Tuesday, April 25, 2006

In Flanders fields

Anzac Day in New Zealand tends to focus on what a terrible thing war is, and how we should do everything we can to stop it happening in future. Here in Australia I guess they can't push that angle anymore, what with being currently involved in a war and all. So instead it winds up being a bit of a worship-the-soldiers fest, which I find a little bit scary.

Obviously people who got drafted into wars had a pretty shit time of it, and yes, I think a day to remember them is justified. But I've met a few guys recently who are in the army because they like it and they think that killing people sounds like fun and, after all, they'd only be killing the Bad Guys. What worries me is the message we are giving to people like that about how what they do is all honourable and glorious.

But then I get all worried about whether I'm being naive and illogical. I am glad that other countries stepped in to stop Hitler, for example. So I tell myself that I think it's okay for countries to defend themselves against someone invading them. After all, the war's already begun by that point, right?

But what if Hitler had never tried to invade, say, England. Would I still think that England's intervention in WWII was justified? Well without them, Hitler might have won the war. And that would have been bad. So maybe it's okay for a country to come to the defence of another country that has been invaded.

What if Hitler had never tried to expand Germany's borders, but had just stuck to murdering millions of people in his own country? Then it starts to get trickier. Sure, he needed to be stopped, and sure, the Germans themselves by that stage were hard-pressed to do it, what with being arrested whenever it looked like they might be rebelling.

But if you say other countries can step in whenever they suspect a leader is turning homocidal despot, they could use this as an excuse to invade countries they dislike for other reasons ("Well, we thought he was putting too many people to death, but I guess we were wrong. Oh well.") And where's the cut-off limit? Is the death of 100 citizens enough to justify a war? 1000? Does the despot have to kill so many that it outweighs the casualties of the war itself? Or just act as though he potentially might?

So it turns out that I think that war might sometimes (certainly in the case of defending your own country against invasion), be a necessary evil. And if that's the case, then countries need armies, right? And if they need armies, then people who volunteer to be soldiers are doing their country a favour -- are putting their lives at risk to protect everyone else. Which is exactly what people keep saying about them that makes me uncomfortable.

I guess part of my problem is the difference between the ideal and the individual. The individuals I know who have gone into the armed forces aren't doing it out of a sense of duty to their country. They are doing it because it sounds like fun and they get to learn how to kill people. And I don't think we should be raising these arseholes up on a pedestal.

My other problem is that, sure, ideally these guys would be going into the army out of a sense of duty and desire to protect others. But ideally, no country would have an army, countries wouldn't even have these damn borders, and everyone would live in peace and harmony with happy bunny rabbit friends. So when it comes to war, I don't know if it's fair to start talking about ideals. The reality is what counts, and the reality is that war sucks for pretty much everyone involved.

Except for that thing where we get another day's holiday. So happy Anzac Day, everyone.

PS: It turns out they don't do the poppy thing for ANZAC day here in Australia, but only for Armistice Day. Someone should have told Google, though, since the Google Australia site has a nice little poppy design today, while Google NZ doesn't.

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Lucy said...

I think the way the armed forces are marketed now, as a well-paid, secure career and a means of self-fulfillment, makes a big difference. The people I know who joined the army, joined to get their uni fees paid (and enjoyed bossing people around).
I always thought Anzac Day was about honouring the sacrifices made by soldiers who fought to defend their country/empire/allies. It's hard to respect the sacrifice of someone who's in it for the benefits, though. If it's just a job, then police officers, firefighters etc are just as worthy of being honoured for their contribution to society.
It gets more complicated when they're fighting an unjust war. I found the scenes of young soldiers laughing about going into battle in Fahrenheit 9/11 devastating because, sure, they were acting like insensitive arseholes, but they're trained to see the world in black and white in order to function in battle. I think it's a terrible tragedy that the army recruits people by emphasising the supposed fun and adventure and uses that to desensitise them to the horror of war.
I don't think I'm expressing how I really feel very well, and this is coloured by the fact that my dad has post-traumatic stress disorder from fighting in Vietnam, but I've been editing this comment for too long already.

StyleyGeek said...

I guess each person's experience of things like Anzac Day is coloured by their family history. If you've had people in your family who fought and died, or who fought and survived, but with physical or emotional scars, you are going to see it differently from if you haven't.

My family has a long history of being conscientious objectors. So they all had a pretty bad time of it in the wars too, what with public ridicule, threat of imprisonment, losing their jobs, etc.

And I think it's sad if on Anzac Day and similar days of remembrance, people honour soldiers for standing up for values such as patriotism, family, defence of the helpless, defence of their way of life, but forget about the people who stood up for equally important values like peace, not killing people, the right of the individual not to be forced to go to war and so on.

So that probably colours my view of the day as well.

By the way -- while you were commenting on my blog, I was commenting on yours! Love that symmetry!

grace said...

On one side of my family I have conscientious objectors, who refused to go to war because of deep religious beliefs; on the other side I have army people, who went to war for equally strong principles: principles of duty and service to society.

World War Two permanently scarred *all* of these people.

Sometimes there seems no alternative to military action. Could Hitler have been stopped any other way? I don't know. But I am quite sure that war should be an absolute last resort.

grace said...

I guess the other thing I think about on Anzac Day is how every single tiny settlement in New Zealand has its own war memorial with long lists of dead. New Zealand paid very dearly protecting our allies on the other side of the world.

Of course New Zealand would have been in big trouble if the Americans hadn't defeated the Japanese here in the Pacific. We are grateful to the US for that; It's a pity, though, that we had to show our gratitude by sending our soldiers to Korea and Vietnam.

I've heard people say, "you've got to stand with your friends", but to me friends also tell friends when they are being misguided idiots.

StyleyGeek said...

Grace, you said exactly what I was trying to say, but much better than I could have.

grace said...

Not at all! I really liked what you wrote. And thanks for raising the subject of conscientious objectors; they're usually ignored, if not actually vilified.