Not too long ago I watched “Johnny Got His Gun,” the film adaptation of Dalton Trumbo’s famous antiwar novel with the same title about a young American soldier who came home from the trenches of World War I in France, having miraculously survived an artillery explosion that blew away his face, as well as both legs and both arms – not to mention his dog tags.
The helpless victim was being kept alive in the back wards of a military hospital by his “caregivers,” probably out of scientific curiosity. The doctors and nurses treated him as a vegetable that was unable to communicate. Moreover, the staff believed that he was unable to perceive pain or have feelings.
Because the military didn’t want the public to be aware of this horrific example of the gruesomeness of war, he was segregated (as is still done to this very day in veterans’ hospitals and nursing homes) to locked room where nobody would be able to give witness to his plight. A series of flashbacks provided sympathetic evidence of the victim’s innocent pre-war civilian life and total lack of appreciation about the ghastly reality of organized mass human slaughter that is modern war.
What was most moving about “Johnny Got His Gun” was the fact that the victim, kept alive by a stomach and tracheotomy tubes, was actually quite aware of his surroundings and what was being done to him without his consent. Finally finding a way to communicate with his caregivers, the story ends with no certain resolution, forcing the viewer to think about end-of-life ethics, militarism and the lies, half-truths and cover-ups of the consequences of war.
Several years ago I read portions of a book by Phillip Knightley entitled The First Casualty: From the Crimea to Vietnam: The War Correspondent as Hero, Propagandist and Myth Maker. Knightley convincingly tells us that in order to start or perpetuate a war a nation has to lie, and the lies start with the approved war correspondent or “embedded” journalist who obediently only tells pre-approved versions of what is really happening in the war zone.
It is a historical truth that if an aggressive nation-state can’t get its intended victim to start a war, it can always cunningly provoke him into drawing “first blood.” That, of course, goes for most bullies, even the playground ones.
In the case of wars, aggressor nations can distort the truth by claiming self-defense as the motivation. Invasion and occupation can easily be obfuscated by the nation’s propaganda machine by calling it “liberation” or “protective custody” rather than the criminal acts of theft and murder.
Sadly, whistle-blowing truth-seekers who try to expose the truths about the dirty underbelly of war usually are silenced and accused of being unpatriotic or subversive or, in the case of capitalist or fascist nations, “soft on communism.”
Promoting lies and half-truths about a nation’s wars has certainly been true of most kingdoms, empires and other totalitarian states, and that includes the Greek and Roman Empires, the British Empire and the various Fascist imperialist powers like Hirohito’s Japan, Mussolini’s Italy and Hitler’s Germany, and it has also been true of almost every American war in recent memory.
Part of the propaganda campaign to falsely glorify American war-making via propaganda was the change in the name of the pre-World War II Department of War to what is now benignly, and falsely, called the Department of Defense. Tellingly, the DOD has been behind many overt wars and hundreds of covert acts of lethal violence, many of which have met the definition of international war crimes and/or crimes against humanity – and none of which have met the Christian Just War Theory precepts.
Lies that Men Kill and Die For
Examples of the “Lies that Men Kill and Die For” would include the following short list of just the last two American wars. In the first Gulf War, President George Herbert Walker Bush lied when he promoted the false testimony of a Kuwaiti girl (actually the daughter of the Kuwaiti ambassador to the U.S.) who tearfully told a false story about Kuwaiti babies being thrown out of their incubators by cruel Iraqi troops.
A number of other propaganda stories also were soon shown to be lies, but most of us gullible Americans had already bought into the stories and enthusiastically endorsed the U.S.-led military assault to “liberate” Kuwait, led by war correspondents and uber-patriotic retired generals on CNN and all the other major media outlets.
In President George W. Bush’s illegal Operation Iraqi Freedom, lies were aggressively spread about 1) Saddam Hussein’s Weapons of Mass Destruction (no WMDs were ever found), 2) Hussein’s intention (or capability) to build a nuclear weapon (no yellow cake or aluminum centrifuge tubes existed), 3) Hussein’s alliance with Osama bin Laden (they hated each other’s guts); and 4) Hussein’s military threat to the U.S. (none whatsoever). And that was the short list. Bush the Younger also lied about his intention to “liberate” Iraq and form a truly democratic government.
