Monday, October 6, 2008


A week or so ago, on the Richard Dawkins website, I copped a fair bit of stick for being too accommodating of groups like Hamas and Hezbollah, when I dared to assert that their "terrorism" was no different in kind from that of Israel or the U.S. Now, I'm not particularly perturbed that anyone would want to criticise me for not condemning outright the excrescent behaviour of such groups, but it got me thinking about reality and its perception again, and the idea of pacifism.

Graham the Barbarian and I were discussing this while we were cleaning out his grease trap on Saturday; it was a pleasant bit of plumbing work that needed to be done, and, as Graham had given me a fairly big hand in the Christmas 2001 bushfires (and I suppose saving my family's life might be called that, although Graham reckoned, at the time, that it was a bit of a doddle and he'd do the same for a blackfella), cleaning the grease trap was on the peanuts side of the scale. 

"The way I see it, Loz, you're not communicatin' your basic philosophy clearly enough."

"How so, old mate?" I asked, eager for some sage counsel. (You may recall that this is the bloke who's quite handy with a pair of electrician's pliers and a roll of gaffer tape, especially in the field of particle physics.)

"Violence is for kids. How long is it since you were in a blue?"

"What, you mean a real, fair dinkum stink, with fists and feet and blood? Ooh, gotta be thirty years, at least."

"Well, there you go, Loz; you're out of the loop, as the Yanks say. You don't remember the personal catharsis that comes when you have a real dust-up."

"Personal catharsis? Jesus, Graham, the fumes from this grease trap have got to you. What's personal catharsis got to do with giving a bloke a free dental espresso? The last time I got in a blue, it was with that clown of a football player that king-hit me. I wasn't thinking about catharsis when the surgeon was sewing my eyelid back on, I can tell you."

"You misunderstand me, mate." Graham dragged a particularly foul-looking bit of muck out of the bottom of the well and hurled it onto the pile we'd collected. "When you're a youngster, you've got this great big body that's grown out of all proportion to your brain. You're ruled by hormones, and you think you're bulletproof, right?"

"Yeah, I suppose so," I replied, wondering where all this was leading. Graham has a way of taking his time to get to the point, and it's no good pushing him along. He is, after all, a former soldier.

"Anyway," he resumed, "most of us grow out of the idea that rammin' your knee into a bloke's forehead contributes to world peace, if you get my drift. We find our cathartic substitutes elsewhere." (As soon as Graham the Barbarian - a feller who is happiest when he's stabbing a rampaging feral boar through the back of the neck with his broadsword - hitches three polysyllabic words in a row together, you stand back and prepare to run.)

"Er, go on - " I offered, tentatively.

"The point, mate, is that violence is adolescent. When you're young, your brain is made of cream cheese - you live in a cloud of half-understandin'. You get stuck in incomprehension, you can't work things out properly, you get frustrated with your lack of clear thinking, and the next available step is the one where you pick up the big stick and start cloutin' other blokes with it. Naturally, after you've finished cloutin', you feel like you've achieved something, and it makes you feel good. You haven't won the argument; you've just beaten your opponent into submission for a while. The trouble is, he'll always get back up a bit later and have another go. Unless you kill him. Most people, like I said, grow out of it. But sometimes they don't."

As this was the most that had ever come out of Graham's mouth in one go, I realised that he'd been thinking on the subject rather deeply. I probed a little more. "Tell me about the Army, mate."

"Ah, Loz, I didn't realise, until I'd been out of the Army for about ten years, just what they do to you there. They're all people who've had the ability to think  properly trained right out of them. Orders are orders, and all that? Well, the bastards at the top are just as stupid as any dickhead private. Ever wondered why they recruit blokes from about eighteen years old? The standard line is that this is when a bloke is physically fittest, and it's true you want fitness in a soldier. But the more important reason is that this is when the brain is most pliable, and you can be made to believe that violence is not only justified, but it's the way to do things. The training is as much psychological as it is physical - they want fellers to continue to accept violence as an important tool well into their twenty and thirties.

" The other thing, Loz, is that violence works for them - the authorities, that is. In 'Nam, we just took all of that trained, ingrained violence and let loose. The brass knew we were all violent, and they liked it that way. But on patrol, we were a team; a rootin' tootin' load of gangsters with powerful weapons, and it made you feel good to have all of that violence in your hands. I loved it, for a while. Most of our "engagements", as my Lieutenant used to call them, were little fights where we'd take pot-shots at each other from a hundred yards away. I saw one or two enemy go down, and it might have been me that shot 'em, might not have.

