By Linda Ethell
Last week the Washington correspondent of our major state newspaper pointed out that Americans couldn’t be less interested in Australian news than they are; nonetheless, the funeral of 250 Australian and British soldiers found buried in a mass grave by the Germans at Fromelles, in France, in 1916 raised questions for any country which sends young soldiers to war. Some of these soldiers were identified, some were not, although appeals are still being made for any family descendants to provide DNA samples. They were re-buried with full military honours, speeches, high-ranking officers, government representatives, and so forth.
On the one hand, it seems strange that so much effort and emotion was expended on the burial of the bones of men none of whom could now be remembered, even faintly, by any living person. On the other, their lives are given a determinate significance that they probably never had in their lifetimes: a more articulated and publicly important meaning. The point seems to be that there is some underlying inchoate belief that the stories of their lives are structured by the manner of their deaths, that the ending determines the significance of the events that precede it.
This is a feature of narrative, as such, but I don’t know that it is a feature of the life-histories of any but soldiers, or perhaps those who die young. We make stories that comfort us by holding chaos at bay, we give young lives a meaning that the protagonist did not have the time to make, by the ways in which we commemorate their passing. We become emotionally entangled in stories so that we can grieve for people we never could have known, fictional or not.
And yet…one letter to the Editor asked, “Will the true stories of those who have been lost in Iraq and Afghanistan come to light in time?” Why are soldiers’ “true” stories those that view their lives through the lens of their deaths in war? Why are all the events that preceded them, out of all of the other possible stories that could be told, a prelude to death in war?
Linda Ethell is an honorary research fellow at the University of Melbourne and the author of Narrative Identity and Personal Responsibility.