Holocaust, Hiroshima, Anzac, Changi: What should we tell the children? There is a price to be paid for portraying the Anzac legend as the birth of the Australian nation to spur patriotism and admiration for heroic efforts, writes Karen Kissane.
My friend, you would not teach with such high zest.
To children ardent for some desperate glory.
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est.
Pro patria mori.
(It is sweet and fitting to die for your country).
Wilfrid Owen: `Dulce et Decorum est’.
CHILDREN do not learn the old lie about today’s wars; it is hard to cloak battle in nobility when its reality sputters across the nightly news. It might be easier for some children if they did. During the Gulf War, counselling clinics treated children anxious that they or their families could somehow be hurt by this conflict that held the world transfixed. To be a child of the information revolution is to learn early the true nature of war; Holocausts and Hiroshimas, suffering, death and evil.
But war, at least as encapsulated by the Anzac legend, has always been central to Australian identity; Prime Minister Keating now wants to emphasise Anzac Day as Australia’s main celebration of nationhood. So what should children know about war, and when should they know it? For the very young, there is not so much an age of innocence as an age of incomprehension. Dr Graham Martin, the chief child psychiatrist at the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service at South Australia’s Flinders Medical Centre, says children aged between four and seven cannot understand the finality of death. If they saw killings on television, he says, it would be through a kind of “cartoon mode”; they would expect the victims to bounce back up again like they do in `Loony Toons’.
But small children are very frightened by even the threat of violence, Dr Martin says: “They feel somewhat defenceless and can easily translate an outside threat into a threat to themselves, giving them a minor reaction like a nightmare. They need to be protected against coming across that kind of material; if they do come across it, parents should provide them with the chance to talk through the issue.
It’s important to tell them that this doesn’t happen in Australia, and that it won’t happen to them.”
But even from children of this age, he says, parents will then face ethical questions about why war happens in other countries, and why individual murder is wrong but mass killing by armies is not. “The problem in the past has been that we have always taught kids that there are bad guys, whom we alienated and created a racist nickname for, like `Nips’ for the Japanese, dehumanising them. But when you get down to the nitty gritty, there were very few bad guys, and lots of good guys who got caught up in jingoistic rubbish.”
Children should be allowed to play with war toys, he says, because they deal with anxieties about this and other issues mostly through play. But parents should be watchful about children’s tendency to divide games up into good guys and bad guys, never wanting to be the bad guys themselves: “That denigration and objectification of others begins even at this stage.”
For older children and teenagers, the issues become more complex. When is battle noble, and when is it merely foolish and bloody? How should we pass on the Anzac legend, if we do at all? Should Australia’s sense of itself continue to be grounded in one incident in one war a long time ago? While Mr Keating might have no doubt about the significance of Australia’s war heritage, many educators are more wary. They see a touch of the big lie about the way the Anzac legend is passed on.
“Australians have been obsessed about teaching Gallipoli,” says Deb Hull, who is writing her PhD thesis at Melbourne University on how Victorian schools taught about war between World War I and World War II. “It’s never been, like so many other parts of Australia’s history, left for students to look up if they have an interest in it.”
Ms Hull says that earlier this century history was distilled into exemplary stories to try to instil virtues in children: “If you wanted to teach about the abuse of power, for example, you’d focus on one of the bad kings of England.” Today, she says, the way the Anzac legend is taught as the birth of the nation, to spur patriotism, is the last remnant of this approach to history as moral fable. Ms Hull says some politicians today echo the concerns of Victoria’s conservative Opposition in the 1920s, who were shocked when the pacifist Labor Government proposed banning teaching about war in schools. The Opposition argued that children would never learn to be patriotic if they were not taught about Anzac Day.
“I still get teary at Anzac Day services and speak in whispers at the Shrine,” Ms Hull says. “But history generally is not taught that way today … We should stop telling children what Gallipoli means and let them decide what it means.” The myth exacts a price, she argues. It does not encompass the experience of those who were cowards, or who died less glamorously of illness; it holds up an unreachable ideal for the generations of soldiers who followed. She was appalled to hear a former prisoner in a Japanese camp talk of his misery every Anzac Day, when he was forced to remember that he had spent most of World War II not fighting: “It is unspeakable that men who endured such hardship feel guilty or ashamed that they did not live up to an image that was unrealistic anyway.”
