"War is history. Get over it!"

IS IT BEST FORGOTTEN?

Essay by Bob Wurth, reprinted from SBS documentaries, online:

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The tragic consequences of war are certainly not something we should "get over," Bob Wurth writes.

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In talking and blogging with young Australians, I'm increasingly taken aback when they effortlessly categorise past wars, battles and casualties, while regrettable, as 'history' - or something best forgotten.

Fortunately for me, the date of my birthday was not on a marble that was drawn out of a barrel in the sixties, but some of my young friends at the time were conscripted and sent to fight in the jungles of Vietnam, where young men were killed in a war that some of them wanted no part of.

But Vietnam today, for later generations, is merely distant history and a good backpacker destination. When I talk of Vietnam moratoriums, of marching through the streets of Sydney in protest and of my ongoing repugnance of the politicians who sent unwilling young men to die in an unwinnable war, I’m told by a newer generation to "get over it. It’s history."

The Australian hospital ship the Centaur was torpedoed by Japanese submarine I-177 off Queensland’s Moreton island in 1943. The clearly marked and well lit hospital ship went down, killing 268 non-combatants. When the Curtin Government protested at the sinking in 1943, Japan denied it was involved and pointed to Japanese hospital ships sunk by the Allies.

Later the official Japanese history acknowledged that the I-177 was responsible. But Japan never gave Australia so much as a 'sorry' over the sinking. In January 2010, a month after the wreckage of the Centaur was found, I wrote an opinion piece in the Sydney Morning Herald which said:

"Australia does Japan no favour either by saying it does not want an apology. The stance only encourages those in Japan who seek to bury their war history, and it discourages courageous Japanese who think historical truth just may help prevent future wars … a simple sorry, perhaps with a joint Japanese-Australian ceremony over the wreck, would be good for us and a helpful step for the Japanese coming to grips with the past."

As someone who has seen and heard modern day Japanese apologists for the war in action and toured the ultranationalist Yasukuni shrine and museum in Tokyo which honours war criminals along with the nation’s war dead, I was taken aback when the vast majority of the 46 commenters, presumably younger people, thought I should just get over it. That 'forget it' attitude is simplistic and a cop out.

Of course ships carrying innocent civilians were sunk on all sides in the Second World War. In what is known as the greatest marine disaster in history, the Nazi passenger liner Wilhelm Gustloff was torpedoed by the Russian submarine S13 on January 30, 1945.

In the German ZDF documentary on SBS, The Last Voyage of The Gustloff, we learn that more than 9,000 of the 10,000 plus passengers died in the frozen waters of the Baltic as the Gustloff sank while fleeing from the Red Army closing on East Prussia.


What lessons can be learned from this unprecedented tragedy? As author and Gustloff expert Heinz Schon tells us, the refugee ship was sailing in a combat zone from Gotenhafen to Kiel with its lights switched off. It had no less than four maritime captains who were all rescued. It was carrying anti-aircraft guns and was not sailing under the flag of the Red Cross and had 1,000 trained U-boat personnel on board. “The sinking of the Gustloff was an entirely legal act of war”, Schon says, “It wasn’t a war crime.”

End of story? No. Acts of war and inhumanity should be studied and debated, especially in our schools. They are not something we should forget. Each of these appalling wartime events represents sober lessons for the future.

Singapore’s elder statesman Lee Kuan Yew once wrote to me, about Japan’s murderous occupation of Singapore: "The past can be forgiven but should not be forgotten".

 

The Mai Lai massacre in Vietnam, the murder in South Vietnam by American troops of hundreds of unarmed citizens in March, 1968.

US choppers in the Vietnam war.

Anti-war protestors.

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War's end: one of the last US helicopters to depart Vietnam on top of the US Embassy in Saigon with scores of Vietnamese wanting to escape.