There’s always talk of the glory of war, the forging of nations and consciousness, the conversion of boys to men. But to me war is an 18-year old digging through the bowels of a battleship, dragging decomposing bodies up to the light. It’s that boy that I think of when I consider war, a boy seeing the scrawl marks on the bulkheads, each line marking a passing day as live men suffocated slowly, trapped within the carcass of a dead vessel, doomed.
When he was 17 or 18 my Grandfather took a step to ensure he wouldn’t miss out on The War and he forged his parent’s signature on a waiver. I’m certain to this day it was a way of getting out of Te Aroha once and for all, and off to Japan he was sent. The glory of war was fading quickly, all the great battles having been fought. There was no El Alamein for him. No Crete. No Cassino (though, to tell the truth, the latter was a farce, an ignominy levelled on us by poor leadership). Instead, once again we were the labourers for the Empire, and lackeys to the British, to whom we dutifully doffed our caps.
But it was there that he found freedom I think. For once in his life he answered to no-one but the authority of the military. In the photos he is young and smiling, genuinely happy. The trouble is… that he despite a natural leadership he, to this day, dismays of authority and is endlessly running afoul of it. It was for that reason he was promoted to sergeant and busted to private three times. What larks, indeed.
The War. A friend today talks of the crucible of war as a place for young men to enjoy a particular freedom the veil of society masks. When men return from active service they see the regularity and norms of civilian life as an active constraint on their true natures, a limit to their abilities, and a restraint on their potential. Theirs is both opportunity and horror in war, one never realised by the cloistered and ordered suburbs, and one mimicked poorly by soft, pretentious counter-cultures, the latter itself proving a great irony.
And so it was there, serving in J-Force his eyes were opened to what the world really was. A country boy from small-town New Zealand seeing the shadows on the steps. Taking the admiral’s flag and sword from the bridge of a salvaged battleship. Seeing a proud nation in abject humiliation. Seeing the bodies of boys his age decomposing, wasting, lives squandered in the utter blackness of a vast steel mausoleum.