I was a pacifist once. But not for long! War was an anathema to me; an insane, horrifying and terrifying violence that destroyed life and all things beautiful. Growing up in the Jewish faith, I learned early about the Holocaust and the Nazis (it was a constant conversation in our home, sadly) wondering whether there had been an alternative to waging war against Hitler. (I could never come up with one, however). I wanted peace in our world, lamenting the lives lost in bloodshed and hoping for a new dawn of harmony. I protested against the madness in Vietnam, carrying my placards of peace in the streets and engaging in countless arguments about the futility of war. But it was just adolescent idealism, realising that for some, the lust for power and empire defied reason and polemic. War was a fact we couldn’t defeat and I started to reappraise how it was the only sane course of action against those who perpetrated crimes of violence against other countries and even their own people in the guise of self-aggrandisement. There were those who wouldn’t listen to pleas for peace; hell bent on hatred for humanity, at best, of a certain kind.
As we in Australia have just remembered our fallen on ANZAC Day, 25 April, I recalled how I used to denigrate that day as nothing more than a glorification of war, an irrational inspiration for getting intoxicated and a march for the millions massacred in madness. Kill or be killed was the axiom of agony; where life didn’t seem to matter in the quest for world power. But were they wars for nothing but death and destruction? Or were they attempts at annihilating an evil enemy determined to wipe out the western world? While I’ve never been in war, I reflected on my months living in Israel decades ago where soldiers toting uzi guns strolled the streets, suspiciously casting their eyes on all Arabs and frisking them as they tried to live their lives oblivious to the paranoia and poverty that enveloped them. (I felt sorry for them as well as the Israelis as distrust raged rampant) But that innocent pity was soon shattered when a bomb went off in the apartment block just near where I was staying in uptown Haifa. It was 1969 and there was no declared war and no apparent reason except the eternal enmity between Arab and Jew. War was on my doorstep too; a war I didn’t understand except to recoil in fear at the frightening furore down the road. Maybe I did live in a war zone then; however the frivolous fun of the night time bars and cafes deceived us. I never saw shelling on the streets or rockets hit a house and while hatred pervaded the atmosphere in parts of the country, there were abodes of peace where war seemed a distant past. The big cities were much safer, suburban havens than now exist on those streets or those in Iraq or Afghanistan as a more insidious terrorism taunts us all. I remembered all the anti-war novels and movies I’d read and seen that I hoped might engender a new embrace for everlasting peace, but now as a 50-plus Femmosexual, I have surrendered such sweet idealism and changed my mind about war. Not to mention the men and women who died during them. And still do. Let alone the lingering toll of mental ill health and physical injuries which remind all soldiers of their suffering.
Sadly, war is inevitable; a complex and confronting horror that betrays our belief in the goodness of human beings. Suicide bombers belie our beauty; wreaking havoc with our humanity and our hope for peace. While wars today might be more disguised and more discreet, they are just as perilously fatal. Since 9/11, it is a very different world, where peace hangs, albeit tenuously, in our midst (for many of us, at least) thanks to the thousands who risk their lives and sanity for a more secure world. Ironic, isn’t it, that you have to fight for peace; a contradiction in terms where we aspire to paths of glory in mountainous terrain that bares testament to a travesty of humankind. But indeed, it’s not for nothing. And neither were the two world wars and all other wars where the men and women who lost their lives demand that we remember. I can no longer deny ANZAC Day and dismiss it as an aberration; it is not a celebration of war but a necessary and timely tribute to all those who died so tragically in the deserts and jungles in bloody conflict. Words don’t seem adequate to define these men and women; we call them courageous and brave for sacrificing their lives so we can now live in relative peace and prosperity, but having just watched TV docudramas about Kokoda and The Pacific, I can’t describe how truly terrible and insane the battlefields really must have been. Or the environs of Baghdad, Kabul, Jerusalem or Gaza are today.
I sit on my settee in my comfortable home and tears well up in my eyes as I thank the fallen, and those still alive today, for fighting for us all; for allowing me to live my life in Australia without the terror that afflicts others around the world. I can still walk the streets of Melburbia without seeing soldiers with guns, I can board a bus without security police asking to see my passport and ID papers as they do elsewhere, and I can sleep at night without worrying that Nazis will break down my door. Moreover, I can express my opinions and criticise our governments knowing I won’t be tossed into jail in solitary confinement for exercising my freedom of speech. (I lived in Spain in the 70s under the fascism of Franco and witnessed all too obviously the fear that gripped people, even me, as we were all too scared to open our mouths to disagree with the government; who knew who were the secret Guardia Civil?) But here, I can read newspapers, magazines and books and watch TV to learn about our crazy world and revel in the liberties we enjoy Down Under. They are precious freedoms we must defend, and it is an important part of our international responsibility that we take up arms to assist other countries to live with these same freedoms we are so lucky to have in Australia.
There are so many reasons to be thankful; so much to be grateful for and while I certainly acknowledge we are far from perfect, I live in hope for a more peaceful and just world. I still call myself a peacenik, but I remember all those who died as I dry my eyes and raise a glass of beer to them all. Lest We Forget!