can’t even count them.”

Then a little later he makes this point:

“Van Creveld: No. There is one thing that can be done – and that is to put and end to the situation whereby we are the strong fighting the weak, because that is the most stupid situation in which anybody can be.

Byrne: And how do you do that?

Van Creveld: Exactly. How do you do that. You do that by A, waiting for a suitable opportunity… B, doing whatever it takes to restore the balance of power between us and the Palestinians… C, removing 90% of the causes of the conflict, by pulling out… and D, building a wall between us and the other side, so tall that even the birds cannot fly over it…. so as to avoid any kind of friction for a long long time in the future. ”

Maybe it is time they tried a wall? It worked for Berlin for quite a while.