On the 25th of April every year, Australians and New Zealanders gather to remember those lost in the world wars. It is a solemn commemoration. Red poppies adorn lapels, heads are bowed, wreaths are ceremonially placed, trumpets sound and shots are fired. Tribute is paid to those who died and those who survived. Some of these ancestors had no choice; they were conscripted. Duty was compulsory, and it is far easier to tell stories about just wars than to consider the political power-struggles over territory and resources that are always involved. Realities are always more complicated.
Some criticise the glorification of war and the narrative of historic bravery, courage and justice, but what we don’t tend to talk about is that our fathers, grandfathers and great-grandfathers (as well as the women who are hardly ever mentioned) often returned from war traumatised, with PTSD, unable to function emotionally. We don’t talk about how many of them became violent alcoholics and raised generations of boys (and girls) to be tough, rather than to feel.
With no tools for processing difficult emotions and healing from trauma, what else can we expect but a society where violence is normalised? We sweep our vulnerability and emotional scars under the rug. Our shared cultural legacy lurks in the dark, painfully silent. We loved these people who hurt us. They didn’t know any different – any other way. We internalise their trauma and take to our own children with that same painful tension. The trauma is obvious, despite the silence.
Sure, not everyone who went to war came back traumatised, but this is more than just a private issue. Almost everyone countries who fought these wars has is a descendant of someone who was badly affected. These personal wounds are political. Violence is not a private matter, it is a deeply social concern… So why don’t we talk about it? Perhaps it is more respectful, or just easier, to glorify these heroes – just as we omit many speckled realities from funeral eulogies. But when will we get the chance to actually deal with it? When we’re drunk and prone to outbursts? Maybe this is just humanity. Maybe we have always had wars and resulting traumas to deal with, but isn’t it time to start to talk about it?
It is hard to talk about sensitive things. It is easier to create perfect fictions of heroes than see their failings, weakness, vulnerability and the suffering they caused. But maybe if we stop just seeing the dark stuff as personal, we can really start to deal with it – and begin to heal this inter-generational trauma. We are living in a society where everyone has felt the after-shocks of this trauma, and what we do know about violence is that it tends to create vicious cycles – unless we can break out of them. Awareness is the first step.