Lest We Forget

Lest We Forget

I never knew my grandfather.

The family photo album contains a photo of him holding me as a toddler, but I don’t remember him. Other photos show he was a barrel-chested man with a receding hairline. I have two younger brothers; I was the only one who inherited his hairline. Lucky me.

During World War 2, he survived a near-miss explosion. The details were horrific. He died that day – it just took thirty-odd years for his body to catch up.

Today, he’d be diagnosed as suffering from PTSD, but those were different times. When he returned from the war, he took to self-medicating with alcohol. I remember my mother telling me how sweet and kind he could be when he was sober, but how dark moods would descend, and he’d deal with it the only way he knew how… and he’d become a different – and violent – man. Soon, that was the only man he was. Several years after he returned home, his co-workers tried to get him help.

He refused.

It was a long, slow suicide. According to the medical reports, cirrhosis of the liver killed him early in May 1978, when I was four years old. He died alone, his alcoholism & violence having driven away everyone who’d once loved him.

Were there already dark threads running through his life that the PTSD brought to the surface, or were the seeds sown on that day in a war zone? How different could his life, and the lives of those around him have been, had there been ongoing support for him and all those men like him after they returned from the war?

Did he feel it wasn’t socially acceptable to take advantage of that support? Did he feel that it made him weak or “less of a man” to admit he needed help? Maybe he refused to admit it. I’ll never know. Even now, in 2016, there’s still stigma attached to being a man who admits to having mental health issues; that stigma is one of the reasons I refuse to be silent about my own mental health experiences.

As we remember the fallen this ANZAC day, think also of those who returned and still return from war zones. Some have have physical scars, but for many their hearts and minds are scarred by unimaginable experiences; experiences that they maybe can’t – or won’t – talk about.

Whatever you believe about war, both those who return from war, and their families, need and deserve our support. They also need immediate and ongoing support from the government that sent them there. It’s rare that these experiences can be processed without help; our returned military personnel require the tools and support to help them deal with the outcome of their experiences.

Far too often “going solo” results in these brave men & women becoming dependent on alcohol and/or drugs to cope. The results may be homelessness, exploding in violence towards their loved ones or others, or death at their own hands, their violence turned inward.

The effects of my grandfather’s experiences in the war, and the consequences of his choice to deal with those experiences through abusing alcohol and his subsequent violence still echo today in my own life, and the lives of those who knew and loved him.

Even while writing this post and discussing it with my cousin, I learnt new & painful things about him, and what he did to my grandmother, my mother, and her siblings.

It’s been said that “War is hell”. It’s not just hell for those who survive it, but too often for those who love them.

Lest we forget.

  • YaThinkN

    Thanks for writing this. I had a great Uncle who was similar. My granddad, thankfully did return and I was lucky enough to have a wonderful relationship with him until he died when I was a teenager. I also remember he & his mates boycotting ANZAC day for quite a few years in the 70’s when the local RSL’s stuffed them around with transport into the city & not allowing grandkids to accompany them. So my granddad & his mates met at the local pub, were treated like Princes by the owner while myself and other grandkids played under the willow trees.

    As granddad used to say, “we lost too many friends, we also have too many friends who just didn’t come back the same and except for meeting up every now & then, we don’t know how to help them, there should be one day a year that we see all our grandkids together to remind ourselves just why the hell we had to go overseas and why so many lives were destroyed”.

    I still can’t believe in this day and age, someone like my great Uncle would probably still be getting the same sort of support as he did back when he returned from Egypt, ie Sweet Eff All! Hundreds of Millions of dollars have been spent on pomp & ceremony for ANZAC day celebrations around the nation and overseas the past few years. Imagine what just a fraction of that money could have achieved to help both physical and mental health of returned servicemen like your dad and my great Uncle? So sad that these returned servicemen & women are still being ignored when they return with problems and their families are not being helped either, but hey, here’s an expensive parade ARGH! 🙁

  • Great post and effectively carries with it exactly the reason why we should NOT be promoting ANZAC Day in the way we do, i.e. as some patriotic and nationalistic tribute to fallen heroes. Whist I appreciate that there are those who still remember lost relatives or who seek to pay their respects to our service men and women both past and present, the reality is that ANZAC Day it a bizarre commemoration that only survives because of anachronistic, monarchy sycophants such as John Howard, who revived what was as good as a defunct ceremony.

