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Marked men: anxiety, alienation and the aftermath of war

What is obscured in our understanding of returned servicemen’s problems is the private pain of families who bear the brunt of these psychological strains. AAP/Dan Himbrechts

The Gallipoli centenary provides a unique opportunity to reflect on the many wartime legacies – human, political, economic, military – that forged independent nations from former colonies and dominions. The Conversation, in partnership with Griffith Review, is publishing a series of essays exploring the enduring legacies of 20th-century wars.

Germaine Greer’s father never hugged her. Born just before the Second World War, Greer’s childhood was overshadowed by a father who had served in military intelligence and survived the protracted horrors of the German siege of Malta. He returned suffering the effects of anxiety disorders and near-starvation. Greer found him cold, reserved and distant, unwilling or unable to respond to her desire for familial intimacy.

Greer’s story of a father altered as a returned serviceman – alienated and aloof, seemingly out of place in the feminised space of home and family – is one echoed in the stories of Australians from many walks of life. War service may have been mythologised and enshrined in the national narrative, but the private experience of return is all too often suffused with personal ache and anguish, marking out a profound generational and intergenerational legacy of psychological loss.

Twenty years ago, when I first began to research the experiences of returned Australian servicemen from the major wars of the 20th century, evidence of the costs of war – material and emotional – surfaced in abundance. Official archives contained numerous reports of the pressures on widows and children struggling to survive when breadwinners had fallen in combat, or the burdens on wives and mothers caring for severely injured and ill veterans.

However, these dusty files more commonly held disquieting accounts about the strain of living with those demobilised soldiers who were seemingly fit and healthy, but had returned moody and withdrawn – by turns sullen and violent, prone to fits of rage, unable to hold down jobs and salving their private torments in drink or drugs.

Australia’s pre-eminent Great War historian, Charles Bean, asserted that the returning Anzacs “merged quickly and quietly into the general population”. The records of repatriation authorities, returned services charities, support groups and comfort funds tell a different story.

Australia has continually faced a returned soldier crisis. This is something that marked men returning from all the wars of modern memory – from the Great War to Afghanistan and Iraq. There have now been three times as many suicides of Australian veterans of Afghanistan as combat deaths.

In the 1930s, the RSL graphically encapsulated the problem in its successful campaign for a special pension for the “burnt-out soldier”. After the Vietnam War, a more specialised language took hold. Post-traumatic stress disorder is now enshrined in the ways we think and talk about returning men.

What this term obscures is the private pain of families who bear the brunt of these psychological strains.

Stretching across generations

This was the archival account. Yet equally striking was how my research prompted stories and reminiscences of returned soldiers from friends and strangers alike. These were invariably stories of loss or distant, disturbed and damaged men, enshrined in family narratives and transmitted across the generations as a talisman of connection to the horrors of war. Is it possible to capture and do justice to these enduring legacies?

The tendrils of war can stretch across generations, well beyond the life of the combatants. AWM

A pallid echo of private anguish is evident in the statistics of public support for veterans and their families. More than one-quarter of a million Australians – veterans, widows and children – are currently in receipt of war pensions. This is a figure roughly equivalent to the numbers supported in the 1920s and 1930s when repatriation constituted one-fifth of all Commonwealth government expenditures, although the Australian population has quadrupled since then.

More revealing is that during the interwar years, pensions for psychological disability rose while for all other categories they fell – owing to death or recovery. The scars of war sometimes took years to emerge, something that puzzled Australians in the 1930s but seems unsurprising to those raised in an era where discourses of psychological trauma abound.

The financial burden of war pensions on governments can be surprisingly enduring. A century after Australia mobilised for the Great War, there are still 100 Australians receiving Commonwealth war pensions as a result of the conflict. They are war widows, the wives of any veteran already receiving a pension or a veteran whose death was war-related, even if death occurred decades afterwards: the last Australian Great War veteran passed away in 2009.

The tendrils of war can stretch across generations, well beyond the life of the combatants. If the American experience is any guide, Australia might see many years before the last Great War pension file is closed. The last widow supported by an American War of Independence pension died in 1913, and the last receiving an American Civil War pension in 2004.

Towards an understanding of war’s personal impacts

The material and social impact of war might be tangible and, in some oblique way, quantifiable. Less easy to grasp are the emotional, psychological and familial residues of war service – on the people left behind by men who died in service, and on surviving veterans and those who shared their lives.

We can find the traces of these deeper personal currents in family memoirs and reminiscences. Many of them are classics in the genre, such as Greer’s Daddy, We Hardly Knew You; Donald Horne’s The Education of Young Donald; Ric Throssell’s My Father’s Son; and Clive James’ Unreliable Memoirs.

My Brother Jack is a fictional account of war’s impacts on servicemen and those around them. Collins

The ramifications of war on servicemen and their families and friends also abound in fictional accounts, most famously George Johnston’s My Brother Jack. Other notable contributions include the final volume of Martin Boyd’s Langton series, David Malouf’s The Great World, Leonard Mann’s Flesh in Armour, William Nagle’s The Odd Angry Shot and Alan Seymour’s play The One Day of the Year.

Less well known perhaps are Vietnam novels, such as Rhys Pollard’s The Cream Machine and David Alexander’s When the Buffalo Fight.

In many of these works, a profound alienation between men at war and those at home plays out, echoing the oral accounts and archival files of many veterans. The horror of war, the death of mates and the insidious growth of the belief that men at the frontline were abandoned to their fate by those at home – unsympathetic politicians, profiteers, shirkers, Vietnam war protesters and the “girls who wouldn’t wait” – were common themes in the private reminiscences, and frequently in the public utterances, of returned men.

