My sister Kathryn is being deployed to the Middle East soon. She invited me to her going away drinks at the mess and so I went along, my floral skirt and knee-high boots clashing with the surrounds as much as the red ‘visitor’ badge clashed with my pink top. But military people are almost always friendly, with a firm handshake, proudly Aussie accent and a stockpile of questions about my civilian life.
Kathryn shouted me a Coopers – it was Happy Hour and cost her about $2, which is half the usual price. No wonder they have a drinking problem in the army, I thought. I stood amongst uniformed officers and swigged at my beer, pleased not to be sipping on wine. When the conversation descended to a rattle of acronyms, I gazed about the room, observing the dark wooden panels and forest green carpets. A well-maintained windup clock hung from a wall, proudly paying homage to an era of old, its culture and traditions preserved like polished brass.
Kathryn introduced me to Luke, who was slim in his RAAF uniform, with fair hair and a cheeky smile. Luke was excited because he was about to be deployed to the Middle East. I was curious at this excitement – mainly because I’d witnessed the same sentiment in my sister.
I plucked up the courage to ask Luke. “So why are you so excited about being deployed?”
“That’s a good question.” He picked up his beer from the table and took a sip. “Think of it like this. Imagine you’re eighteen years old and you’ve just been drafted into an AFL footy club. You’re the first pick. Now, imagine that it’s the first game of the season, and before it starts the couch tells you to stretch your quads because you’re about to go on. So you warm up and do your stretches, but then he says, ‘Actually, we’ll put you on for the second quarter’. So you wait around but then when the second quarter comes, he changes his mind again. And so it goes on like this for the rest of the game, and then the whole season. You never get to go on.”
I was nodding – I got what he was saying. They want to go to war so they can put their training into practice. I could relate to that – it would be like practicing the flute day in, day out, but never getting to perform. None of us want to do what is frivolous – we want our efforts to make a difference.
I met Susan, who was also RAAF. She had down-turned eyes and wore a bemused expression on her face. She kept pulling a medallion out of her pocket to show people, which was still in its box.
“Look at my medallion,” she kept saying. “It’s the first one I’ve got!”
I asked to look at her prize. The small metal round bore a little map of Victoria, and said something about the Victorian bushfires. Susan told me she’d been very instrumental in helping with the defence contribution to the fire fighting. She’d finally been recognised for her efforts.
She told me what rank she was, but that she was really the RAAF equivalent of an acting-Captain in the army, which her salary reflected.
“Another Captain got picked over me for deployment,” she said. Her glass of wine was disappearing quickly. “It was only because of his rank – I had the expertise. I’m pretty much a Captain anyway.”
When it was just Susan, Kathryn and I, standing in a little female huddle, she told us that often people get deployed as a way of getting rid of them for a while. “The problem with me,” said Susan, “is that I’m too indispensable. That’s why they won’t send me overseas.”
The problem with not being sent overseas, however, is that you don’t get recognition for your work: there are no gongs or coloured panels that you can wear on your chest for being indispensable in Australia.
“The person who stays at home works harder than the ones who go,” Susan said, “but they just don’t get the recognition.”
I was curious that Susan was so desperate for a medal. But then I thought – isn’t that what we all want? To be told that we are valued and that our labours have not been in vain? I said, “But civilians can work for decades in the same job and not get a gong or a medallion.” As I said it, I realised it was entirely different. In the military, the main way of showing a person they are valued is by presenting them with one of these formal rewards. If you don’t get it – even if they throw you a party and make you a cake – you feel jibbed. Medals are the language of the military, just as gifts and cards reinforce words of thanks in the civilian world.
This afternoon’s trip to the mess gave me a good insight into why soldiers go to war. I don’t think it’s usually because they believe in what they’re doing. I think it’s because going to war, for them, fulfills some very basic human needs, which all of us, in our different ways, spend our lives trying to meet.