The Sterilization of War and Violence

Invariably portraits of soldiers are handsome and heroic, like the portrait of James Maynard from the introduction and this image of a group of NCOS. They remind us of what the French Historian Annette Becker has called ‘the sterilization of war and violence’. Like the memorials we build across the landscapes of Australia and New Zealand, those noble structures of bronze and stone, these clean whole and beautiful bodies conceal the sordid reality of bodies that have been damaged and dismembered and that have been all together obliterated by war. So by featuring images like this, the national archives have only told half the story. It is contained and it’s limited our understanding of war and that’s why the repatriation files are so important. And that is what Project Albany is all about.

The image that we can begin with is not that image of young confident soldiers proud and handsome in their uniform; it is an image of a man when he comes back from war. He is scarred by the experience of battle, he is been aged prematurely by the terrible things he has seen and he has done. He is not just a victim and he is struggling to adjust to his new life as a civilian. This describes Bertram Burns; Private Burns enlisted at the age of 24. He served in France and he was wounded on two separate occasions. Private Burns’ dossier runs for just 24 pages – there is just one letter from him, one chance for him to actually speak. It is a letter and it is written in 1938. He is asking to purchase duplicates of service medals lost in a bushfire. He wants to wear them on Anzac day. This man wants his face to be seen that day. Now reading the service dossier tells us very little about Private Burns or his family or his wound or what it did to those he loved. The repatriation files are so much more substantial and contain three separate files. Hundreds and hundreds of pages and they tell us so much more. What does that sparse entry in the service record GSW Face actually mean? The medical report in the repatriation file refers to much facial disfigurement. Private Burns puts it much better than that. ‘My face,’ he says ‘is practically shot away’. The wound is so severe this man dribbled constantly and there is a continuous discharge from his nose. That’s a post-surgery operation - it was much worse before that. Bertram Burns had to live on what is called slop food; his disfigurement was such that employers wouldn’t take him on. He was shunned, he was ostracized. He took up a block of land as a soldier settler, but he found himself too weak to work it. Reading the service record, you would learn nothing of that; you would learn nothing of his or his family’s post-war ordeal. The repatriation records will tell you all of that and they will tell you much more. At the moment, I think that the experience of war is recorded in a kind of shorthand and one that does lend itself through the media to a kind of proud heroic narrative.