Then for the rest of the late, lamented Cheney/Bush presidency, that cabal lied about the progress of the war. They lied about torture, rendition and the real economic costs of the war, not to mention minimizing the reality of the psychological and physical costs to the returning soldiers. It seemed like that there were more lies told than truths.
Gallopoli and the ANZAC Spirit Myth
Several years ago I saw a Mel Gibson movie titled “Gallipoli,” which superficially told the story about the ill-conceived plan to invade Turkey in 1915 during World War I. The plan was hatched by the First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill, who, after realizing that the war had turned into a stalemate in Europe, assigned the British Navy to open a second front against Germany in the East.
The plan was to open sea lanes to the Black Sea (in order to supply Russia with armaments) by invading and conquering Istanbul, one of the choke points in gaining access to the Black Sea. The necessary first step was to occupy the narrow sea lane to the Black Sea, called the Dardanelles Strait, which was bordered on each side by land that was held by Turkey, an ally of Germany.
The Gallipoli peninsula, on the Adriatic side of the Dardanelles, was the initial target of Churchill’s invasion plan, and on April 25, 1915, a massive invasion force of mainly British Empire soldiers, including green Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (aka, ANZAC) troops.
It was the first time Australian and New Zealand conscripts had fought a major battle, and they found themselves, on day one, trapped on the beach below machine gun nests of the Turkish army that inflicted massive casualties. 35,000 Anzac troops died in the 10-month campaign, with the troops mostly immobilized and pinned down from the well-protected cliffs above them.
The Gallipoli invasion was an ill-advised logistical nightmare that should have been, but wasn’t, seen by the military strategists beforehand.
To really appreciate the truth about the Gallipoli disaster, interested readers should go beyond watching the movie. The real story of the 250,000 total casualties suffered by both sides can be found by googling “Gallipoli Disaster Documentary” and watching the five-part series.
Gallipoli is just another example of yet another shameful episode in the history of warfare that was lied about and/or unreported at the time by the few war correspondents, military leaders and politicians who were either witnesses or accomplices of the disaster but who refused to tell the embarrassing truth. The documentary evidence uncovered by unbiased historians tells a vastly different story than what was told during the war.
And yet, almost a century later, Australia is still in denial about the reality of Gallipoli, and somehow, proudly celebrates the covered-up reality every April 25, the anniversary of the Gallipoli invasion that led to such senseless death.
Down-Under, April 25 is called Australia Day, and the national anthem, “Waltzing Matilda,” is played reverentially on that day – and often during the rest of the year. Most non-Aussies don’t understand the meaning of the lyrics, but they like the catchy tune.
The song lyrics tell a strange tale about a loveless, solitary outback vagabond (whose knapsack he calls “Matilda”) who inadvertently poaches a sheep from some One Percenter absentee landowner and then drowns himself in a deep pool when the police are about to arrest him for his “crime.” Odd theme for a national anthem that seems more like a drinking song, but it is far easier to sing than “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
An internet site says this about the song. The explanation may help to explain what patriotic Aussies call the “Anzac Spirit” (see below for more):
“To non-Australians it must seem strange that this much-loved Australian song does not refer to the land itself, but rather mourns the suicide of a thieving vagabond. Nevertheless, ‘Waltzing Matilda’ somehow speaks to the strong anti-authoritarian and independence streak in the Australian psyche, as it represents the battler struggling against the wealthy and being one with the Australian bush.”
Most Australians have been led to believe in, through repeated propaganda lies that have obscured the truth over the last century, what they like to call the “Anzac Spirit.” As I understand the concept of the Anzac Spirit, it represents the courage and loyalty to the Crown that the first Anzac infantrymen exhibited in their baptism of fire in 1915, obediently (and blindly) following the suicidal orders of their commanding officers to go “over the top” over and over again into the deadly machine gun fire.
