We need to celebrate courage and comradeship wherever we find it. Wherever we find it among our soldiers in combat we need to celebrate it loud and clear. But if we choose to celebrate ANZAC day, we need to do it with extreme caution, lest we forget that our celebration of those legends can be used to victimize succeeding generations of soldiers.
A well-known Aussie Vietnam Vet who died recently was Bill ‘Kookaburra’ Coolburra. As a 19-year-old indigenous volunteer, Bill was among the first Australian combat troops into Vietnam. He was a part of a group of ‘sappers’ (army engineers) known as ‘tunnel rats’, who had one of the most dangerous and stressful jobs of the war. His task was to clear the huge underground tunnel networks used by the North Vietnamese.
‘We had to descend into dark tunnels searching for Viet Cong with a torch and a pistol.’ Bill recalled. ‘Some of the tunnels were so small you had to inch your way along on your belly, hoping the next bend didn’t have a VC waiting for you with a shotgun to blow your face off. The tunnels were dark and had their own smell. As a result I have been unable to sleep in the dark since’.
When Bill reflected on his time in Vietnam he said, ‘I saw some terrible things done to village people and the memories have haunted me ever since. It took me a long time to get over the sounds of helicopters flying over my home and even in these later years certain sounds have scared me. I witnessed “helicopter interrogation” (dangling a VC prisoner from a helicopter and threatening to drop them if they did not reveal enemy locations) and I always felt guilty that I could do nothing to stop it happening.’
‘I saw many other things that have made life a living hell since returning home.‘ Bill said. ‘I have seen many of my old friends destroyed by Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and many who lost their families as a result of the stress on them.‘ ·
We tend to assume that Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is due to fear of death and injury. But research by psychologist-paratrooper Lieutenant Colonel Dave Grossman, shows that PTSD is due more to the guilt of killing than the fear of being killed – and the more men we turn into killers the more Psychiatric Casualties (PCs) we create.
Grossman suggests ‘the vast majority of men are not born killers.’ Grossman quotes Brigadier S.L.A. Marshall, whose study of soldiers’ conduct suggests ‘that the average healthy individual has such a resistance towards killing a fellow man that he will not of his own volition take life if it is possible to turn away from that responsibility’. According to Brigadier Marshall ‘at the vital point’ (when a soldier has to decide to fire or not) the average healthy individual ‘becomes a conscientious objector.’
Grossman says this view is reflected in the shots-per-soldier and the kills-per-shot recorded in every major war from the Civil War through to World War I up until World War II. During this period, between 75 and 95% of soldiers either did not fire their weapon or only fired into the air – refusing to kill the enemy – even when given orders to do so. Because, one officer said, the truth is that “killing is the worst thing one man can do to another man”.
When the military realized how few men were firing at the enemy, Grossman says they embarked on a new program to turn their soldiers into killers. They knew they couldn’t change men’s natural aversion to killing, but they could put could soldiers under sustained systematic pressure to kill – by reframing killing as saving lives, portraying the enemy as sub-human, increasing the distance between the trigger and the target so soldiers can not see the humanity of the enemy, demanding every soldier’s immediate obedience to the commands of their leader and developing each unit’s capacity for collective violence.
Grossman says that as a result of this conditioning, since Vietnam infantrymen have had a 95% fire rate and marksmen have had a fire rate of 1.39 rounds per kill – and consequently the number of soldiers who have become PCs in combat has exploded. After 60 days of combat, 98% of all men become PCs. (The 2% that don’t are psychopaths.) So it should not surprise that of the 2.8 million G.I,s involved in Vietnam, up to 1.5 million returned as PCs.
Many Aussie PCs suffered PTSD. ‘Studies have proven that compared with other men of that generation Vietnam vets have higher rates of psychiatric disorders, heart disease, alcoholism and alcohol-related diseases, as well as a higher suicide rates.’
And now the cycle is starting all over again with the soldiers returning home from Iraq and Afghanistan. According to the Sunday Mail’s James Campbell The Department of Veterans Affairs says the numbers of veterans suffering with mental illness ‘has exploded in the past two years’. And the National Institute of Mental Health says, ’Suicides by veterans of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan could well top the combat deaths in the two conflicts.’
Once, when Bill Coolburra was asked about anti-war protesters, he said: ‘The protesters against the war aimed their anger at the wrong people. They spat on us and treated us like dirt when we returned. They should have aimed it at those who sent us there!’
This ANZAC Day we would do well to remember Bill’s words; lest we forget our celebrations can be used by politicians and generals to persuade impressionable young people to overcome their natural aversion to killing and send them overseas to kill and be killed in the name of the country – and victimize a whole new generation of soldiers like Bill ‘Kookaburra’ Coolburra.