However, for some, return was not a welcome release from horror. Rather, it was the loss of comradely friendships forged at the frontline – a leaving behind of the intense bonds of the trench, the jungle and the desert to be thrust back into a mundane, hostile and unmanly environment of family and work.

Historians have traditionally shied away from personal and private emotions, except in historical biography. However, the rise of social and cultural history in the late 20th century increasingly focused attention on a broader range of collective and personal experiences, although not always in the most elegant of conceptual frameworks, as indicated by the short-lived fashion for “emotionology”.

Australian historians interested in the history of private emotions found fertile ground in war and return. The pioneering work of Joy Damousi and the subsequent work of many others such as Marina Larsson, Pat Jalland and Bart Ziino has focused on death, grief, mourning, memorialisation and the burdens of caring for ill and injured returned servicemen. This has greatly enriched understanding of the personal consequences of war and their impact on the shape of Australian life and politics long afterwards.

It is perhaps not surprising that Australian historians have turned to the consequences of war with such enthusiasm. It seemed a natural fit for the social and cultural turn in the discipline.

More importantly, Anzac looms so large in the national consciousness that studies of grief and mourning offer an oblique entry for social and cultural historians into the national debate, without having to be ‘for’ or ‘against’ Anzac.

Links to the Anzac legend

The irony of these new personal and familial approaches to the history of the Anzac legend is that the deeper historians go into the private dimensions of war, the less distinctive the Australian experience seems to be.

The history of damaged and ill veterans is hardly unique to Australia. The significance of post-traumatic stress in the lives of returned servicemen and their families, and the impact on rehabilitation and repatriation systems, is common ground for historians of North America, Britain, Europe and other parts the world.

From there, it is a short step to questioning the distinctiveness of the Anzac legend itself. The more we place the Australian experience of war in a transnational context, the more obvious our shared experiences and responses become. The historiography on the experience of modern warfare – from Germans in the Great War to Americans in Vietnam – stresses the importance of group bonds among soldiers.

In other words, what Australians have called mateship was exactly how soldiers on all sides of the major wars of the 20th century survived. And if they didn’t develop such bonds, they did not survive for long. Servicemen from all modern wars commonly felt that generals were sacrificing them for worthless purposes, people at home were ignoring their plight and profiting from their absence, and wives and girlfriends were betraying them.

What is distinctive about the Australian experience of modern warfare is not the experience itself, but our refashioning of it into a national secular religion. For most countries, occasions such as Remembrance Day are solemn occasions for commemoration of the dead. In Australia, Anzac Day mixes solemnity with celebration of national becoming.

The ink spilt trying to explain this has been extensive and at times illuminating. But is there more to the Anzac legend than just the flowering of emergent nationalism? I’ve never been well disposed to psychohistory, generally finding it vague and speculative. Yet the more I look at the history of Anzac and how it has waxed and waned in national consciousness, the more I think collective psychology might have something to tell us.

The Anzac legend emerged in the aftermath of Gallipoli, but only came to national prominence in 1916 and beyond – just as the conscription referenda convulsed the nation. In the end, Australia was one of the few combatant nations that did not institute conscription, a fact sometimes used by veterans and their representatives to suggest that Australia had failed its men and owed them a special debt.

By the 1970s, the power of the Anzac legend seemed to be on the wane, only to reawaken in the 1980s when discourses about the betrayal of Vietnam veterans – a lack of sympathy for their war service – encouraged many to support the “Welcome Home March” movement. Since then, Anzac commemoration has undergone a remarkable revival, particularly among younger generations.

In this light, could it be said that Anzac has been fuelled in part by collective guilt? Have discourses of betrayal fostered compensatory discourses of national embrace? Are these anxieties amplified by the fact that unlike many nations Australia’s modern wars have been fought overseas, with civilians a long way from theatres of combat (except perhaps in Darwin)?

Germaine Greer had a distant relationship with her father, a returned serviceman. AAP/Gerry Noon

Answers are elusive. There is clear conjunction, but causation is harder to prove. Australian opposition to war, from the divisive votes of 1916 and 1917 onwards, has often failed to disentangle legitimate criticism of the war effort from criticism of those Australians who accepted the call to arms.

In this failure, ordinary soldiers have felt themselves at the brunt of public opprobrium, even when the critics were clearly a minority of Australians. Can we find ways to criticise wars, while at the same time hold the valour and sacrifice of the soldiers themselves in high esteem (except when military atrocities have been proven)?

If cultures fail to perpetuate warrior myths, do they make their veterans’ alienation worse? Does the inevitable gap between discourses of debt and the reality of its repayment create the conditions for disenchantment?

However, Greer’s story of familial disharmony refuses the easy discussion of Anzac alienation, instead exploring more discomforting theories about paternal disaffection. Greer’s brilliance lies in moving beyond the obvious narrative lynchpin to deeper undercurrents of masculinity, class and status. Similarly, recent research on suicidal veterans questions whether high rates are peculiar to war service or reflect an emerging masculinity crisis in young men.

In this light, are our collective discourses on Anzac – even on the alienation of Anzacs from all our modern wars – ways of deflecting more troubling interrogations of the evidence, something that both reveals and disguises?

What is inescapable is that the legacies of Anzac story-making, whether praising Australian virtues or highlighting loss and sacrifice, are in many respects efforts to render meaningful the unfathomable pain and anguish experienced by generations of Australians as a consequence of war.

You can read a longer version of this article and others from the Griffith Review’s latest edition on the enduring legacies of war here.

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