Monday, April 27, 2015

My other grandfather

I have been stuck at home for several days, and so the build-up to Anzac day has been reduced for me to a series of media impressions - fragmentary ones at that, as I actively tried to avoid the coverage. The children brought home some of the work they were made to do at school. Then on Friday, during a downtown parade that Radio New Zealand briefly erred into calling a ‘celebration’, a formation of World War I planes flew over the house. That was the sum of my direct experience.

Having insulated myself from the event, I feel disinclined to comment on it. For that I defer to Dougal McNeill’s first-hand account of the opening ceremony at Pukehau Park, where he and other comrades provided a dissenting voice. Not far from here, voicing dissent, as we now know, will get you fired from your job as a journalist. But I don’t want to talk about that either.

It is one thing to critique the exhibitions and the commemorations, or the commercial promotions ranging from the tacky to the comically absurd; another to interrogate the sentiment and the allegiances that underlie them. Histories writ large and small intersect here. On one side this modern nation, which on those blood-soaked battlegrounds is supposed to have been forged; on the other, family lines shaped or broken by war. What is excluded from both is the experience of the invaded. An estimated 87,000 Turkish soldiers died in what has come to be known as the Gallipoli campaign – ten times as many as the Australian and thirty times as many the New Zealand ones. And while they are increasingly acknowledged, sometimes even included in the official commemorations, their names are not etched in our monuments. Theirs aren’t the stories we tell.

The personal as opposed to collective space of Anzac Day remembrance is full of grandfathers and great-grandfathers, as war stories are still predominantly male, and people have been sharing theirs in a way that I have found quite sympathetic. (I commend to you one in particular.) Adjusted for Italy, mine goes like this:

Of my two grandfathers, one served in the second world war, while the other didn’t serve in the first. I got to know the former, who died just short of my tenth birthday. He was a lovely and much beloved man, the tailor in a small rural village. I struggled even as a child to reconcile the evidence of the kind of person he was with the fact that he had been a Fascist. He was called and briefly served before the Armistice of 1943, already in his late thirties. He was a quartermaster and a prison guard. A farmer from New South Wales who had been one of his prisoners kept in touch with him for some years, which we took as an indication that he can’t have been a tormentor. Still, being a Fascist meant just that. Our story – his story – is one that excludes many others: those of the enemies, foreign and domestic. Those of the deported.

And you... what are you doing? Propaganda poster to enlist in the militias of the pro-Nazi Salò Republic after the occupation of Italy by the German Army, 1943-44

Then there is my other grandfather: born in 1900, dead long before I was born, his life-story largely lost to us due to a taciturn son – my father – and a wife with whom he had grown apart. One of the few things I’ve ever known about him is that he was imprisoned for failing to report for military training near the end of the First World War. I’m not even sure why he made that choice, as he was described to me variously as a freemason and an anarchist. A version of the story, which strikes me as apocryphal, suggests that the command of the military barracks would pull him out of his cell while an officer read out loud one of the fervently patriotic letters sent by his own mother in front of the other recruits. Either way, if he was prosecuted his case would likely have fallen under the general amnesty promulgated for the crime in 1919.

Of this man, of whom I know so little, I would like to claim the heritage. But it isn’t mine, not meaningfully. Not when I don’t even know his motivations.

Yet there is a tenuous connection. When my own time came, in the early 1990s, just as Italy was coming out of its first post-war military adventure in Iraq, I applied for the status of conscientious objector at the same barracks where my grandfather had been jailed. All I had to do was sign a document stating that I held sincere pacifist beliefs. The option was available to anyone, albeit skewed towards the educated urban North like so many others, and it led to my working in a mental health facility for a year instead of undergoing the still-compulsory military training. It was a formative and useful time (I’ve written about that experience here). That I could do this, and not face jail or the prospect of a punitive two-year service, I owed to the pacifists, the objectors, the deserters of previous generations. Those who organised and struggled, but also those who simply failed to report. All of them made the act of refusing to honour that duty to ‘defend the nation’ a thinkable act: first decriminalised, then tolerated, then finally accepted and ordinary, as it was for my friends and I.

The story of my other grandfather, a man I never knew and may not have liked very much if I did, is one of those broken lines, so broken that I can barely lay claims to it. But it’s the only thing I felt like writing about today.