Dulce et decorum est…

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It’s 530am. An amplified voice booms across our usually quiet suburb. Its still pitch dark. I wasn’t sleeping properly anyway, but I find the noise irritating. It takes me a few moments to realise- Anzac Day services… Ahh, right. Here we go again.

Soon comes the music too- so like the sloooooow, off key hymns that were sung in traditional churches I was forced to attend in private schools many years ago, that its not hard to see the parallels here. War, and its remembrance services, is like a religion to many people. Certainly in Australia it seems to be.

Any critical comments are met with the same narrow minded vehemence one expects from the religious right in the US – and yes, sadly the two are often linked these days. One is no longer ‘allowed’ to think about or question these dominant narratives. Religion, and war.

Now a quick disclaimer- I am a Christian, and more to the point, my grandfather fought in the war they will be commemorating ad nauseum today, with pretty wreaths and stirring speeches and that moving song played on the trumpets (yes it brings tears to my eyes too, and of course I feel for all those who died and suffered!!)…

However, on the other side of my family, Christian too, my Oupa was of German descent, and like so many other South Africans, didn’t join the war as they supported the fascists of Nazi Germany…

Not many people like to talk about this, much less admit to the complexity of our family and national histories. The dominant narrative in a country like Australia is blissfully free of such conflicting cultures and interests. Or is it?

(Did anyone say aboriginal people – oh let’s not bring them into this…? And what about all those German and Italian settlers who make up a large percentage of Australia today- their parents and grandparents lived through these world wars too – from the ‘other side’)

So, when we talk about the world wars, even from the singularly self-absorbed Australian perspective, there are actually many, many layers and nuances that should be taken into account, and in reality no homogenous ‘us’ remembering how we narrowly escaped being overrun by ‘them’.

And that’s just for starters. What about all the wars that followed since the admittedly dreadful and dramatic world wars – why don’t we acknowledge them too, or make as big a fuss?

The loss of life in the world wars was more than equalled in others since… And although what Hitler did to the Jews was horrifying, there have been horrific massacres and genocides all over the world, many ongoing or recurring – including atrocities in central Africa, Eastern Europe, the Middle East and across Asia.

No one is talking about those though, or the many other wars that have blighted our global history. No, only the ones ‘we’ fought in. This is an annoyingly naive and self centred perspective – nauseating and outdated. There should be no space for this anymore in our 21st century discourse around war, history, and lessons learned…

As I have already noted elsewhere, nationalism is itself an outdated construct which does more harm than good. It is at the very heart of these one dimensional discussions, remembrance services and the political song and dance that will happen on a day like today.

Of course nationalism is also the very core reason for the wars themselves. It arbitrarily divides lands and people with the simple drawing of a boundary line on a map. It obscures our shared humanity, our common needs and rights.

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Some of us are naturally more critical or analytical, and question everything we are expected to just accept – from political games to historic myths; scientific and medical challenges to our previous moral code; to social norms or religious dogma…the ‘status quo’ in all its forms. We are considered to be troublesome, quarrelsome people…

But if this questioning and reasoned approach to all forms of knowledge is not being taught in schools and universities today, then the very fundamental goal of education is being overlooked. We are all supposed to be able to think for ourselves and evaluate information we are presented with, against what we ourselves have experienced, and the multiple narratives and perspectives that can be found in the world around us.

The ‘accepted’ way of doing things, of seeing the world and responding to it – is almost always based on power struggles behind the scenes, not some self evident and unbiased ‘truth’. We need to realise this, and open our eyes and ears to what is really being said, by whom, and why….???

Again I say, if your English teacher didn’t teach you the following poem in high school (starting my own journey of critically challenging the war myths, war industry and its devout followers…) then they were slacking on the job:

DULCE ET DECORUM EST

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep.
Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod.
All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue;
deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.
Gas! Gas! Quick, boys! – An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling,
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime. . .
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering,choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
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.

[How sweet and fitting it is to die for your country]

Wilfred Owen
March, 1918

 

 

 

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