War sure is fun when it doesn’t hurt

Ever since ANZAC Day I have been thinking about war and battles and death in the heat of combat. I am not qualified to write about any of this. What do I know of war? Absolutely nothing except that it looks awesome in high definition.

I am a child of Hollywood. My exposure to war is mostly slow motion heroics with wide-angle explosions. I play out my action-hero fantasies by running around the house shooting at my own kids with Nerf guns. “Ha ha, got you and now you’re dead.” War sure is fun when it doesn’t hurt.

I have been swinging wildly between this popcorn view of war and the sombre reverence of our recent ANZAC Day commemorations. And somewhere in between I keep bumping into the obvious ugly truth: war is stupid.

Really, has there ever been such a thing as a sensible war? We use words like tragic and unavoidable, but never sensible. War is the exact opposite of how we ask our children to behave. You can’t work out your differences? Hurting each other is not the answer.

Discomfort accompanies me through every ANZAC Day. On the one hand there is respectful acknowledgement of soldiers who died on the battlefield. On the other hand there is a sense of unease about the futility of those deaths.

A friend of mine expressed similar tension when he described his thoughts about this year’s commemoration day as “a muddle of flip-sides.”

I mutter that war is stupid and then I feel guilty. It doesn’t seem right for me to make simplistic pronouncements from my comfy cushion of peacetime that was paid for with scars I know nothing about.

My grandfather never spoke of his war experiences. Only at his funeral did I learn about his medal-winning courage under fire. When they played the Last Post at the end of the funeral it jarred me because I had never thought of him as a military man. The most I ever heard him say about it was “I lost some of my cobbers.”

His cobbers died fighting the Japanese. It seems strange that New Zealanders once killed, and were killed by, people who are now our friends.

I have a little book called Poems of the Great War that has probably had more impact on me than any grisly movie. In his famous poem, Dulce et Decorum est, Wilfred Owen calls it a lie to say that it is sweet and fitting to die for your country. “If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood come gargling … you would not tell with such high zest, to children ardent for some desperate glory, the old Lie.”

Last week in the public library I overheard two elderly women talking about life in London during World War Two. One of them said, “She has post-traumatic stress, like me, even after all these years.”

I eavesdropped just long enough to learn that loud noises, things like trains and thunder, still wrench some people back into the Blitz.

Leaping from one war into another, I have read that an estimated 373,000 children are suffering from emotional trauma after last year’s war on Gaza.

There are enough natural disasters to contend with without the additional violence that humanity heaps upon itself.

In my own simple universe there would be no enemies, just people we do not yet understand.

That’s a naive view, I know. Everything is complicated. Diplomacy is hard. Violence is easy. History suggests we are better at the easy stuff.

From a more recent collection of poetry by a veteran of the Iraq War, Kevin Powers writes, “war is just us making little pieces of metal pass through each other.”

It is hard to find anything sensible in that.

First published in Bay of Plenty Times 1 May 2015. Reproduced with permission.