Words are no use when the tale defies telling

My friend's father had been a prisoner of war. That much I knew and not much else; and I knew it because he had named his only son after the man who, he said, had saved his life, by sharing his meagre rations of soup - little more than a watery gruel in which potato peelings had been stewed - during those unbearably harsh years of captivity.

He was a man of few words. He'd lived a life - you could see that written into crevices cutting like storylines across a ruched, leathery face. He rarely bothered with small talk. But he wasn't without a sense of humour. "Laconic" could have been invented to describe him.

He seemed most at home out back country, under wide skies, dogs at heel or at whistle, working a flock across the rumpled horizon, bringing them down, mustering them into makeshift scrim yards where the lambs were separated for docking.

It was our job, us boys home for the school holidays, to grab the lambs and hold them by the back legs against our chests, thus presenting the small woolly scrotum and tails for removal. A razor-sharp knife would whip off the top of that pouch, the testes were extracted and, with a slice of the blade through the tail and a bleat or two, they bounded away.

I must have winced once or twice during my initiation, or blinked to clear my vision from the fine filigree arcs of lamb's blood squirting from the stump of the tail, because I'm sure I recall the old man saying, with a broad grin: "Not squeamish, are you, sonny?"

That seems a lifetime ago. In some ways, it is - maybe 45 years, which, for many of the soldiers who fought in the great wars of the last century, would have been a good innings: if they got to that age, it probably meant they had survived.

Maybe they came home, got married, and had a family. Maybe they ended up running a high-country North Island sheep station.

Maybe they were glad to put the past and all its horrors behind them.

I don't share the air of puzzlement that accompanies the oft-remarked-upon reluctance of old soldiers to talk about their wartime experiences; to share them with their nearest and dearest.

We baby-boomers are the "let it all hang out" generation; we have grown up with the idea that "emoting" is healthy, the notion that a problem shared is a problem solved. Get it off your chest; and if you can't, perhaps you should check in with a counsellor.

Emotional constipation is so bad for you.

But how do you tell people in mere words about the actual horrors of war, removed from the patriotism, the gung-ho boys' own adventure spin, the so-called glory of battle?

How do you tell your loved ones what it is like to kill another person, or how you felt when your best mate had his guts blown out in the foxhole beside you, how you held his hand while he expired, not calmly, not peacefully, but writhing, crying out in agony?

How do you admit to the darkest of fears and emotions in your lowest moments of despair and anger? And why would you want to?

War is dehumanising. It requires of men, and occasionally women, codes of behaviour outside the bounds of civilised society.

We construct "rules of engagement" around it, attempting to sanitise it. We write conventions as to how and in what ways we might dispatch other soldiers and how we might not; we invent a vocabulary to normalise the unspeakable - a house full of innocent civilians mistakenly firebombed becomes "collateral damage".

A week or two ago, United States troops in Afghanistan were once again in the news for inhumane and unacceptable transgressions of the "rules of war" - photographed parading the remains of a mutilated dead Taliban suicide bomber.

Not long previously, some were caught on film urinating on the bodies of dead enemy combatants. And a few weeks ago, a US soldier was arrested for having deliberately gone out and shot - executed in cold blood, more like - numerous defenceless Afghan civilians, including women and children.

How can otherwise apparently normal, rational human beings do this to one another? It is enough to give war a bad name. And, back in the bosom of civilised society, not necessarily something you'd want to boast of, let alone talk about to your nearest and dearest.

Simon Cunliffe is deputy editor (news) at the Otago Daily Times.


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