    We now have an increasingly commercialised, stiflingly over-sentimentalised, pseudo patriotic and falsely promoted event in which, contrary to the best of military traditions, medals awarded to the fallen are worn by relatives, relatives of friends and even young children who can have no idea of what they are doing or why. The site of Gallipoli has become an annual tourist attraction and event at which “to be seen” rather than the respected, calm and peaceful war grave it should be.

    You are right to stress the need to appreciate the suffering of those who lived through the battles, whether as soldiers, relatives, friends or supporters. You are right, too, to express concern for the deep psychological and emotional damage and its scars that affect so many who are involved in active service.

    The fact is that there is nothing glorious, proud or magnificent about killing and maiming and destroying lives. The fact is that Australia was not under threat at that time and that indoctrination to monarchy – the attachment to Britain and “King and Country” was the spin which motivated boys and young men, in the main, to eagerly abandon their lives and loved ones, attracted and excited by the fanfare, parades, machismo and glory of fighting for the “motherland”.

    At the same time, the motherland gave not one jot for Australian personnel or Australia. Just as in the World War that was to follow some 25 years later, the British made it plain that if Australia was directly attacked – it was on its own and couldn’t expect British help. Indeed, the evidence is that Gallipoli was nothing more than a deliberate sacrifice of Australian troops, ordered quite deliberately as a diversionary tactic by the British so that the Turks would have to divert forces and thus reduce opposition for the British on their main front. Australia’s troops were under British command and were sacrificed for a country ruled by a governing elite of power and privilege.

    The glorification of troops in battle, from whatever race, country or force, is a huge and horrendous hoax. Most troops are barely more than boys. They know little of life and even less of political power games and king or dictator making that is behind most wars. Most soldiers are totally unaware of what or why they are really put in positions of combat and not until they experience them or look another man – supposedly a horrible enemy – in the eye, do they begin to see the dismal futility and pernicious horror of what they are told to do. It is not an accident that mental illness is so endemic in survivors of war, whether “victors” or “vanquished”. There are no winners and hence no losers. There is just horror, tragedy and pointlessness.

    By the mid nineteen-seventies our society seemed to be waking up to this enormous delusion that has been perpetrated on people the world over for thousands of years – that war is essential and that might is right and the only way to preserve a “way of life”. It is amazing that more people cannot see the absurd contradiction in that proposition. Sadly, by the nineteen-eighties, the era of neo-liberalism, pseudo patriotism, a renewed celebrity monarchy and the pacification and misdirection of people into confusing a material rich culture as synonymous with “success” and – excuse me while I retch – a better “quality of life”!

    Things have gone even further down-hill since then, Thatcher in Britain, Reagan in the US and Howard in Australia promoted that self-centred individualistic competition as being the essence of nation building and the provision of gadgets and gizmos to the masses ensured that the deception went unremarked by most of the population and even welcomed by the hedonistic, selfish and anachronistic, brain-washed descendants of the class orientated 19th Century.

    So, instead of World War I redeeming at least some of the misery and suffering by actually achieving the role of: “The war to end all wars”, instead we have this travesty of commemorating – (celebrating” would probably be a more accurate word for today’s events) – one of the most ignominious defeats met by any nation; in which our fellow Australians, mostly little more than children, were quite deliberately sacrificed for the benefit of a foreign power, on the decision of that foreign power and yet with the connivance and no objection at all of our own government.

    This is what the likes of John Howard and Tony Abbott would have us believe was “sacrifice” to keep us safe and defend our nation. What bullshit is that – and that we now socialise our children to absorb this obnoxious fantasy into their consciousness and notion of what the experience of those men and women of ANZAC really represents.

    Yes, I know, there will be misguided monarchists and militarists and haters of difference out there who will decry what I’ve written. There will be those who had relatives who fought and died physically or fought and died mentally or were in some other way damaged for the remainder of their lives. Those people, too, may choose not to understand what I write here and instead to hurl rocks at me and accuse me of a lack of patriotism or dishonouring or disrespecting those ANZACS and the service men and women of today.

    To those readers who cannot appreciate or understand what I’ve attempted to say and who choose to rail at me, I can only say – I’m sorry, I mean no offense to you and I do have every respect for those who fought and those who do so now. My quarrel is not with the victims of these conflicts but with those that cause them.

    You may have a better understanding of my views if you read the poems of Wilfred Own, “Hiroshima” by John Hersey, or “On the bridge at Smyrna” by Ernest Hemingway – or you could take a few minutes to listen to Eric Bogle’s “And the band played Waltzing Matilda” or “No man’s land”, Dylan’s “John Brown” or “Masters of War” or James McMutry’s “We can’t make it here anymore”. They all say it much better than can I.