Friday, July 15, 2011

Australia will be there

"What side was Arkansas on?" is a question I have been asked several times about the American Civil War. Australians have a vague sense when I mention the South that the war was a big deal for us. I complicate their notions by explaining about Arkansas's sparse population and split loyalties at the time.

I think many would be surprised about the frequency with which war is discussed here in Australia. People are very saddened by the 30 soldiers they've lost in Afghanistan, which might not sound like much compared to the thousands of American soldiers who have died, but is devastating and dramatic for a historically peaceful country of only 22 million. They are especially bewildered because it's difficult to understand what they're even fighting for.

Australia has a history of coming to the aid of other countries in wartime. During World War I, Australia fought beside Great Britain as a member of the Commonwealth, though they had gained their independence in 1901. Anzac Day, held on April 15th, commemorates the 1915 massacre of Australian and New Zealander troops that occurred on the beaches of Gallipoli, Turkey. At the moment I'm reading the Australian classic novel, A Fortunate Life, in which the author shares a good deal of his horrific experiences fighting at Gallipoli.
Suddenly all hell broke loose; heavy shelling and shrapnel fire commenced. The ships that were protecting our troops returned fire. Bullets were thumping into us in the rowing-boat. Men were being hit and killed all around me... the sight of the bodies on the beach was shocking. It worried me for days that I couldn't stop to help the men calling out.
Later, he describes leaving the battle field:
It was the nineteenth day of August 1915. I had been on Gallipoli only six days short of four months and I want to say now that they were the worst four months of my whole life. I had seen many men die horribly, and had killed many myself, and lived in fear most of the time. And it is terrible to think that it was all for nothing.
World War I touched almost every Australian family directly due to the heavy losses incurred. The small country sacrificed in extraordinary ways. In addition, as one of my colleagues described, the world wars were a defining line for Australia by catapulting it from relative obscurity and isolation into the international scene. Following the second world war, access to capital and consumer goods grew, sparking a major spate of development that has scarcely slowed over the past 60 years.

I interviewed an indigenous elder in St George who described the changes in the land over the century. Before the war, western Queensland was primarily made up of sheep stations. There were no irrigation schemes and the rivers ran clear and unimpeded. Everything changed in the 1960s. Weirs, dams, and irrigation channels were developed on the major rivers, large machinery was suddenly available, the stations were divided into soldier settlement plots, and the scrubby land was plowed up to make way for wheat and cotton. My interviewee and his brother, the only Aboriginal pilot to fly in World War II (he flew a Kittyhawk Fighter with "Black Magic" painted on the nose), were shearers before the war but turned to other industries in the changing landscape.

After the wars, many towns created meeting places for the Returned & Services League that are still community centers today. We had a drink and dinner one night this week at the St George RSL and I noticed these clubs in some of the other towns we went through. Australia has not been substantially involved in many other conflicts since the world wars. Still, there is a sense of concern about war in general. Perhaps some fear comes from its geographic relationship to growing Asian power. After all, the Japanese did attack the northern part of the mainland during World War II, and several submarines found their way to Sydney harbor.

I met an antique maps seller at a weekday market in Brisbane who told me about his amateur interest in the psychology of war. He studies war in the hope of coming to some understanding of how living, breathing men and women can be sent to their deaths as a means to an end. I wonder about that as well. How are these actions justified in the hearts of the men and women in command?

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