Building a Better Bloke

Meditations on war

Posted in Death, Morality, Philosophy, Violence by Sam de Brito on December 9, 2009

By David Delaney

When I was prime soldiering age – late teens, early 20s – I never gave a moment’s thought to being a soldier. Nothing attracted me to the idea of being at war. It never even occurred to me. I had plans, ambitions, things to do. War, to me, was an alien concept. A crime against humanity.

Both my grandfathers died before I was born. Both fought in wars.

Finding out about their lives, I became obsessed with trying to understand what made them go to war. A sense of duty, defending your country and the things you hold dear, I understand those things, but they don’t fully explain to me why my grandfathers were so keen on war. Which, according to my mother, her father most certainly was. I know less about my father’s father, but I believe he was similar …

What made me different to my grandfathers? Obviously we were young at very different times, our cultures were very different in important ways. But thinking of them as innocents who were led to war by evil men is a cop-out.

I don’t want to romanticise my grandfathers. They volunteered to go to war. I’m sure they didn’t know exactly what they were in for, but I’m sure they weren’t idiots, either. They knew they would be risking life and limb. They knew they would experience horrors.

I doubt they were blood thirsty brutal men who revelled in horror,either. I know that they both fought in bloody campaigns. It’s likely that both of my grandfathers killed people. I don’t feel bad about that, and I don’t feel good about it. I don’t feel I have any right to judge them.

I’m not interested in justifying war, or condemning it. Right or wrong has nothing to do with it. The fact is, people go to war. Saying they do so because they’re evil, or because they’re foolish, is not an answer, it’s avoiding the question.

So why do people go to war? I’m sure there are many answers. I think one reason is that war is a real test. Can I do this? How will I react? I don’t think many people want to go to war, but I believe many people would like to know the answer to those questions. If you want to know yourself, sitting comfortably and asking rhetorical questions doesn’t compare to testing yourself in battle.

I don’t know how I’d react in that situation. I have no idea. Unless you’ve been there, you don’t either. Some people fall apart, some keep going despite terror beyond all comprehension, and a few feel fine. I’m sure that for some emotionally damaged people, war is comfortable and understandable in a way that peace isn’t. I think I do understand that.

If the outside world matches your inner turmoil, the world makes sense at last.

War is real. It’s life and death. It matters. I think that’s the reason, for some people. It’s something to believe in. I can see the attraction in that. Suicide rates plummet in wartime. Depression runs in families.

Perhaps I understand my grandfathers better than I thought I did.

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6 Responses

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  1. vleatr said, on December 9, 2009 at 8:23 am

    Its true that its harder to compare to what young men would do today compared with the generation involved. From what i understand the general view was “For king and country”, but if you watch some documentaries you would find the soldiers saying “why did i come here?, why should we die like this?”. Most soldiers say that in another life they would could have been friends with soldiers they were sent to kill.

    But i think the reason is for adventure. The young men and women still go out into the world for adventure. In the 1920’s it may not have been feasible for a young person to decide they were going to backpack around Europe for 6 months.

  2. The Ginger said, on December 9, 2009 at 4:11 pm

    A difficult topic to contribute anything meaningful to – your post asks some very thoughtful questions.

    Perhaps it’s just that people go to war because they don’t comprehend what sort of hell it will be. And then you get the heroes and lunatics that sign up again, like the guys who did WW1 and WW2.

    I read Somme Mud on Anzac day last year (I was reading it in the early morning in Sydney airport when the Dawn Service was being televised and I swear to God I had tears pricking my eyes) – an account by an Australian soldier fighting on the western front.

    Apart from the graphic descriptions of war, what hit home hardest was the narrator’s growing acceptance of the world around him. What seemed a hellish environment soon became, if far from enjoyable, at least familiar, and routine. It’s an excellent book that’s well-worth picking up. And yes, those boys went to war for adventure as much as patriotism.

  3. Mekay said, on December 9, 2009 at 11:59 pm

    I myself have pondered this question and found few real answers. To me the desire
    to go to war is uniquely male, driven by a desire to act in a way that seems to be so decisive. Little is as self affirming that fighting for your life. The difference between now and then I believe
    is entirely social as our paradigm has shifted sharply agaisnt war. Despite this I find myself thinking that if war were to seriously threaten my home and loved ones I would feel obligated if not eager to take part and be active maintaining my way of life.
    As for the moment I wouldn’t consider joining up except perhaps the reserves because it’s a great way to keep for and healthy and to meet people similarly anti-war but willing to defend their own.

  4. Grazza said, on December 10, 2009 at 8:25 am

    Interesting post. I’m in a similar boat, grandfather fought in WWI at the Somme, I didn’t really know much about it has he passed away just before I was born. It wasn’t until a bit of a motorcycle trip through europe I started passing some towns that for some reason tinkled my memory and it took me a while to remember why I knew the names.

    Anyway, it’s still a mystery for me, I know a bit more through war records and medals where he was, what happened etc. and have read some books that cover parts of the war he was in, but why he went, no idea and he never much spoke of it to my parents. I have always thought it was a different era, when Australia was much closer to England and it was a sense of duty, that their fight was ours, which has probably dwindled. But then again since WWII, in most cases our allies have been the aggressors (or at least involving themselves in foreign conflicts), not necessarily the ones attacked or invaded, so maybe it would be the same again.

  5. Robert said, on December 10, 2009 at 4:47 pm

    I suppose to use an everyday analogy to explain my thinking.

    Imagine you’re on the street one night and see some guy is beating on a girl.

    Do you step in?

    If you do, then why would be be morally ambiguous to have trained for such a situation in advance?

    OK, so war can be more morally ambigous, but the decision to go to war is essentially the same as the first question…You go in the belief that while what you’re doing might be wrong, it’s being done to prevent a greater wrong.

    Joining the military in advance is akin to the second question.

    A bit simplistic, it’s true, but I was young, but then, so are most people who go to war.

  6. Jeremy said, on December 11, 2009 at 12:05 pm

    Thanks for the article David.

    I served in Afghanistan, so the answers to the questions you’ve raised are, for me, not theoretical or academic. And I am just one of tens of thousands of Australians, all volunteers, who have served in conflicts in the Middle East and closer to home over the last decade.

    I cannot speak for them all, but I would have to say that a common thread to many people I know and have served with is a well developed ethic of service, by which I mean the desire to channel one’s skills and talents towards achieving a greater good for people less fortunate than ourselves – Perhaps this could be summed up by the great saying: “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked”.

    Soldiers hate war more than anyone. It’s a cliché, but like all clichés it is based on a kernel of truth. The complex, asymmetric conflicts in which we now find ourselves are an ethical minefield. Servicemen and women comfort themselves that while war is extremely unpleasant, that the end state of peace, freedom, justice and opportunity for those we are assisting can be a real, tangible outcome.

    When I joined the army, it was never about ‘going to war’. It was about making a difference, and several years down the track, that is still my motivation.

    I hear a lot and read a lot in the media about Afghanistan and other places. Much of it is ill-informed or smacks of armchair generalship and ‘Monday’s expertise’. I’ve learned to just shrug my shoulders. I know what I’ve seen, I know the amazing people I served with and I know they are uncommon and often misunderstood.

    They are not our grandfathers (or grandmothers!), or ancestors that only now live in faded sepia photographs. They are people you pass in the street every day without knowing it, going about their lives knowing that when the time came they had the opportunity to step up and take on a challenge most only think about briefly and then dismiss.


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