Today is a National Day of Mourning in Australia. We remember those 200+ people who were killed by the rampant bushfires that swept many parts of the State two weeks ago; we mourn the loss of home, town and belongings to the hundreds and thousands; we remain on alert as fires continue to burn and men and women continue to put themselves in harms way to protect others.
(Mark Knight, editorial cartoon, Herald Sun)
The devastating effect of these fires has had not only a very real impact on many of our countrymen, but a psychological impact on everyone else. The day the fires started in earnest was the hottest day in Victoria’s history : 46 degrees C. This hot, dry onslaught was not easier to accept just because it came by natural means.
Australians pride themselves on “helping a mate in need.” Within a week of this disaster, millions upon millions of dollars had been raised for the Red Cross and others. Food, clothing and household items have been donated in such vast supply that the agencies literally cannot accept any more. They have enough goods to help the needy for years to come.
It is little wonder then that the ferocity and devastation of the fires has been likened to a war zone. We had booked to go camping in Marysville at Easter. The aerial photographs of this country town, set in the once green hills of a State forest, show that the whole town has been razed to the ground. Black stumps by the score show where trees used to grow. Dark shapes outline where buildings stood.
In Clint Eastwood’s companion films, Flags of Our Fathers, and Letters from Iwo Jima, he tells the stories of the men who fought on each side of the battle for the tiny volcanic island Iwo Jima in the Pacific.
The black volcanic rock of this island means that very little grows here. In the latter days of WW2, the American Marines landed there in their thousands to take the island. The Japanese, holed up in their rock hewn bunkers, kept them out for days before the greater numbers overwhelmed them. The fighting was fierce and ruthless.
Flags of Our Fathers tells the story of the iconic image of the raising of the flag on the top of Iwo Jima. Some of the young men who were on the island at that time were sent home to rouse a public into buying war bonds. They were marked as heroes in the press and in the public consciousness despite the men’s protestations that they were only doing their bit, neither great or glorious. Eastwood poses the question, for whom do we create heroes ? Is it for the men who served and gave their lives ? Or is it for everyone else who desperately need someone or something to believe in.
Letters from Iwo Jima is a more intimate tale of the Japanese men who are forced to leave their families to defend this island. If the Americans captured it, then their planes would reach the Japanese mainland. They also know that they will die there. The Japanese Navy has been destroyed by the Allies, and reinforcements are being deployed elsewhere. There is no back-up.
In this film, Eastwood portrays what it means to have honour. The traditional Japanese version of honour is to commit suicide if you fail in your mission. The officer in charge, played with dignity and reserve, Ken Watanabe, prefers to see honour in remaining true to yourself, to your family and to your mates.
On this unique day of mourning across Australia, we try to shut out the invasive and insensitive commercial news reporters who like to build up every sentiment and create heroes of ordinary people facing incredible odds. Instead we pray for the families in distress, for comfort and peace. For the volunteers who risk their lives and are the only ones standing between the next town and the fire, we ask for courage, resilience and stamina. For the public we ask for ongoing sensitivity, generosity and respect.