Tuesday, 5 July 2011


“War may sometimes be a necessary evil. But no matter how necessary, it is always an evil, never a good. We will not learn how to live together in peace by killing each other’s children.”-  Jimmy Carter

I saw a middle-aged man on the train today, and he immediately attracted my attention for a number of reasons. One could immediately tell he was an ex-soldier from the medals he wore on his lapel, an RSL badge, and thrown in for good measure a red poppy – a relic from Anzac Day, no doubt. Although he wore a suit (which had seen better days), shirt and tie, he was still wearing his military boots. He was carrying a large bag, a rolled up display poster and a folding table. He was getting into the City early, and would be setting up a table to sell something or other for RSL fund-raising. His gaze more than anything was what transfixed me. An intense gaze and a serious countenance, eyes that were looking out, yet strangely unseeing. He stared straight ahead and his lined face was grave, while his calloused, gnarled hands that were holding onto his baggage firmly had obviously been through a lot.

The reports of more Australian soldiers being killed in foreign conflicts immediately came to mind. This man was one of those that had served and obviously survived. The row of medals on his coat indicated that this soldier had been through battle, had taken part in many missions, had killed, had seen some of his comrades injured, or perhaps worse. His presence on the morning commuter train was incongruous. However, the way that he looked out of his seemingly disciplined and imperturbable façade indicated that all was not well inside. There was a rawness of soul that still managed to seep through the chinks of his armour.

Whoever has seen active duty, has fought in a war, has confronted violence of that magnitude first hand is forever changed. I looked at his hands again and imagined them holding a gun, pulling the trigger, could see the bullet travelling with lightning speed through the air, finding its target with lethal accuracy. I could hear the repeated gunfire, the explosions, the shouts of the people, the cries of children. War is an ugly truth that we try and push out of our minds as much as we can. It is easy in countries like ours that are far removed from conflict and where we are able to live our cushy lives in pursuit of our self-indulgent goals whatever they may be. This ex-soldier’s presence on the commuter train jarred and forced people to acknowledge these foreign conflicts that Australia is involved in. I wasn’t the only one who had observed him…

News just in tell us of a decorated Australian commando on his fifth deployment to Afghanistan that has been shot dead in a firefight with insurgents. This is the eighth commando to die in the conflict and the 28th Australian soldier killed there since 2001. Sergeant Todd Langley, 35, from the Sydney-based 2nd Commando regiment, died from a gunshot wound to the head during the battle in southern Afghanistan on Monday. His death follows that of another decorated veteran commando, Sergeant Brett Wood, 32, killed by an improvised explosive device in May. He was on his third tour of Afghanistan.

We live in peaceful times in a country ostensibly at peace. We work, play, shop, pursue our pleasures, laugh and carry on with our lives, cosily insulated from adversity, civil unrest, conflict or all-out war in other parts of the world. Our media bombard us with inconsequential inane “news” about sports, celebrities, new products, fashion, food and entertainment while “feel-bad” news like war, disease, conflict, anti-government demonstrations are relegated to second place, something to mention as quickly as possible and immediately forget. The “serious” newspapers and magazines are obligated to carry more extensive articles on these “bad news” items, but there are big colourful advertisements right next to these, about luxury cars, watches, perfume, jewellery. Yes we acknowledge those “bad news” items, but we move on quickly to the glossy advertisements – much more appealing…

Here is such an item that fails to register in most people’s mind any more: “Twin suicide attacks ripped through the city of Taji north of Baghdad, killing at least 35 people, after Iraq suffered its deadliest month so far this year in June. Thirty-five people were killed and 28 injured when a car bomb and an improvised bomb exploded simultaneously outside a government office where national identification cards are issued, and the provincial council offices.” We glance at this and most people would not read further than the first sentence. “Iraq, bombs, death – what’s new?” the reader would ask and move on to something more engaging: Princely weddings perhaps, or the latest sexual escapades of some Hollywood celebrity…

I wonder what news the ex-soldier on the train is interested in? Is he one those who keeps up with what our troops are doing in foreign conflicts? Does he and his comrades get together and reminisce, comment on these latest news items, have a view, lobby politicians perhaps? Or maybe they would want to forget? Would they immerse themselves in the mundane inanity that whitewashes our attention daily in such an aggressive manner? The wearing of his medals and his fund-raising activities for the RSL would suggest to me that he would do the former. His presence behind his stall, the poster above him and the fund-raising merchandise on his portable table would be a reminder for the rest of us that somewhere on some battle front, an Australian soldier is pointing his gun across some expanse at some enemy. Someone’s son, brother, husband, uncle, cousin, boyfriend, colleague, mate is facing death daily. Someone who may become one of those pesky little news items that we glance at and move on from: “Australian soldier shot dead in a firefight with insurgents…”

The soldier got off one station before mine. A young man who was also getting out offered to help him with his baggage. The soldier looked surprised and turned half-smiling to the young man to thank him and politely refuse his help. “You’re a gentleman,” he said to him, “Not many people would be offering to help. I appreciate it, but I’m fine. I’ve been through worse…”


  1. My grandfather was in the Russian Revolution and dad was in New Guinea. Both killing fields. So I have never believed that men should become soldiers, except to defend their own nation. To go half way around the world, bombing citizens and shooting enemy soldiers, is very nasty.

    Worse still, it impacts on our own community. Sergeant Todd Langley was just the latest tragedy, leaving parents, wives and orphans who will never get over their loss.

    If Australia wants to help another nation, let us send engineers, road builders, house builders and farmers.

  2. Nicholas, this is a poignant and sad post that touches me personally. I can identify with what you write and with what Hels has posted above...

  3. Hello Nicholas V:
    We have returned from a weekend in the country where, staying with our friend who was an official war photographer for the United States government in Vietnam, we spent some time looking at his photographic record of that war. Too appalling for words and unspeakable physical and mental suffering. We remain committed pacifists.

  4. Excellent blog... It's very easy to forget about these distant wars and concentrate on our parocchial lives and to have "fun".

  5. How sad Nic...... We have many veterans here and many of them dont do too well coming back into normal society.... My father fought in the Vietnam war but he never ever wanted to talk about it!!!!