Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Anzac Day, looking back at the horror of war

Yesterday's Sydney Morning Herald has a timely article about the soldiers who went crazy because of the horrors of what they experienced during their military service. The article reports on those who had obvious signs of distress. I'm sure many more suffered severely throughout their lives from the nightmares, the depression, and the emotional pain of what they went through... and, it isn't just the great war, it's all wars.

My own father (WW2) seemed quite normal to everyone but as I look back now on his life I realise he suffered from depression. He would never talk about his war experiences. I knew nothing until several years after he died. My mother told me that one of the jobs he'd had during the war was to bring the bodies back from the Kokada Trail. That kind of job would be just awful! That one piece of information explained a lot to me. It was no wonder he had not been able to be emotionally present to us, his children. How could he? His life spirit was dead in PNG. As a result, he avoided conflict at all costs. He just could not bear it. He couldn't stand us kids arguing about anything. And, he left just about everything to our mother.

I've met Vietnam vets who to this day still have nightmares. War is so awful, so destructive. The suffering is so great.

Military madness of diggers lost in legend - National - smh.com.au
An army major is challenging the Anzac legend, which he says hides the reality of mental illness among diggers. Cynthia Banham reports.

BURIED alive four times - once at Gallipoli and three times in France - by 1916 "Private A" of the 18th Battalion could not stop the tremor of his head or limbs.

"Fred" from the 4th Battalion was blown up by a bomb at Lone Pine, redeployed a year later to the Somme, where he, too, was buried alive, remaining unconscious for two hours. By 1917 he had been admitted to a military asylum, nervous, suffering headaches, tremulous. Private Alfred Kirkwood, of the 7th Battalion, was gassed twice in the trenches, and eventually diagnosed as suffering shell shock.
Private Alfred Kirkwood
(Photo: Australian War Memorial)
These are the diggers most Australians rarely think about when they celebrate the Anzac legend, as they will tomorrow.

They are the disenfranchised soldiers who sustained psychological injuries in the Great War, and they are the diggers whom a serving army major says Australians have "let down".

Published to coincide with Anzac Day, Madness and the Military: Australia's Experience of the Great War, by Michael Tyquin, is the first comprehensive study on mental illness in World War I. It shatters the stereotype of the tough Anzac, an icon that he argues Australians look up to today - but which never existed.

Major Tyquin says of the soldiers who were "mentally shattered" by the war - some of whom recovered, though many did not - "I think we've erased them from our public memory. We like to celebrate Anzac, and I use 'celebrate' now because I think we're getting away from the original intent.

"There's nothing really in society that we can focus on - king and country and religion seems to have gone - and we're clinging onto this Anzac myth. And there's no place in that myth for anyone that's less than perfect."

In challenging the legend, Major Tyquin lays much of the blame at the feet of the wartime journalist and historian C.E.W. Bean, who he says manufactured the icon for a new nation. But he argues that in doing so, Bean chose to ignore any evidence of the diggers who, psychologically, emerged from the war in poor shape. "He was very conscious of this nation-building task that he took upon himself. I do think he shut off aspects of the Australian military that didn't fit in to that mould."

Major Tyquin, who is in the army's medical corps, began researching the book after reading "dozens and dozens" of diaries written by Gallipoli troops, and discovering that in a great number of them "all was not well".

"There was a sense of disturbance coming out of those."

War history, he says, does not dwell on the unlucky, the weak, the fragile. And so he aimed to record a part of what he calls the forgotten history of a generation of soldiers who, because the medical profession and the military viewed them as "somehow morally inferior or genetically prone to neurosis", have been effectively locked out of Australia's collective memory of war.

Despite the lack of knowledge of psychology at the time, the military did try, towards the end of the war, to understand what was going on with its soldiers who were presenting with symptoms of what eventually became known as shell shock.

After the war soldiers with psychological injury were admitted to special military asylums, such as Callan Park in Sydney.

But the onset of the Depression meant the public lost sympathy with the mentally ill diggers, who became, he says, the first to fall victim to the cynicism and budgetary constraints.

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