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woundwortI’d seen the 1960 film “Exodus” long before I’d heard of The Holocaust. Although I cannot recall any of the details of Exodus I do remember it favourably as a classic struggle between good and bad in which good won. I probably emerged from the theatre convinced that the embryo Israelis were the “good“.

Before I proceed I must emphasise that I’m writing a very personal account of the times and the events that still shape my outlook on life. I was born in 1943, into a world that was still unashamedly martial in outlook, despite the horrors of two world wars. Vicious-but-brief fist-fights were not unusual amongst spectators at Saturday afternoon football (Australian Rules) matches, and it was unremarkable to see a schoolboy in army cadet uniform cycling through the streets with .303 rifle (un-bolted) slung across his back. By age twelve I had passed Street Fighting 101. I knew well the power and the heady drug-free euphoria of successfully applying violence, although this was tempered somewhat by the Duke of Wellington’s declaration that “Next to a battle lost, the saddest thing is a battle won.

I remember the nineteen forties, fifties, and sixties in Australia as a period when it mattered little how a man died. It was how he lived that was all-important. I remember reading the novel “Beau Geste” in highschool, and being impressed by its chivalry and sense of duty. I was the villainous old buck-rabbit General Woundwort in the film “Watership Down“, leaping without a moment’s hesitation into battle and certain death against the farmer’s dog. For me, those years were truly an age of death before dishonour.

But I couldn’t get my head around The Holocaust. Six million human individuals annihilated. Six million! How on Earth had that been permitted to happen? What had all the able-bodied men been doing? And – admittedly a lesser number of – women? By that age I was aware that Russian women had flown as combat pilots in World War II, and although the genocide in Ukraine from 1932 to 1933 ( ) far eclipsed in numbers dead the Jewish Holocaust it was also true that Stalin had used starvation as his main weapon. As every army cook knows, it’s hard to fight when your stomach is empty.

Strangely, I felt no animosity toward the German perpetrators. Perhaps getting away with doing something six million times without effective intervention had somehow legitimised the procedure in my gung-ho mind. I’m sure there was some intervention attempted, but any stories of armed Jews standing behind locked doors prepared to defend-to-the-death their family have not withstood the test of time. Victimhood appears much better than valour to have served the needs of an emerging Israel.

Warfare is nearly always inhumane, but it would take the writings of anthropologist/playwright Robert Ardrey ( ) to cause me to think that warfare and its one-sided companion – extermination – were not un-human. In “African Genesis” and “The Social Contract” Ardrey connects the ability to walk on our hind legs with the experiment of an enlarged brain. Able to see further, a larger brain was now a worthwhile investment. We were so impressed by the potential for our enlarged brain that we left on the evolutionary shelf the lethal weapons – the claws and the fangs – of smaller-brained animals. We reckoned we’d be able to think our way out of awkward situations.

Trouble is, we also left on the shelf the powerful inhibitions that hindered us from using those same weapons against those close to us, such as relatives and other members of our clan or tribe. With plenty of spare time at its disposal the human brain quickly adapted to thinking up diabolical things to do to our fellow human beings. Unfortunately for us, we obscured that penchant when we mis-translated a commandment: it should have been “Thou shalt not commit murder“. Killing, it would seem, is very much a human attribute, although its commission is all too often inhumane. Just how “clinical” this capability can become is chillingly portrayed in the 1971 film “Straw Dogs” ( )

Outlawing denial is a dangerously ambiguous practice. To be sure, outlawing does help prevent an “evil” act from fading into obscurity and possible legitimisation with the passage of time. But in my opinion it’s equally valid to argue that the outlawing is motivated by a lack of remorse on the part of the perpetrators. I hesitate at labelling it “perpetrator pride“, but neither do I see much evidence of public wringing-of-hands-in-anguish over what the perpetrators did. The Germans did what they did largely because they encountered little or no resistance. To people of my generation there is no crime more despicable than passively hoping and believing that an opponent will act benignly. Until more men get out of bed each morning, spit on their hands, and say “Who shall I kill today?” then holocausts will always be ready to happen.

Shame can all too easily spawn a lust for violent and cruel revenge. It’s the reason I vehemently oppose any use of “naming and shaming” in our judicial system. Shame mobilised is the explanation for Israel’s astounding abandonment in Lebanon and Gaza of the moral high-ground that holocaust victimhood afforded. Soldiers need to be distinguished from warriors. Warriorhood carries an overlay of morals and ethics and conscience that exert a powerful influence on individual behaviour. A soldier need not consider such encumbrances. A soldier enjoys wearing a uniform, carrying weapons, and obeying orders. The fact that such subservience can produce a My Lai seems to offer negligible impediment to soldiering.

I’ll finish with an anecdote. I was one day sitting with a friend opposite a runway at Jandakot Airport, in Western Australia. We were the ground judges for the spot-landing component of a light aircraft competition. My friend was an Australian veteran of the Vietnam conflict. My friend’s father was a veteran of World War II. During a lull in activities my friend said quietly, while staring into the distance, “You know those freighters, Eric , that call into Fremantle? My old man says that if instead of unloading Japanese cars they poured out hundreds of armed and uniformed policemen and those policemen went to every light-controlled intersection in Perth and started handing out ID cards we’d just say “Thankyou, Sir, three bags full, Sir” and go happily on our way. We wouldn’t raise a murmur.” It may have been an exaggerated scenario, but I clearly remember I couldn’t find a thing to say in response.

Eric Carwardine