News That’s Fit To Punt – 11/Aug/2014

Gotta Admit I Was Wrong

Australia’s contingent to the Ukraine went and returned in the last week and a bit. I know I sounded alarms about sending troops but sanity prevailed and nobody got shot at by east Ukrainian Separatists. This is a  good thing. The best thing about it was how Russia was blocked from turning the tragedy into a kind of political football to slam the government in Kiev. Sometimes your side shoots down a third party plane, it’s not the other side’s provocation.

Now that the Australian contingent is on its way home, Julie Bishop is saying all items are on  the table for applying sanctions to Russia. Of course,it’s easy for Australia to play hard rhetoric because we don’t really rely on oil and gas from Russia, unlike the NATO nations.  Germany in particular has been expertly perched on the fence playing both sides, mainly because the German industrial might is entirely dependent on the flow of energy from Russia. I guess it’s a bit like Frank Herbert’s ‘Dune’ where the catchcry is “the Spice Must Flow”; the oil and gas must flow for Germany to be Germany and in turn for Europe to be Europe.

All the same the smoke has barely cleared from the MH17 crash and there’s a stench in the air where war is being talked about as a possibility. Maybe we’re colouring ourselves into a picture where we might be more open to re-examining the history of the Twentieth Century and deciding that maybe we want to attempt to re-draw the maps. This month being the Centenary of the start of World War I doesn’t seem to have really formed a precautionary consensus about the west avoiding wars, except in Germany.

Irony is running in all directions out of Ukraine. Place names like Crimea and Sevastopol are echoes of Imperial Wars of the Nineteenth Century. Here we are in the 21st Century and we find ourselves challenged by events there. Ukraine was the victim of intense Soviet era collectivisation and purges. So we find an ex-KGB officer ruling Russia wants to re-claim whole tracts of Ukraine as regaining the whole-ness of Russia. Germany was the catalyst for not one but two world wars – something for which it remains the butt of jokes today – and yet is trying its damned best not to start a third one. Vladimir Putin on the other hand is pushing as hard as Hitler once did, and we’re appeasing him. It really is ugly.

Ebola On The Loose

Speaking of ugliness, there’ the Ebola outbreak in Africa. Ebola is a viral disease and there’s no vaccine or cure. So the medical teams working out there are essentially trying to keep patients alive by hydrating them through the illness, administering antibiotics to fend of secondary infections, and that that’s about the sum total of what they’ve got as a way to combat the disease. The good news is that it’s not as contagious as influenza which is a blessing. All the same, the disease is spreading rapidly in Africa and some people returning from Africa have reported in sick with signs of the disease.

Going into this last weekend, the WHO has declared the current Ebola outbreak an international health emergency. It’s hard to get a picture of how this is going to be brought under control.

Back To Bombing Iraq

With ISIS running rampant in northern Iraq, President Obama has approved air strikes against ISIS. It’s hard to say if this is going to benefit greatly, but it’s one of those things the US tries when it can’t solve things diplomatically. The rather unfortunate karmic twist being that it is back to Iraq for America’s military. Having lived through a decade and a half of the mis-declared war on terror which led to the war in Iraq, it seems business is far from finished in the lands formerly known as the cradle of civilisation.  It’s all a multi-layered failure of policy with repercussions that have demanded even worse choices.

Should America gone into Iraq in the way it did? – In hindsight, no.

Did America conduct a good campaign in Iraq? – no.

Should America have pulled out in the way it did?- Probably not.

And so here we are, doing airstrikes in Iraq again – all the bad decisions may have brought the rule of Saddam Hussein to an end, but it has given rise to the current situation which can be described as much worse than the terrifying tyranny of the Hussein family. Steeped in a kind of medieval bloodlust and Sadism, ISIS is busy projecting images of itself as people who do summary executions of prisoners and decapitations to demonstrate how fierce they are. ISIS is hell bent on dragging the world back to a kind of medieval sectarian nightmare. Our resistance to this notion is merely to do airstrikes and no commit troops on the ground. Whatever could possibly go wrong, one wonders.

Just as with Ukraine, the distant source of all this can be traced back to World War I, and how the world was carved up on the map, subsequent to that war. Upon the Centenary of the beginning of World War I, it seems much more vexing  than merely symbolic. That is to say, nothing ever changes, they only ever get worse.

Cowra, 70years On

Somewhere in the last week, Cowra had the 70th anniversary of the breakout. As with the observation above how nothing ever changes, I cannot but help but think about the detention camp they had in World War II being a cultural archetype in Australia, and that is why we detain asylum seekers in the manner that we do. When in a ‘crisis’ (loosely defined), what Australia does is put up a camp in the middle of nowhere with a barbed wire fence around it with security guards. When the RSL types intone lest we forget, one cannot help but think forgetting isn’t a problem for Australia.

Cowra and its story was part of my life for a good decade as I researched the story but I will never forget the one night working with Brian A Williams and Geoff Murphy when Geoff pointed to a figure of those who died at Cowra, but not in the breakout. It turned out that there were on average 2 summary executions per week at Cowra. Japanese POWs were being shot – for whatever reasons – at the pace of roughly two a week. Given that communications were rudimentary I imagine the Japanese POW population had no understanding of why so many people were being executed. It might have even looked like a weekly lottery of death to those who did not understand English – and there were many of those.

This would explain the desperation felt by the POWs. If they were going to die, picked off one by one in summary executions, then it would be better to go out in one big blaze. Until that moment the motive for the breakout eluded me. I didn’t understand the testimony by the surviving POWs that they felt like cornered rats. It rang hollow and untrue. Overwhelmed by the feeling of hopelessness, they said they decided to commit to an action that was by design and definition, futile.  Some climbed over the fence, and once outside, committed harakiri. Explaining that took some doing, except it’s very easy. It was an act of defiance – that if one had to die, then at least one could control the means of that death by oneself. What would drive all that? Loyalty to the Emperor has been the explanation in official accounts, but I’ve never really been able to digest it as a fitting explanation.

Consequently, the understanding of the meaning of the Cowra breakout in Australian popular culture is grossly lacking. What remains of the Kennedy Miller rendition is filled with cultural stereotyping cliches, as well as an absence of logic to why the breakout took place or what it meant. It really is a terrible bit of film making and it’s a shame nothing else got made. Other narratives over the years have skipped the brutal management of the camp. One imagines that if one poked too deeply into the nitty gritty of how Cowra camp was really run, one may find cause to think gross violations of some military codes – or even war crimes – were a regular thing and this in turn would be waking up terrible ghosts. In other words, nobody wants an honest discussion about what happened and why. The whole thing can’t be consigned to historical obscurity and myth soon enough.

Today there is the garden. Reconciliation has taken place; yet mutual understanding probably remains a long way off.

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