By John Braithwaite, RegNet, ANU
Conducting fieldwork in conflict and post-conflict zones, I keep meeting people who say their lives have no meaning. That which gives life meaning, the warmth and trust and stability provided by healthy and loving human relationships, is a target of war. Victims are forced to watch their loved ones brutalised, and it is also a tactic of war to force people to commit acts of horrendous violence on those they love.
The stories of war that are told in the West are often from the perspective of the victors, and celebrate the fallen male heroes. A feminist lens has helped shift this perspective, bringing into view the less visible suffering of the women and children who have violence inflicted on them during war. Another lens that is needed to complement it is that of family destruction, sometimes through violence, including sexual violence that fathers and sons have been forced by their captors to inflict on each other. This occurred in both Serbian and Croatian concentration camps in Bosnia, and it was a conscious strategy of war to destroy families of the enemy community, turning them against one another through maximal humiliation.
For western troops in twenty-first century wars, post-war suicides and homicides caused by the war take many more lives than bombs and bullets. In the twentieth century as well, homicide and suicide rates increased dramatically after countries participated in wars. My father was one of the six survivors of the Sandakan death march in World War II that took 1787 Australian and 641 British lives. It was the greatest war crime ever suffered by Australian soldiers. Bill Moxham was another survivor. Our family knew that Bill lived a tortured life, and in turn tortured his family with violence and threats of murder. In the end he turned his gun on himself, though that hardly ended the suffering of his family.
My own family’s suffering was much less. But it was significant, especially for my mother, as for my grandmothers with World War I. Our story, the story of the Moxhams, and the story of the new friends my brother Dick has made who are families of Japanese officers executed for the crimes of Sandakan, is beautifully documented in Dick’s book released this month, Fighting Monsters: An Intimate History of the Sandakan Tragedy (Richard Wallace Braithwaite: Australian Scholarly Publishing).
The childhood memory of war suffering that is most vivid for me is of my father’s periodic stays in the “nerve ward” of the Greenslopes Repatriation Hospital in Brisbane. I remember the frightened families visiting their suffering patriarchs. Often the men stared blankly as they sat after their electroconvulsive shock therapy, their hand shaking with a cigarette in it.
A family destruction lens helps us see more clearly the magnitude of the suffering of male survivors such as those in the nerve ward, and the wide ripples of suffering in their families, whether in Japan or Australia. So while we need a feminist lens to complement a lens that mourns the fallen, we also need a family destruction lens to complement the feminist lens. We need this complementarity to see the full horror of war and the cycles of violence it produces.
After that, we need a western domination lens to see that most of the suffering of war is not in the west at all. War’s assault on life and what gives it meaning is experienced mostly by the peoples of countries like Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Congo in this century, and in the last century in our region by the peoples of China, PNG, Guadalcanal and the town of Sandakan and its surrounding villages.
Using the three lenses simultaneously – feminist, family destruction, and western domination, helps us understand something terrible that happened at Sandakan. Before they perished, the Australian POWs were required by their captors to march under the verandah of the building where a group of Asian women were housed. Called “comfort women”, they were raped repeatedly by Japanese soldiers. As the bedraggled starving men marched as best they could, the women poured the contents of their chamber pots down upon their suffering bodies. This signified the humiliation of white colonialism, I conjecture. At least it might have in the eyes of someone who urged them to inflict this upon our beloved fathers.