Day in, day out, there they are, on the terrace below, in uniform, camouflage for some, others in blue or green or white, so it’s a military uniform – because they’re soldiers.
It’s not because we’re being invaded, though the assumption is that one day we might be, or it might be us who’ll do the invading, all hell might break loose, yet again. It’s just that those people, those men and women in uniform, those soldiers, are my environment at the moment.
Because I’m currently the 2013 Canberra Creative Fellow at the Australian Defence Force Academy, courtesy of the University of New South Wales Canberra. ‘Creative Fellow’ being just a posh name for writer-in-residence. Which itself is a posh name for professional day-dreamer.
I haven’t talked about it much, because, primarily, it’s taken me some time to work out what I’m doing. I’m here for three months, and I’m two months down the track, and it’s only now that things are coming into some kind of focus, though that might not be entirely true, or accurate. The thing is I’m a natural-born pacifist; I’ve marched in the streets to protest wars. I’ve always been of the view that there must be better ways to resolve disagreements than standing in a field and pointing weapons at each other. I like books and music and drinking coffee in my garden while chatting to the chooks – hardly the sort of bloke who gets off on putting an enemy in the crosshairs.
So, no, the Australian Defence Force Academy is not my usual habitat.
Thankfully, as mentioned, I’ve come in via UNSW Canberra, which runs the academic side of ADFA, so that I simply get to spend my days in a very comfortable office in the library, looking down at people in uniform…when I’m not madly researching and reading and writing, of course. And that’s the thing: I’m finding the place extraordinarily thought-provoking, inspiring even, and bloody productive, in a roundabout kind of way. As I rather childishly (and potentially inappropriately) said to a senior academic the other day after he’d asked me how I was going, ‘I’m having THE BEST time.’
I came here with the idea of exploring ‘masculinity in times of conflict’; this probably says as much about me as it does about Australian military history. Perhaps, like always, I’m being driven by that central question: what does it mean to be a good man, which, of course, is almost exactly the same as asking, what does it mean to be a good person? But the military, especially the Australian kind of military, is all about men, isn’t it, the warrior, that iconic ‘digger’, that myth of our country, that brave saviour of everything we’re meant to stand for (whatever that is).
Those men who could do no wrong. Except I don’t believe that for a second.
Recently, over the last handful of years, historians – the courageous ones at least – have been turning their attentions to what our soldiers were truly like. Perhaps the best example of this is Bad Characters: sex, crime, mutiny and the Australian Imperial Force (Murdoch Books, 2010) by Dr Peter Stanley, who for almost three decades was the Australian War Memorial’s chief historian and is now associated with ADFA/UNSW Canberra.
This excellent book, which jointly won the 2011 Prime Minister’s Award for Australian History, asserts that an army is a reflection of the society it serves, which means it is a reflection of everything that that society is – warts and all.
Stanley has also been instrumental in establishing Honest History, the soon-to-be-launched organisation based in Canberra dedicated to telling military history how it is without the dramatics, especially as Australia builds up to celebrating the centenary of 1915, when, apparently, though I don’t believe this for a second either, our country formed some kind of identity or purpose – or even found its soul – on a Turkish beach.
So that question remains: who were those men who served, and who are the men who serve now, considering there are just as capable women filling key roles, including in active duty? Eight weeks down, do I have a clue? No, not a single one, even though I’ve researched and read and written like a bastard.
Except to say this: (1) I couldn’t do what these men do/have done; (2) I maintain my view that war is senseless, barbaric, and an insidiously bewildering mess; and (3) men who deserted – those who discovered that for what reason they just couldn’t blow up another person, or even go anywhere near a front-line – may well be the truest heroes of all. Because – and here’s that word again – they were honest with themselves.
Really: deserters as heroes? I’m serious. Deadly so.