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Reader Contribution: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow

By Tony Palfreeman

We live in very uncertain times in our pan-demonium, and imagining and/or planning for our future and for the lives of our children and grandchildren are fraught with even more uncertainty; which is why understanding yesterday is more important than ever in thinking about tomorrow.

Before World War Two my family lived in the International Settlement of Shanghai, then governed by an international council and secured  largely by British police and soldiers. On summer weekends, the British community would gather at the racecourse and at tiffin time the Shanghai Scottish regimental band would march to the swirl of kilts and skirl of pipes. In the river the gunboats of the Royal Navy rode at anchor keeping an eye on the natives and the White Ensign flew over the British war memorial on the Bund. Not since the Pax Romana, of which the Pax Britannica was the global version, had the world experienced such a civilized model of order, good government, prosperity and peace. We were told.

But trouble was brewing. The rumours of war were soundly based.

In 1936, five years before Pearl Harbour, Lt. Commander Ishimaru of the Japanese Navy, wrote a book entitled Japan must fight Britain.  The blueprint was clear. He describes in detail the proposed Japanese invasion and takeover of East and Southeast Asia; and, incidentally,  spelt out a strategy for an attack on Australia. The stage was set.

On one Saturday morning at the racecourse, in August 1937, soon after my sixth birthday, and the band was playing, when the Japanese launched their attack on Shanghai. We saw the bombers flying in from the south. The bombs dropped along Nanking Road, hitting hotels and department stores and killing hundreds. My little sister and I took the rickshaw home, threading through the dead and wounded and blown off limbs. The Japanese imperial forces soon took over the Chinese city of Shanghai, leaving the International and French concessions surrounded. You can now watch a current film ,The Eight Hundred, set on the attack.

I was six, my war came early, and memories do not fade.

After 1941, as a refugee in South Africa from war torn Shanghai, with my father and grandmother and other relatives in Japanese prison camps, a good deal of my Jesuit boarding school time in Grahamstown was taken up by wireless reports and newsreel pictures of more murderous battles, carpet bombing and genocides in far off places, and I learned at first hand about apartheid’s racial tribalism in my everyday life; and with news from the Red Cross about the daily horrors in the Shanghai prison camps. Tomorrow, for most of us, was an empty space.

And then things changed. The war ended, and as a university student in Geneva in the 1950s, I watched the formation of a new, safe, prosperous European Community which, we then  believed,  would  end the centuries of war between the European people; and I shared the dreams about  how the new United Nations Organisation could finally bring to my generation so much hope for peace in the world. I remember especially a breakfast meeting in the U.N. building we had with Eleanor Roosevelt, the widow of Franklin, who was then the head of the U.N. Commission on Human Rights and how she painted for us a new world of peace. And on a visit to Vienna in 1951 during the Allied military occupation, in a garden in the Vienna Woods, I shared a vodka, or three, with twenty year old Russian soldiers. It was at the beginning of the Cold War, but we talked together, in my halting Russian, of our vision of a peaceful world for all of us after the trauma we had been through. We felt we all now had a tomorrow.

You might see today how the British politicians who invented Brexit, and abandoned a safe united Europe, live in an historical vacuum.

So let’s look at tomorrow, especially for our grandchildren, and how Australia’s  0.3% of the world,s people can chart the heavy seas around us.

We need to  explain to each new generation of Australians how it is, that in spite of our envious record of domestic peace and order, we are more prone than most to pick up our muskets, earnestly file aboard the troopship or the Hercules transport, and sail or fly away to  some remote corner of the globe, and enthusiastically join in the mayhem.

Sometimes we tell our children the enemy is unequivocally evil, like the notorious Adolf, and we have no moral choice but to oppose him and destroy him by the sword. But it is getting more and more difficult to explain to them now why so many hundreds of thousands of their young forbears have, over the last hundred  and fifty years, gone off so willingly to kill Maoris, Sudanese, Chinese, Boers, Germans, Turks, Italians, Japanese, Koreans, Vietnamese, Iraqis and Afghans, and why over a hundred thousand of  them have been killed themselves; and, crucially, to debate with them about the next time the bell tolls, and tolls for them.

I have had this discussion with my grandson Oscar, who plays the Last Post for us on Anzac Day at our ceremony in our Hunter Valley township.

Are we really infected by ‘war proneness’?  Are the forty billion dollars and more we spend each year on “defence”, and the hundred  billion dollars planned for new submarines and other weaponry the key to our safety? Is it now really so difficult for us to now sign the U.N. Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, or tone down the two thousand million dollars a year in our global arms trade budget?

The real debate we should be having is not so much on the definition of a “just” or “justifiable” war, but rather on the parameters of a just peace, and to find the answer well outside the parables of Australia as a “pivot”, or a “middle power”, or a “junior player” in war games.

Let us aim for safety by peacemaking, not war making; by resolving conflict, not starting new ones; by managing and neutralising threats, not creating them, by insisting much harder for global control of the production and spread of armaments and killing machines.  No more military adventures in far off lands, no more military alliances sucking us into unwanted killing adventures.

And for humanity, by sharing our wealth, doing our bit to help the poor, the starving the displaced and the oppressed, spreading the word on human rights, travelling the peaceful avenues available to rescue “failing” states, making it easier for refugees to stay at home. And then double or treble our foreign aid budget to 1% of our GDP, up from the current 0.3% – easily done by buying a submarine or two less. And for world order, by playing our part in promoting the sense of global citizenship or “cosmopolitan democracy”, to coin a phrase; by  cementing in the mechanisms of international law, dispute resolution, peaceful change, and the responsibility to protect.

No reason for not widening our vision a bit.

So let us put a lot more effort into fixing our own house, and be ourselves, and then make the most of the Great New Australian Century.

Here on the Wollombi Brook, in the Hunter Valley, at the Meeting of the Waters, the people from the Wonnarua, the Darkining, the Dharug, the Awakabal and the Wooriomi communities have met together for thousands of years to exchange foodstuffs and rock carvings and talk about their yearly plans for conserving the forests and rivers and animals around them. And, as far as we know, the tribes never fought each other.

The morning light is flooding over the hills, as the bright night sky fades away and the kookaburras and black cockies are in full flight. There is solitude and loneliness today, but tomorrow we can join everyone at the corroboree.

Peace, said the poet, is an energy, a power that vitalises everything it touches in our time.

Let Arnold Toynbee have the last words about tomorrow. After his Study of History 1934-1961, a most readable account of how and why the world disintegrated into the horrible mess of the two world wars and all the attendant battles, he wrote, in 1971, four years before he died:

I would say that man should live for loving, for understanding and for creating. I think man should spend all his ability and all his strength on pursuing these three aims, and he should sacrifice himself, if necessary for the sake of achieving them .      

 What is my advice to the younger generation now that I am eighty-two years old? Well, my first advice to you is to keep the spirit of youth until you are dead, without hatred .

Remember yesterday. Eighty years ago, amidst the horrors of the war, my Dad in Shanghai switched on his secret radio in the prison camp; and with millions of others around the world they listened to Vera Lynn singing her favourite wartime song.

Tomorrow is a Lovely Day.

Tony Palfreeman is the author of From the Whangpoo to the Wollombi


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