Yesterday, on Anzac Day, like many of my neighbours, my wife and I stood at the end of our driveway at 6.00 am to remember those who fell in order to preserve the way of life we enjoy today.
As if on cue, the Last Post rang out across the neighbourhood, followed by a minute’s silence and then Reveille. I assume that the bugler was playing at our local War Memorial, which is about 500 metres away.
In any event, the sound of the bugle rang clear and true in the still morning air. The local magpies raised their voices too, perhaps in response the bugle’s call or maybe because the dawn sun had lit the overcast sky in red. That seemed appropriate as well.
The previous evening, my wife and I made a list of all those members of our family who had served in the military. To our astonishment, we discovered that 19 had served.
Of these, one was killed, three were wounded and three were taken prisoner - two of whom survived more than three years in Changi (Singapore).
Even those who survived unharmed had experiences that most of us would regard as terrifying.
My grandfather survived 18 months in the trenches during World War I. My wife’s grandfather survived too, but suffered permanent disabilities after being gassed.
My father, although not physically harmed, had to survive three crash landings in the highly unreliable Beaufort bombers which were used by the RAAF in New Guinea in World War II.
My wife’s father survived fierce and bloody battles with the Japanese in the Burmese jungle, although tropical diseases posed a much bigger risk than Japanese bullets.
More recently, both my daughter and son-in-law have completed operational tours in the Middle East and Afghanistan and are suitably laden with shiny medals and other military paraphernalia (bilas) as a consequence.
I mention this because I think our family is not especially unusual in Australia.
War has seriously impacted upon every generation of my family since 1914. The only wars we appear to have missed having a family member involved in are the Korean War (1950-53) and the two Gulf Wars.
As an historian, I am necessarily a student of war. Warfare has played a significant role in shaping history across the world. It seems that our species is so innately aggressive that we will fight over just about anything.
Wars have been started simply because someone didn’t like someone else’s religious beliefs or to fulfil a self proclaimed right to occupy a given piece of territory.
The War of Jenkins’s Ear (1739-48) was initiated by the alleged severing of Captain Robert Jenkins’ ear in the course of an argument with the Spanish navy over trading rights. The ensuing conflict between Britain and Spain lasted 9 years, with huge casualties on both sides.
World War I was triggered following the assassination of a member of the decaying and decrepit Austrian aristocracy by a 19-year old fool, who had been put up to it by people who ought to have known better.
An even bigger fool, Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany, used the assassination as an excuse to provoke a war that he confidently expected to be won by his splendid army in six weeks.
He was, of course, entirely wrong: the war lasted an agonising four years; 1,773,000 German soldiers died; 4,216,058 were wounded and Germany lost the war. Kaiser Wilhelm was deposed and died in exile.
In a Papua New Guinean context, we kiaps used to say that tribal fighting was invariably triggered by disputes over land, pigs or women, in that order of priority.
This was slightly cynical I suppose but proved to be correct surprisingly often.
The suppression of tribal warfare in PNG occupied a lot of the early kiaps’ time and was an absolute prerequisite for the country to have any chance of making material progress.
Happily, it did not take a lot of exposure to rifles, pistols and shotguns for Papua New Guinean warriors to realise that the white interlopers were best accommodated or at least avoided.
This was the case despite the odd success on their part. In fact, such successes as they had were almost invariably pyrrhic victories because punitive action usually followed.
I like to think that Papua New Guinea’s big men of the past were far too smart and pragmatic to engage in very one sided fighting with the heavily armed kiaps and police, especially once they realised that the government’s aim was to impose the rule of law, not steal their land, pigs or women.
Sadly, it seems that the kiaps’ efforts may have been in vain, as I understand that trial fighting has resumed, this time with military weapons. As usual, it is the women and children who suffer the most, which compounds the tragedy.
If history tells us anything it is that warfare is not only highly risky but, very often, leads to outcomes that none of the combatants foresaw or wanted. It is possible to have what has been called a catastrophic victory, where it turns out that winning the war was the easy part of the exercise.
The US and its allies’ military victory over Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was as complete as it is possible to imagine, but attempting to win the subsequent peace was vastly more complex, difficult and costly.
Those who enthuse about war as some sort of sporting activity or see it as a viable means of achieving their political ambitions are seriously deluded.
During the American Civil War the Union General William Tecumseh Sherman, speaking after his famous March to the Sea through the southern states in 1864, said that “War is all hell”.
That was certainly what he had deliberately and calculatingly inflicted upon the southern states and his actions are remembered to this day.
Even a very hard bitten soldier like the Duke of Wellington, speaking after the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, expressed the opinion that “nothing except a battle lost can be half so melancholy as a battle won”. He was, at the time, gazing upon a battlefield where around 50,000 soldiers had been killed or wounded.
The lessons of history are clear enough and yet we continue to ignore them. That is why so many families like mine can compile a disturbingly long list of relatives who have served in the military.
It would nice to think that future generations might have very much shorter lists or, preferably, no list at all.