Certainly their misbegotten, almost congenital sense of patriotism was facilitated by the patriotic history book version of WWI, fabricated by nationalist pseudo-historians in order to avert attention from the sad fact that the whole fiasco at Gallipoli was totally unnecessary. Not only that but it was bungled and then misrepresented to avoid the fact that the deaths of the 35,000 Anzac troops were totally in vain.
The following antiwar song, singer-song-writer Eric Brogle’s “The Band Played Waltzing Matilda,” tells the poignant truth about the futility of war and the cognitive dissonance that keeps Aussies focused on the song rather than the many unwelcome truths about war.
It was written in 1971 and provides a “mike check” dose of reality to a world awash in war. It should be listened to with the story of “Johnny Got His Gun” in mind. We Americans could learn a few lessons by searching for similar inconvenient truths about any of our recent military misadventures. They are so numerous as to be uncountable.
The Band Played Waltzing Matilda
By Eric Bogle 1971 – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WG48Ftsr3OI
When I was a young man I carried me pack
And I lived the free life of the rover
From the Murray’s green basin to the dusty outback
I waltzed my Matilda all over
Then in 1915 my country said: “Son,
It’s time to stop rambling, there’s work to be done”
So they gave me a tin hat and they gave me a gun
And they sent me away to the war
And the band played Waltzing Matilda
When the ship pulled away from the quay
And amid all the tears, flag waving and cheers
We sailed off for Gallipoli
Well I remember that terrible day
When our blood stained the sand and the water
And how in that hell they call Suvla Bay
We were butchered like lambs at the slaughter
Johnny Turk, he was ready, he primed himself well
He rained us with bullets, and he showered us with shell
And in five minutes flat, we were all blown to hell
He nearly blew us back home to Australia
And the band played Waltzing Matilda
When we stopped to bury our slain
Well we buried ours and the Turks buried theirs
Then it started all over again
Oh those that were living just tried to survive
In that mad world of blood, death and fire
And for ten weary weeks I kept myself alive
While around me the corpses piled higher
Then a big Turkish shell knocked me arse over head
And when I awoke in me hospital bed
And saw what it had done, I wished I was dead
I never knew there was worse things than dying
Oh no more I’ll go Waltzing Matilda
All around the green bush far and near
For to hump tent and pegs, a man needs both legs
No more waltzing Matilda for me
They collected the wounded, the crippled, the maimed
And they shipped us back home to Australia
The armless, the legless, the blind, the insane
Those proud wounded heroes of Suvla
And when the ship pulled into Circular Quay
I looked at the place where me legs used to be
And thank Christ there was no one there waiting for me
To grieve and to mourn and to pity
And the Band played Waltzing Matilda
As they carried us down the gangway
Oh nobody cheered, they just stood and stared
Then they turned all their faces away
And so now every April I sit on my porch
And I watch the parade pass before me
I see my old comrades, how proudly they march
Reviving their dreams of past glories
I see the old men all tired, stiff and worn
Those weary old heroes of a forgotten war
And the young people ask “What are they marching for?”
And I ask myself the same question
And the band plays Waltzing Matilda
And the old men still answer the call
But as year follows year, their numbers disappear
Someday, no one will march there at all
Waltzing Matilda, Waltzing Matilda
Who’ll come a-Waltzing Matilda with me?
And their ghosts may be heard as they march by the billabong
Who’ll come a-Waltzing Matilda with me?
Or, as Philip Berrigan, the late Catholic Worker ex-priest and antiwar activist who spent a total of 12 years in jail for his antiwar resistance, once said: “We’re not made by God to mass kill one another, and that’s backed up by the Gospels. Lying and war are always associated. Pay attention to the war-makers when they try to defend their current war. If they’re moving their lips they’re lying.”
Gary G. Kohls, MD, is a founding member of Every Church A Peace Church (www.ecapc.org) and is a member of a local non-denominational affiliate of ECAPC, the Community of the Third Way.
(Originally posted at Consortium News)