By Benny Bongster
My father knew a thing or two about war. He was also a bit of a free-spirited gypsy and ended up serving under four different ‘flags’.
In 1940 he enlisted in the 2nd Australian Imperial Force with the rank of Gunner. In 1941 he was an engine-room stoker on the Queen Mary and played his part in the transportation of the 2nd A.I.F. across to Suez. In 1942 he was in the Merchant Marine plying supplies up the Sydney to Port Moresby run. For the later parts of the war he served aboard United States Army transportation vessels in the Southwest Pacific area.
On the 17th and 18th of June 1942 however, he, in his own words, “had the bloody shit knocked out of me twice by the Japanese.”
He was serving aboard the M.V MACDHUI when it was caught in the sights of Japanese bombers while discharging cargo in Port Moresby harbour on the 17th. The ship received a direct hit and four of the crew were killed. My father flew through the air and landed on his head but was otherwise OK. The ship continued to unload cargo.
On the 18th the Bombers returned again. The ship left the harbour and tried to evade the bombs at speed but received at least four direct hits. Six of the crew were killed. My father flew through the air again and landed on his head again but was otherwise OK. The ship ended up a total loss and was left lying on its side just offshore from Elevala village.
My father was the first to admit that the war had changed and damaged him. He acknowledged that without the support of his mates he simply would have withered away.
On a very memorable day towards the end of his life, in fact one month before the end of his life, I was fortunate enough to spend a very honest day with him at a pub in Darlinghurst. It was a day full of many rieslings and much truth. He finally opened up his heart. He talked about women, whom he loved, and he talked about war, which he hated.
He hated war. He hated the memory of what he had seen. He hated the created myths that come out of war. He did not seek to glorify his part in anything and he wanted to leave the whole deal well in the past. He could not stand people who seek to build something up to be something better than what it was, or was not.
And so we come to Gallipoli. The grandest Australian myth of them all.
Every human being is special. The Australian soldiers who went to Gallipoli were special to someone, and to each other. They were as special as every other nationality of soldier who went there and had the shit kicked out of them by the Turks.
Many Turks, Frenchmen, Britishers, Australians, New Zealanders and other nationalities died under appalling circumstances on the Gallipoli peninsula. In the end they all died for nothing, and nothing was achieved. In the big picture of the Great War the Gallipoli campaign was nothing more than a Churchillian brain-snap, a Dardanelles sideshow, and it threw away a lot of young lives uselessly.
And so the ANZAC myth was created. And so the truth was massaged into a more palatable form. And so a gross defeat was morphed into a grand nation building exercise.
The myth tells us that we found our feet as a nation on the shores of Gallipoli. Well actually what happened is that a lot of very special human beings, comrades and friends, were blown bloodily off their feet on the shores and hills of Gallipoli. The only thing that was forged there was unnecessary death.
The myth tells us that the British generals were stupidity personified and that everything that went wrong was their fault. The primary underpinning of the myth is that ‘it was somebody else’s fault’. The reality is somewhat different. The British generals at Gallipoli were no better or no worse than all of the other generals of all the other nationalities present on Gallipoli. They were all reaching for a solution to an impossible mess. And they all, quite understandably, failed.
The myth tells us that we should celebrate this ragged defeat as though it were something other than what it actually was. We are asked to wave our national flag, hold incessant celebrations of martial valour, and bask in the glow of our own myth-making.
Well here’s a bit of truth.
Australia existed as a nation before Gallipoli, and it existed as a nation post Gallipoli. The Gallipoli campaign did not create an Australian national identity. We already had that. Gallipoli simply showed that we could die as badly or as well as anybody else.
The soldiers on Gallipoli did not embark on some so-called mythical nation-building exercise. They were not fighting for some strange new sense of what it meant to be Australian. They fought, gouged, bayoneted, shot, clubbed and killed for each other because they had no other choice.
They’d been dumped in the firing line and they only had each other to rely on. The myth of how grand it all was came well after all the guts and brains had settled into the Gallipoli dirt.
The soldiers did not write or need the myth. They lived the reality and forever afterwards tried their damnedest to forget it.
And so we come to the modern era, and yet another ANZAC Day will be with us in a few short weeks.
We are about to be barraged with a tsunami of bullshit regarding the glory, the nation-building, and the wonderful sacrifice. Our politicians and notables will be streaming across to Gallipoli to disperse their nationalistic credentials like confetti. A new generation of young Australians will be there too … waving their flags, crying their tears, and ingesting every last portion of cringe-worthy theatre that the myth-makers can wring out of the Gallipoli quagmire.
But when we dig through the myth we see a very different reality.
The Gallipoli veterans went on to serve on the Western Front. Alongside new companions they achieved incredible results in front of the Hindenburg Line under General Monash.
Under a Jewish Australian General our troops suffered enormous casualties, achieved formidable results, forged great victories, and played a verifiable part in bringing the Great War to an end. But apparently they did not deserve the creation of a national myth around their exploits and their sufferings. Monash must still be turning in his grave.
When these veterans returned back to Australia there were many amongst their number who were maimed and psychologically damaged by their war experiences. While the rest of the populace was busy contributing to the compilation of a Gallipoli-centred nation-building myth these veterans, some of whom had actually served on Gallipoli, were totally ignored.
And nothing much has changed. Our damaged World War II veterans were ignored. Our damaged Korean War veterans were ignored. Our damaged Vietnam War veterans were ignored. And our damaged veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan are receiving only passing lip-service from our politicians and the populace at large.
It appears that few people are at all interested in acknowledging the stunted lives of some of our current veterans. Nobody wants to see the maimed bodies and minds, the alcoholism, the drugs, the madness, the homelessness, the violence.
Nobody wants truth wheel-chairing or stumbling its way across the head of an ANZAC march.
We did not manage to stop our politicians from sending our young men and women into these wars of the modern era. As a nation we have a moral responsibility to fully support our veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan.
As my father’s son I have great respect for how he did his best to overcome the physical and psychological damage that he suffered as a result of his service in the last great world war. He was hardly unique for those times. Society did not help him at all, and if it wasn’t for the support of his mates after the war he would have remained totally f*cked-up in spirit and in mind. He had no illusions on that score.
I also have great respect for Soldier On, Legacy, and all the other veterans’ support organisations who have not forgotten our damaged service personnel. They deal in reality, they deal with the aftermath.
They do not have time to wave flags at myths.
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