My own father’s case is one, albeit, small but horrible example of the consequences of war, as I’m sure the impact on him and our family pales into insignificance compared to millions of others. However his and my family’s story is still worth telling.
Myself and some others of my family marched with ‘Dad’ on this most recent Anzac Day. He is the last survivor of his company which fought in New Guinea in WW2. While he was cheered and warmly applauded by the crowd, I took a photo and looked deeply into his eyes which were welling with tears. He was no longer proud; he wasn’t marching to celebrate his loyalty and dedication to country. He was marching as a last gasp expression of respect and sorrow for his friends who were killed, the young men he killed, and above all to try and give some meaning for enduring the atrocity of what war does to those who come back and their families. And in this recent march I know Dad was also driven by his sheer contempt for all the powers and their false ideologies that have sent so many to die over the generations, and still do.
In fact in early marches, we had to dissuade Dad from marching with hand written anti-war posters which he wanted to hold high. On some occasions we didn’t succeed. But this time, and probably the last time for him, he couldn’t be bothered. His very presence was like his last protest, and this was to show to all and sundry that ‘I survived human kind’s wretched ways of dealing with itself’.
But while 93 and still alive, Dad didn’t really survive his war unscathed, not emotionally and psychologically anyway, and as a result of that nor did many of his family, including me. In many ways my father returned from the war as an angry yet broken man with symptoms of a condition that later we have all identified as PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). For so long unidentified, PTSD has always been the major enemy of those returned from war. This form of acute depression has always been the sinister, murderous covert enemy that grows and lurks behind the lines in the minds of all who witness war, and it never surrenders.
In 1944, my father, a former champion boxer, was in the thick of the fighting in New Guinea, and he killed a man, a young Japanese soldier. But he didn’t do it with a grenade, with a rifle or bayonet, nothing as impersonal as that – he did it with his own bare hands ripping apart the neck of his foe as they wrestled in hand to hand conflict in the mud on the jungle floor. My father won the deadly fight- but at the same time he lost. He was never the same again. Gone forever was the glory of fighting for mates, King and Country. The realisation finally dawned that he had killed a young man just like himself, both with sweethearts waiting at home. And both had been too young too really understand the world and the hidden dimensions of wealth, power, ambition and self-gratification of the few which really drive the wheels of human history. Both were pawns, with the only difference, Dad’s King triumphed.
Dad thus came home a different man. He came home desperate and determined to change the world. He was bitter, hard edged and brutal, wracked with the desire to seek revenge on the system that forced him to kill. In his simplistic world view and duped in many ways by the clever spin doctors of the Soviet Union, he became a fellow traveller with global communism, believing it to be more Christian than Christianity- and more humanist than any human invented or ‘channelled god’ could ever be. But still deep down within his own psyche, he remained haunted and still does for the murder he believed he committed, still evident by his often breaking down into tears at night, and so much by his simple inability to eat chicken – as it ‘smells so much like my bloodied hands after I killed that jap’.
While Dad’s love affair with communism eventually faded, in the end turning to socialism, at home both externally and internally, his battle with the system remained. He fought every union fight for a better go, he attended every demonstration he could find against the Government, and above all he was viciously anti the Vietnam War and all who supported it.
Within the family home he also continued the struggle, nearly every night drumming into his kids his view of the world and those ills that had to be combated, symbolised as they were in the Vietnam War.
In short, Dad’s war impacted brutally on his kids. It was us versus them! We were taught to hate the system, to fight against it incessantly, to champion humanity and the rights of the downtrodden, and especially all those who would end up as cannon fodder for such a morally corrupt system.
The impact of Dad’s crusade and condition on our family proved both tragic and predictable and it all came to a head during the Vietnam War years. A war which saw us pitted as a family against our own country until the obvious realities of the war swung world opinion against it. As a result, my family became a pariah of the community, enduring arrests, hate mail, and schoolyard bullying. Finally my oldest brother, as the next man of the family, became so scarred by my father’s bitterness, rage and violent temper, and the resulting community backlash, he distanced himself from the whole circus. But he was also fortunate in another way for lady luck saw him escape the bouncing ball of conscription.
Meanwhile my sister joined the socialist Eureka Youth League and continued Dad’s political fight until she became more absorbed herself in fighting to keep her ‘conscientious objector’ and future husband out of gaol. My immediate older brother however was not so fortunate. Deeply affected by our family’s alienation and the onset of his own imminent Vietnam gamble, he struggled with the nightmare of having to choose between Dad, as our ideological pillar and ‘the cause’ – or community acceptance. My brother with a sensitive compassionate heart questioned his own courage to make a stand and soon found escape in motorcycles, the fringe Hells Angels bikie community and ultimately the adrenalin of fast bikes. Until one night he was severely crippled in a horrific smash just down the road from home. This haunts us still, as lying crying in mum’s arms, he was able to gasp, ‘Mum I don’t want to go to Vietnam’ before lapsing into unconsciousness. Of course that was an escape for my brother, but only temporarily. Out of hospital with a crippled leg, he was out of the war and the family political crusade by default. However his tumble downwards continued and was killed one year later in another crash. My father’s nightmare thus worsened, as it did my mothers. My mother proved the strength of our family. She was the reservoir of love, strength and compassion that in the end held us all together, and that continues to this day as she watches her husband being continually swallowed by dementia and the crippling jaws of depression and PTSD.
As for me, like a devoted son, I too adopted Dad’s fight to try and stop all the injustice around us. But being the youngest of the family I also had to first endure the damage that PTSD can inflict on a family and especially my brother’s death. Fortunately, I was shielded from that tragedy by drink and a drug overdose. But a recovery from that couldn’t stem my own lapse into depression, although not diagnosed at the time, nor me even being aware or even understanding it. As such I soon emulated my brother by adopting a death wish and suffering my own debilitating motorbike crash. But like a good son, I fought on for Dad’s cause. I eventually studied politics and earned a PhD in revolutionary studies, and an academic position at Sydney University. And just like Dad I set off to find and combat injustice in the world. This mad crusade saw me visit and conduct field research first hand for many years in the carnage of war zones in Latin America and the Philippines. But while I was obsessed with scoring academic goals, and righting community wrongs as I saw them, I was unable to stop my own drift further into deep depression, rages and violent behaviour. In the end, I was diagnosed with PTSD myself, but it was too late. I had become my own father, and my own children suffered until the family splintered. In time my career as an academic also disintegrated. While for some years I usually explained to anybody who was interested that I retired from academia purely because I was able to get a great superannuation package, I was however absolutely lying, so scared of the public stigma that mental illness attracts. The reality is that I was simply judged unable to lecture anymore because of endless anxiety attacks and the potential for suicide. So in the end I was pensioned off on a mental disability insurance plan. To quote Ned Kelly – ‘such is life’. However, so too is PTSD a reality of life and a major damaging brutal consequence of war. So think of that the next time we celebrate ANZAC Day, and think of that when you look deeply into the tear blurred eyes of some lone digger marching past. And think of the endless repercussions yet to come for our future diggers and their families, and also perhaps think of that the next time you consider eating chicken!
Dr Ivan Molloy.