Wednesday, April 24, 2013

In which we don't serve ...

Grandad Woodhead in the army
ANZAC Day tomorrow, and it made me think about service in the armed forces. For people like me who grew up in the post war years it's always been a question of whether you would have lived up to the standards set by previous generations. Growing up in the 60s and 70s, we were really the first generation to avoid national service and being called up to serve in a war. My grandfather Woodhead (see above) did his time in the army before and during WW1, rising to the rank of sergeant. He was gassed and spent the rest of his life on a half pension, frittering it away in the pubs of East Leeds. On ANZAC Day they talk about the 'glorious dead' and the sacrifices made by those such as my grandad. But there was nothing glorious about the way he wasted the rest of his life in the boozer while the fish and chip shop he opened with his gratuity went out of business. The rest of the family just looked on him as a daft a'porth. War is often just absurd.

Dad in the British army, Italy, 1945

Likewise my dad, who served at the back end of WW2 in Italy when he was barely out of short trousers (in fact the army ensured that he stayed in shorts during the Italian summers). I suppose dad had a 'good' war. He stayed out of action, driving trucks and generally avoiding any strife apart from being mucked about by the officer classes. Dad never had much good to say about the army - it was a waste of his youth, too much marching, swearing and smoking and being bossed about by clueless officers.

Me, I always fancied myself as a soldier after reading too many war books such as Virginia's Cowles' Phantom Major about David Stirling. Unfortunately, I didn't realise that the peacetime army in Britain in the 1970s and 80s was still very much as class bound institution, and working class lads from Leeds just did not become officers. In the end, my only military service was as a glorified sea cadet in the University Royal Naval Unit at Liverpool, where I 'served' as a midshipman in the RNR on weekends. The nearest thing I came to action was going on a round-Britain cruise in our minesweeper in April 1982 at the time the Falkland conflict was on. We went through Rosyth and I stood next to some sailors who were sent to the South Atlantic! (a bit like Roy Kinnear's great line in the Ripping Yarn's spoof about POW camp dramas - "I was stood next to a man who was taken prisoner!")

Midshipman Woodhead RNR, 1982>
All I learned in the weekend navy was that I was not cut out for military life - too independent and prone to think for myself. I wonder how I would have done in WW2. I'd like to think I could have done as well as the next man ... but as you often read in war memoirs, it's often the least expected ones who turn out to be the reliable and brave members of a military unit, while the 'soldierly' and tough ones often crack up.

However, I still love reading 'war' books and this week I have been reading the WW2 memoirs of William Wharton (author of Birdy). He served in the US Army as a private from D-Day through to the end of the war in Germany. His account is both fantastic and reassuringly unheroic. He says he was scared stiff most of the time, and pens a great line that 'the difference between being scared and being a coward is getting found out'. And yet he describes remarkable actions such as being parachuted into occupied France before D-Day to help draw maps of the terrain (although a broken radio ensured that he spent four days doing nothing sitting in a hole in the ground). He writes about dodging sentry and patrol duty and of his role of abusing SS prisoners to get them to talk. He mostly avoided combat, but describes one reluctant patrol he led that was almost wiped out to a man. In all, Wharton's war sounds like a cross between Catch 22 and Full Metal Jacket. In other words, war is absurd, random, unfair and sometimes stupidly cruel. It is also uncomfortable (another great Wharton line is along the lines of "I know war isn't meant to be comfortable but it doesn't always HAVE to be purposely bad ...") and war is also a great source of stories - after the event.

As for me, I think I prefer just reading about it. At 50 years of age I presume that I'm now too old to be called up and take part in one. After fifty years without world war we have been lulled into a belief that there'll never be another shooting war involving western nations, but you never know, do you? Even today it looks possible that China and Japan may kick off in a real war over the Diaoyu/Senkakus. Imagine that - China fighting Japan. Would Australia join the US in taking sides with Japan against China? In that case we would potentially end up fighting the PLA - in which my wife briefly served as a cadet while at university.  Would Australians take up arms against Chinese?

Linda in the People's Liberation Army It's a very real scenario. Maybe we will leave it up to the next generation - my kids have already been through the phase of wanting to be soldiers and join the army - encouraged by military displays and parades. Would they be willing to join the Australian army and against the PLA - and possibly their mum's side of the family?
Richmond RAAF base Open Day, Oct 2006

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