The veil that has been drawn over the slaughter inflicted by Anzac soldiers caused pain as recently as the ’70s, when Vietnam veterans found themselves ostracised. “Who’s the only person everyone knows from Gallipoli?” asks Ms Hull. “Simpson and his donkey. People back home wanted to think of their men as brave, but didn’t want to think of them bayoneting people, which is what Australian soldiers were very, very good at. So the image we have is of merciful mateship, the brave man who saved people, not of blood lust and fierce hand-to-hand combat … The Vietnam vets were greeted with, `Oh, how dare you! You burnt children!’ What did they think Australians did in war?” Patsy Adam-Smith, author of `The Anzacs’, holds a view that is more traditional but which she came to only after reflection. She says she used to be a relative unbeliever in elements of the Anzac myth: “When people spoke about `mateship’, I didn’t really know what that was. Not until I began my research.” Now, she firmly believes in the heroic aspects of the venture and the importance of acknowledging them. “We should be teaching children about heroism … There are people who give their lives for others in warfare.” She has no doubt that Gallipoli was the birth of the nation, and that a unique sense of mateship did develop among Anzac troops. “I have seen photographs of men with their arms around each other, almost resting in weariness, in utter trust … Australians did look after each other in adversity.”
Dr Sandy Yule, the co-founder of the Victorian Philosophy for Children Association and a lecturer in Melbourne University’s Institute of Education, has mixed feelings about what he sees as traditional teachings about war: that every so often war is inevitable, that it is forced upon us by aggressors, that it is heroic to defend ourselves and that this is the basis of our freedom and democracy.
Dr Yule believes fallen soldiers should be honored: “People get into difficult situations where moral choices are hard to make, and young people should respect the moral choices their elders make even where they don’t agree with them. The actual sacrifice of the hundreds who went and died in Vietnam, for example, should be respected just in human terms.”
He also sees value in the role of history as moral exemplar: “One of the potential problems in the more laissez-faire notion of community we have today is that we have less idealism, less willingness to sacrifice, and a lack of care for the greater good of the community. I think we are weak at building those values for ourselves in the next generation, yet they have played a powerful part in bringing Australia to where it is now.”
But he has little sympathy for the traditional notion of “My country, right or wrong” and says that when we build our own history, we should encourage an openness to the views and experiences of other nations, and try to develop a growing awareness
of world citizenship.
What of horror? How should young people learn about what the atom bomb did to the civilians of Hiroshima, of Jews and the Final Solution? If they are not to be overwhelmed, Dr Yule says, they should be introduced to war through the notion of peace, by someone who has already resolved his or her own attitude to these issues.
“Traditionally, we have introduced people to peace by telling them about war; peace is what happens when you stop the war. But you can tell a lot of stories about conflict and crisis and how it was resolved, and treat war as the story that needs to be told when peaceful methods failed.” Children’s fear, he believes, come more from a lack of context in which to place war, and sometimes from a sense that the adult talking to them is not being frank. “Horror and evil can be named appropriately; if you don’t do that, it comes across as
a dark shadow lurking behind what you are saying.
“We need to start and finish by talking about the coping strategies we have … about missed opportunities for peace. The important thing is to preserve a sense of human viability, to leave them with the knowledge that we do have choices about such situations, that there is some possibility of control.” By the end of their lifetime, today’s young will know whether this became the next big lie.
YEAR 6: How hard it was to be a soldier.
ELLEN DUSEK didn’t know it, but her great-grandfather was a hero. His story was in the folder of family memories she brought to school for an Anzac Day talk, in a letter that told why Private Matthew Thomas Hogan was recommended for his Military Medal. In 1918, the last of his team left standing, he kept firing against an enemy machinegun, capturing it and destroying its crew. He then turned the captured gun on the retreating enemy, inflicting heavy casualties. “His courage and coolness were magnificent,” the letter said.
