THE REAL COST OF WAR
As the graphic pictures of quivering US POWs and of the senseless
killing of fleeing women and children confirm, there's nothing glamorous
about real war. Far away from the dirt and the danger, the imposing
US General Tommy Franks and the frail looking bureaucrat Donald
Rumsfeld can exude bravado all they like. But no Hollywood studio
and no amount of spin can camouflage the awfulness of war. Until
the Vietnam War, no one seriously talked about the emotional horrors
of war. Now the world is wiser to its consequences.
Watching one young US POW's eyes flicker in fear, I was reminded
of the secrets of a group of POWs from working class Brunswick who
were held in Stalag 18A during WW2. My maternal grandfather Edward
Dorian was among them. After the war, Doctors in the psychiatric
ward at Heidelberg's Repatriation Hospital pored over his fragile
body and mind. But they refused to acknowledge that the hallucinations
causing him to jump from his bed at night had their origins in war.
How could they? To admit this would have been to destroy the myth
that wars are heroic nation building sagas.
Not long before his death in 1964 at forty-nine years of age, Dorian
had been described by a Doctor as having personality problems. Shock
treatment was considered, but no one knows with any certainty whether
it ever happened. There are no records at Veterans Affairs to suggest
his best mate, Michael 'Peggy' Parlon, ever applied for a war pension.
Parlon had shared the experiences of the prison camp, the failed
escapes and the bombings of the camp by wayward American planes.
On 12 May 1957 the 6.50 pm to the city cut Parlon to pieces on a
stretch of track behind the Brunswick Baths.
Like Dorian, Parlon was an alcoholic. Most locals had little doubt
as to how he came to overlook the stark cry of the train's whistle.
Soon the story emerged that he'd actually crouched down on the track,
pulled his coat above his head and waited for his troubled life
to end. Only half an hour earlier he'd told an acquaintance he was
depressed about his mother's death. She was to be buried the next
day at St Ambrose's Church only two hundred metres from where the
remnants of his body now lay. With his mother gone, Parlon was now
free to escape the horrors that had beset him ever since his capture
by the Germans on the Corinth Canal in Greece in April 1941.
A product of the Great Depression, Parlon was no lily white. Although
he was forty-seven years of age when the train mowed him down, his
police file gave no hint he'd mellowed. By 1956 his court appearances,
mostly for fighting, numbered more than sixty. Yet in the POW camp
he'd cared for his mates like a father or mother attends to their
children, cutting their hair and maintaining their morale.
So why did a tough, some say ruthless, working class boy, fracture
in the aftermath of war? And why haven't these real stories of war
been told? The truth is that it's far easier to talk like George
Bush, Donald Rumsfeld and Tommy Franks than to fix the bayonet like
Parlon and those American soldiers. But as history shows, even the
very brave can crumble in the face of death.
This is not to say there aren't just wars or that people aren't
capable of heroism in the face of mortal danger. Simply, it should
remind us that when the CNN cameras stop rolling and US Generals
return to their barracks the suffering will be far from over. If
hallucinations about US bombing missions over Austria could send
Private Edward Dorian jumping from his bed in post war Brunswick,
what will the current bombing do to the minds and souls of the people
of Baghdad? And as the stories grow, courtesy of a world in which
the internet and Al-Jazeera can say what Dorian and his mates could
never confide, how much hatred will have been created?
No matter what the stay-at-home patriots say about opponents of
the war, only the very foolish can believe the consequences won't
be far reaching. If a just war against Nazisn could destroy so many
Aussie souls, how can we think an unsanctioned war against an insignificant
Arab state such as Iraq won't bring dire consequences? Beyond fermenting
the conditions for terrorism against us, our Prime Minister has
now created political divisions that threaten to dwarf those produced
by the 1916/17 conscription campaigns of PM Billy Hughes.
Opposition to the war on Iraq doesn't have its origins in some
simplistic pacifism. The reasons are diverse and complex. Too many
people now understand how blunt an instrument war is for it to gain
easy passage. Equally, too many people, ex-service persons included,
understand the real reasons for war. The collective wisdom is that
wars serve the interests of the powerful and that cowering women
and children and young combatants are expendable. Hidden away from
Tommy Franks and the Hollywood studio, and unable to ask a question,
the bearers of this wisdom now have the numbers. Sadly, our much-vaunted
democracies seem to care little for their opinion. But they do so
at their peril.
Independent member of the Australian Parliament - 1992-96