"But then, one night on patrol near Bao Loc, I cut this Vietcong guy's legs off with my M16 - he would have been about sixteen years old, and I just ran into him in the middle of the night. It was pissin' down with rain, and before I knew it, I'd shot him to bits. I was real lucky, Loz - we saw each other at the same time through some bushes, but I already had my weapon at the ready. He lay on the ground with his legs completely fucked up, blood spurtin' everywhere, and I didn't have any option but to put one straight into his head. Havin' to do that is what caused me to get the shakes - I was no good to anyone after that night, and it wasn't long before they shipped me back home.

"The trouble is, I was in for one last big shock. I was ridin' in an American armoured vehicle that was going back to Saigon; we were going through a fairly safe part of the country. I was about to be sent back home; I was lookin' forward to getting out of 'Nam for good. This Yank gunner on the rig was showing me his big 30mm gun mounted on top of the thing. We were passin' through a paddy; he said "Watch this", and trained his gun on this bloke, about 400 yards away, working his ox in the field. Before I could say anything, he'd pulled the trigger, and the next thing I saw was this poor little farmer's head come clean off his shoulders. I was freakin' out, and this bastard just patted his gun and said "How good is this, pal?" He didn't give a fuck - he looked like it was just nothin' to him; he looked like he'd done it more than once. That poor farmer had nothin' to do with the war, and this prick just wanted to show off. That's the reason I fell apart when I got home."

I didn't say anything for a while - Graham had just told me a story he'd bottled up for thirty-five years. I didn't know what to say - what can you say?

Graham the Barbarian looked up at me, and said "Loz, I grieve for that young bloke I killed, every day, and every night. I didn't have anything against him; he was just this poor kid who was as scared as I was. That's what the morons who still think war is justified don't get. They think it's just an extension of a schoolyard stoush. They think it's glorious, but it's not - it's just shit, and you can't get over it."


Zealous Meerkat said...

God, Laurie, This brought tears to my eyes. I'm speechless. I just wanted to thank you for writing it and thank Graham for telling it.

Mark_W said...


It seems stupefying crass to mention comics after this, but, as someone who thanks his lucky stars that he was born (in the UK) after national service was abolished and is now too old should it ever return, I have no direct experience of this...

Anyway, the point of Graham’s story reminded me of Alan Moore’s Ballad of Halo Jones, one book of which features scenes set in a jungle war where a young sniper of the “enemy” is killed, and the heroine’s unit are aghast at this waste of a young life...On their way back to the camp they try and rationalise the act and convince themselves they were mistaken about the sniper’s young age, so that by the time they arrive back at the camp, “she had almost died of old age...”

I was saying something on Diacanu’s blog earlier about how soldiers must be able to disconnect themselves from their jobs in the same way as surgeons, essentially because I’ve known several ex-servicemen who went through similar things to this in Northern Ireland who seem still to be able to do this; but, as Graham's story makes all too clear, it’s easy to forget when glibly saying such things that the job of a soldier is killing, and psychologically it’s impossible to imagine how you can get over something like that. It makes me shiver just thinking about it...

(Yes, I know soldiers do all sorts of other, and admirable, jobs, too, but who was it who first poo-pooed the idea that the role of soldiers was to be required to ‘die for their country?’ “A dead solider is no use to anyone,” they said, “They are required to kill for their country...)

I think this idea that violence is inherently adolescent is spot on too. Again, I’m flying without references here, and I can’t remember who it was who said that, “Armies have regiments because if it was left to individuals, no-one would ever fight.” It’s the ultimate adolescent gang-pressure. Is it ever justified? I’d probably say ‘yes’, but with the words from an article Stephen Fry wrote during the first Gulf War in mind:

“Let’s get one thing straight,” said a doctor from Long Melford. “Soldiers are made from flesh and bone and tissue that is, as Wilfred Owen said, ‘so dear achieved.’ It has taken them from seventeen to thirty years to grow into what they are. In seconds it can be a tangle of blood and smashed material that can never be put right again. [...] I’m in the business of repairing flesh. Just be sure, that’s all. For God’s sake be sure...”

Tragically (and for once that word may be justified), I fear we all too often aren’t, any more...

(Finally, it might also seem to be a bit off the point to applaud your writing here, but I'd say you’ve done your mate Graham proud with this piece...)


Laurie said...

Thanks for that very considered response, Mark. I know, in terms of writing, that I'm trying to do justice to Graham's content and cadence, and without the benefit of a recording machine (we were actually involved in cleaning his plumbing) it's hard to get the mood of things right. It's not as if Graham is all PTSD'd about his experience; he's a very tough and intelligent guy who understands that he was "only a pawn in the game", as it were. But he is enormously upset that he killed; and wishes that it hadn't been so.

The "disconnection" you speak of works for a while, but I think that unless a soldier is psychopathic, the natural emotions make the chickens come home to roost, eventually.