Men who lifted com­rades out of war­fare’s pit of hell

The Vic­to­ria Cross com­mem­o­rates self-sac­ri­fic­ing hero­ism

The Weekend Australian - - COMMENTARY -

War is hell yet its heroes are cel­e­brated. To mark 100 years since the ar­mistice that brought an end to World War I, we de­cided to pub­lish a spe­cial mag­a­zine, A His­tory of Courage, telling the story of Aus­tralia’s 100 re­cip­i­ents of the Vic­to­ria Cross, from the of­ten for­got­ten Boer War to the on­go­ing hos­til­i­ties in Afghanistan.

In some quar­ters, the 1914-18 con­flict is dis­missed as point­less, yet its sig­nif­i­cance for Aus­tralia has be­come clearer with the pas­sage of time. Al­most half a mil­lion men en­listed, more than 60,000 died. As Ge­of­frey Blainey writes to­day, griev­ing fam­i­lies won­dered whether news of the ar­mistice should be cel­e­brated at all. But the achieve­ments of the Aus­tralian Im­pe­rial Force were ac­cu­rately recorded by Charles Bean. The first was help­ing to de­feat Ger­many. “Its sec­ond was to reg­is­ter ‘like a shoot­ing star’ a new and un­known demo­cratic na­tion to the world,” Paul Kelly writes to­day. “And its third was to fur­nish Aus­tralians with an in­dis­pens­able gift amid tragedy — the story of how ‘the Aus­tralian na­tion came to know it­self’.”

Hard to be­lieve now, but there was a mood in the Eu­rope of 1914 that a short, sharp war might be just the thing, a purga­tive for an en­fee­bled civil­i­sa­tion. And so be­gan the war to end all wars, ex­cept of course it ush­ered in noth­ing more peace­ful than an anx­ious pause be­fore an even more de­struc­tive con­fla­gra­tion. To­day there are grim flash­points that a mis­cal­cu­la­tion could trans­form into nu­clear strike and coun­ter­strike — some­thing that all the hero­ism of wars past can­not pre­vent.

Pe­ri­ods of peace and pros­per­ity are fleet­ing in many parts of the world and rare in the long stretch of hu­man his­tory. The hor­ror of war is a les­son reg­u­larly ex­pounded upon, seem­ingly never learned. Plu­ral­is­tic democ­racy is a near mir­a­cle and of­ten be­sieged by chaos and con­flict. Its val­ues are pre­cious and some­times there is no choice but to fight in their de­fence rather than live un­der a false and op­pres­sive peace. The cen­tury since the ar­mistice has wit­nessed enough evil, but vic­tory by Ger­many in ei­ther world war would have added bit­ter chap­ters to the story. The heroic strug­gle of sol­diers and cit­i­zens against global ag­gres­sion was vin­di­cated. Amid the con­vul­sions of war, some in­di­vid­u­als stand out as es­pe­cially in­spir­ing, es­pe­cially wor­thy of recog­ni­tion. This is the pur­pose of the VC, cast in bronze from the re­mains of cap­tured can­nons. But what are heroes made of? The men we pro­file to­day come from such dif­fer­ent epochs and the events that thrust them into the lime­light — the cir­cum­stances in which they seized the ini­tia­tive — have their own par­tic­u­lar fea­tures. Th­ese men are not tri­umphal­ists glo­ry­ing in the num­ber of en­emy killed, al­though death is a given of the bat­tle­field. Duty, the cause of free­dom, de­vo­tion to empire or na­tion are all el­e­ments of hero­ism. But a defin­ing fea­ture in many of th­ese 100 ac­counts is great-hearted courage and sac­ri­fice that shields com­rades from en­emy fire and brings back the wounded, no mat­ter the cost. It’s this fierce com­rade­ship that puts flesh on the ab­stract idea of pa­tri­o­tism; like­wise, the benign form of na­tion­al­ism is built from liv­ing bonds be­tween a vast num­ber of in­di­vid­u­als and fam­i­lies.

Those en­ti­tled to wear the VC have of­ten been self-ef­fac­ing, in­sist­ing they sim­ply did what any­one would do. Per­haps this is be­cause they know bet­ter than many the ter­ri­ble lot­tery of war, the seem­ingly ar­bi­trary way in which one life is snuffed out and an­other sent home in­tact. Even so, th­ese heroes made a cru­cial de­ci­sion and com­mit­ted them­selves to a course of ac­tion that lifted war’s death sen­tence from com­rades, some­times at their own mor­tal cost. And if vet­er­ans have more rea­son than the rest of us to dwell on the price of war, it does not di­min­ish their pa­tri­o­tism, just as the po­etry of Wil­fred Owen doc­u­mented the mis­ery of the trenches while the poet him­self still be­lieved he should be nowhere but on the front­line.

In Viet­nam in 1969 a wounded war­rant of­fi­cer Keith Payne cov­ered the with­drawal of his troops un­der heavy fire from the en­emy and kept re­turn­ing to the scene of the fight un­til he had found 40 wounded men. Asked years later if he had been afraid, he said: “My god yes, yes, I was.” Courage is not the op­po­site of fear, it is fear tran­scended. And hero­ism of that kind is worth cel­e­brat­ing as long as the be­drock val­ues of our demo­cratic so­ci­ety stand in need of pro­tec­tion.

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