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As a schoolboy I lied to my friends.

Not about what I had done on the weekend but about the ‘fact’ that I did not watch war movies, because I did not like war. To be accurate, I clearly remember saying, ‘I object to war.’ I grew up with parents who were constantly fighting – they hated each other with an unfathonable intensity – so it made sense that I did not seek out high-conflict stories in which violence was at the core.

But I did engage with war stories.

Very much.

I used to be glued to the television while watching The Dam Busters, which was made in 1955 but repeated regularly, and The Great Escape (1963). Along with most other children my age, I laughed along with Hogan’s Heroes (1965-1971 with endless reruns). I was obsessed with Jeff Wayne’s musical version of The War of the Worlds (1978) based on the novel by HG Wells (1898) – as the disco rhythms got my heart beating fast I would sit on the floor and be transfixed by the cover illustrations that depicted a war between humanity and alien invaders.

I allowed myself to be captivated by the serialisation of Roger McDonald’s classic war novel 1915; it was aired in 1982, when I was 14 years old. At the end of the final episode, when the main character, a soldier, comes home a physically and psychologically damaged young man, I turned to my mother and said, ‘What will happen to him?’ She said, ‘We don’t know, do we?’

I said, ‘But I need to know.’

Four decades later, that need has not gone away: I have not stopped trying to work out how we let things get so out of hand that the only ‘solution’ is to pick up weapons and try blasting the enemy to smithereens.

Just before I sat down to begin writing this piece it took less than ten minutes to retrieve 50 war books from my shelves. There is the Great War poetry of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon. There are the Great War novels: All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque (1928), Goodbye to All That by Robert Graves (1929), and Regeneration (1991), Pat Barker’s fictional account of the close friendship between Owen and Sassoon as they recovered from what we would now call Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. There is Stephen Crane’s American Civil War story The Red Badge of Courage (1952), which I first read as a boy – perhaps that was the book that had sparked my bold schoolyard claim

I own the classic Australian war novels, including The Middle Parts of Fortune by Frederic Manning (1929), the previously mentioned 1915 by Roger McDonald (1979), and Richard Flanagan’s Man Booker Prize-winning The Narrow Road to the Deep North (2013). There are the glittering international successes: Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life (2013), All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr (2014), and Robin Robertson’s astonishing verse novel about post-war life, The Long Take, which was shortlisted for the 2018 Man Booker Prize.

The Sorrow of War by Bao Ninh (1991) and Aminatta Forna’s The Hired Man (2013) have both had a significant impact on me.

There is nonfiction too. Peter Stanley’s gutsy Bad Characters: sex, crime, mutiny, murder and the Australian Imperial Force (2010), which was the co-winner of the 2011 Prime Minister’s Prize for history, and Charles Glass’s very moving Deserter: a hidden history of the Second World War (2013).

I could go on.

What if I applied that old trick: my house is on fire – or there is an approaching army at the end of my street – and I only have time to rescue three war books?

*

Keep reading over at the Canberra Times, which published this piece on 7 November 2020.

But what does she really want him to do?

But what does she really want him to do?

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.

Are all men who've served their country 'good'? Peter Stanley thinks not.

Are all men who’ve served their country ‘good’? Peter Stanley thinks not.

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.

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