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The Coward Gene


I have inherited the coward gene. I may have inherited it from an ancestor who was deported to Australia in 1806. He committed the crime (he was a repeat offender) of deserting from the British army. It was, at the time fighting Napoleon in France. He had been press ganged into the army. He was an invader on foreign soil when he deserted. We have seen records of his court marshal when he was sentenced to deportation.

In Australia he was granted a holding, became a successful pastoralist on the Monaro and was, apparently, not afraid of hard work.

I often muse on him at times such as this, just prior to Anzac Day because I, too, feel there is very little excuse for waging war on one’s fellow man, particularly because of the other man’s different ideas. I do not think I could bring myself to kill.

As a University student in the late 50s and early 60s I, with a number of others, protested about the march on Anzac Day and this apparent glorification of war. I fully support anyone who wishes to attend the dawn or any other service to remember those who died in war. As a non theist I do not attend myself but I like to remember and muse on those young men who died particularly those many who did so without necessarily exhibiting any particular glory. When I look at my sixteen year old grandsons I mourn for those other young men, for their families and even for their grandmothers some of whom did not ever know how they fell or where they are buried.

However I resent any message being sent to our future generations that there can ever be a good outcome from waging war. We must work hard on finding other ways to resolve disputes.

Language, music and pageant are so emotive. We frame and idealise our wars in the way we use them. For example our Prime Minister talks of a “death cult”. Which was the “Death Cult” in Ireland? I suppose, as that Prime Minister is a Catholic, it would, in his case have been the Protestants. To others the “Death Cult” may have been Catholic.

We can frame our wars in such emotive language and pageantry (particularly in cases where we happen to be victors – I do not hear quite so much glorification of the Korean or Vietnam Wars). Why can’t we harness such strong emotions to the forging of peace?

In my pre-teens, not long after the end of hostilities in WW11, my father had a professional colleague (a refugee) who became a close friend of both my parents. He had been a German soldier in WW11, he was captured and held in a British Prison of War Camp and, while he was there during the bombing of Berlin, his wife and very young daughter went missing. For years he harboured a wistful hope that perhaps she had met another man and did not want to be found, until he finally accepted their death had occurred in the massive Allied bombing of the area where they had lived. These were two tragic deaths but it was not the glorious sacrifice of life whilst defending one’s country, nor the victorious slaying of a savage enemy.

And those who did not go to war? I am afraid we had many in my family. Neither of my children’s grandfathers went to war in WW11. One volunteered but was rejected on grounds of a heart condition. All his life he bore the stigma of “faking” the condition just to avoid war and almost accepted it himself until he had a major heart attack at the age of 41 had to retire from his loved job as an ambulance driver and eventually died in his early 50s. His doctor commented on his congenital heart defect!

The other grandfather was also keen to join and, as an engineer, was sought after by the navy as someone to work on the new radar system. He was, however, not freed from his government job as it was regarded as an essential service although he was never allowed to explain the details. He too received many negative comments, and was somewhat disadvantaged on occasions after the war when returned service men got preferences with employment. Their step grandfather, on the other hand, joined the navy, was very suited by the camaraderie however did not see any active service, which he was keen to do. His and his wife received benefits until the survivor died.

So negativities to not joining up were quite overt.

As a young married woman I became friends with a neighbour who had been in Changi. He had been assessed as TPI and was never physically fit to work again. He was a lovely gentleman. He did not support marches, even on Anzac Day, RSL Clubs or any celebration of war. His personal perspective was that there was little that justified the killing of others. He thought greater efforts should be made to negotiate issues between nations and between people and anything that smacked of glorification of war was anathema to him. Like many others he just did not talk about wartime, especially not to nearest and dearest.

These are five different types of war stories that will never be represented on Anzac Day, but are the ones with which I was most familiar.

As a psychologist I became more familiar with some of the stories of post traumatic stress disorder, particularly those due to later wars. But what is more unspoken, except perhaps among some medical and psychological experts, is the steps that must be taken to prepare normal human beings for the killing of others when they enter the armed forces. I was moved by the concerns of a drone operator as to how this method of warfare depersonalises killing. Is all this natural? Is this merely eliminating the coward gene by brain washing, the very gene that may give us time to think rationally?

Or does it deflect it another way. Do we have to protect ourselves from another type of “cowardice”, that if we see alternatives to a toughness we are “soft”.

We must criticise the non participants to look tough, we might chugalug a beer to look tough, we must mock a shandy to look tough.

I almost did not write this so close to Anzac’s 100 years but then I chastised myself, ” not to do so is an epitome of the sort of cowardice that you are writing about”.

My Australian spirit was not founded on an invasion of Turkey, it was founded in the attitude of men, like my ancestor who had guts to work hard. And, in his case, to desert from the British Army against Napoleon not only once but twice.