Ellen listened, surprised, as the story was read out to the class. It was not part of her family lore. The war story she knows, and tells bubbling with laughter, is of her grandfather, one of the Rats of Tobruk, and his mishaps with army latrines.
Many of the other students in her class, year six at Sandringham Primary School, know that fathers or grandfathers were soldiers, but have heard little more. Perhaps it was too long ago; perhaps it is not long enough. Says Meagan Carr: “My grandfather fought in the Second World War and a couple of his friends died … He still doesn’t like talking about it.”
The children believe that war is bad but soldiers are good. “We need soldiers, because we have to stand up for ourselves against other countries,” says Michelle Bishop-Dyson. They are unanimous that soldiers should be honored for their sacrifice but find it hard to explain why.
But they also say, over and over, that war should be avoided. Fabian Bannister says: “I think it’s really uncivilised for people to fight in wars. It’s governments that decide to fight … they should try to be a soldier and see how hard it is.”
To these children, the Anzac legend is Australia’s war heritage. They all know of Simpson and his donkey – Steve Anderson’s great- grandfather was rescued by him – but the more recent World War II is distant to them. None has heard of Changi, the Kokoda trail, or Weary Dunlop. Only Jaya Prillinger can describe what happened at Hiroshima but when he begins talking about fallout these children of the nuclear age catch on. “Aah, radiation,” they murmur knowingly.
A couple have heard the term Holocaust: “Wasn’t that the war where they invented gas chambers?” asks Ben Robinson. Says Matthew Lawson: “They put the Jewish (people) in there and took them to concentration camps and shaved their heads.” They answer matter-of-factly, as they would about rainfall in a geography lesson; the facts known but not the reality.
Asked how many of them can imagine a world without war, three-quarters of the children put up their hands. Imagine.
YEAR 11 AND 12: Trying to look at war from both sides now.
IN WORLD WAR II, Fiona Kozub’s grandparents were taken from their homes in Poland by soldiers with guns. Neighbors looked on silently.
“It was all really hush hush,” she says today. “No one argued, no one put forward their views.” She and other VCE students at Sandringham Secondary College can understand why ordinary citizens failed to speak up about the Nazi concentration camps. You wouldn’t, would you, if you were faced by men with guns? They even have sympathy for the Nuremberg defence of soldiers charged with war crimes: “I was just following orders.” There were SS guards who were as good to prisoners as they could manage without endangering themselves, says Stewart Hore, who recently visited Melbourne’s Holocaust Museum. The survivors he met there told him of camp guards who were surreptitiously kind.
“The soldiers couldn’t say anything either,” agrees Alyson Innis.
Says Sacha Cody: “You can blame them, but you can’t. There was so much propaganda at the time.”
The students are conscious that what they learn as history is, in fact, the view of only one side in the conflict. Alyson says, “We don’t get educated about all the bad things the Americans and British did, just on the bad things the other side did … Our history teacher always tries to make us think about what’s wrong with reading only books in English. Sometimes things get lost in translation, and always it’s just the English perspective on it.”
They enthuse about the glory of Gallipoli. Their sharp criticisms of the Vietnam War – a stupid war that wasn’t ours, that we entered only to keep an ally happy – could be applied just as readily to World War I, but aren’t. It was the birth of the nation, they say, the first time Australia made its own decision to enter a war.
Stewart talks about how Australians were known then, and in Vietnam, as great fighters, and how they’re laconic, like bushmen. Where does that leave Australian women? “Cooking up the damper!” says Fiona, amused but exasperated.
Stewart, aggrieved, explains that he was just leading up to that: “The women are out of it with the wars and stuff, with Anzac Day – we need something where women can feel proud.”
Lara Flynn agrees: “Women were the ones who ran the country while the men were gone, so they should get equal recognition.”
Some of them see war as inevitable: “It’s in human nature to start being suspicious and then fight and be really evil towards each other,” says Fiona.
Lara can see an alternative: forget arms and alliances, she says, and forge new relationships with each other where disputes can be resolved peacefully.
First published in The Age.