Fight them on the beaches

Tally ho red leader, bandits 11 oclock high, As the son of a WW2 veteran, I grew up on a diet of war movies and books. I thought it was a lot of fun and derring do. I remember saying to Dad, it must have been fun up there, and he said “It wasn’t fun at all, and turned away”. It was not something i asked him about again. Interesting that I am now married to a German woman (my parents thought that this was fabulous), although my father may well have been bombing my father in law (thankfully he missed).

I was at a fabulous seminar yesterday, hosted by RMIT on resilience. Oh, yawn, I can hear a lot of people say, haven’t we had that conversation over and over again. Yes, we have. But when John Handmer’s involved, it is always going to be interesting and different. With him was Dr Adriana Keating, who brings a systems and economists eye to the issue. I’ll write about her stuff in another blog.

John discussed the notion of resilience, and this idea of simplistic self-reliance. He said in many of his conversations, people often harked back to the second world war, where everyone was stoic, made do, and just got on with because there was a war on. When he looked into it, the public narrative was more about national solidarity and pulling together to do your bit, and there was nothing about self-reliance.

The war question is an interesting influence on disasters and disaster management. Disasters are often framed as being “at war” with natural forces lined up to “get us” . Metaphors have their place, as this blog piece from The Economist  demonstrates, but when they lose their meaning, or get co-opted there is danger.

“War” has its uses as a metaphor. Most importantly, it focuses attention: there is no greater national emergency. War calls for urgency, unity and sacrifice. Leaders in wartime can expect a singleness of purpose from their followers that no other situation can command.

But the war metaphor in disasters is not helpful. It shifts the hazard to be an enemy that must be fought and beaten. David and goliath. It’s a battle. We are ascribing sentience to a hazard, such as the RFS’ fire campaign last summer. “Fire has a plan, do you” Fire can’t have a plan. It can’t think and set goals etc. We often speak about somthing as looking like a disaster zone (like my oldest daughters bedroom). But when it comes to describing a disaster zone, we shift the gears up to describing it like a war zone.

It has given rise the paramilitary forces of the fire services, the SES and rescues services, with their command and control approach, and being central to emergency management. Emergency Management itself emerged out of Civil Defence, and being ready to deal with an attack at home by enemy forces. I recall at an early meeting with Melbourne University after Black Saturday, the CFA Assistant Chief Officer attending the meeting said proudly, “every day at CFA, we are at war and we are at war at the moment”. The last time I looked, war is not a good thing.

It plays into the hero myth of the diggers who “died” for us (rather than a European family spat), it’s the volunteer firefighters who put their lives on the line for us. Which they do. Kevin Rudd brought this to the fore by referring to the yellow helmet of the CFA volunteer as akin to the digger’s slouch hat. Again, don’t get me wrong, what the volunteers do is fabulous, as every volunteer is fabulous. They don’t want to be seen as war heroes, they are just doing a job.

And then there is the khakisation of recovery, where the recovery is seen as an “Operation” that has to be done to people to get places back on their feet. I have written about this previously. We see a lot of this in Queensland. Don’t get me wrong, the military have resources that can be mobilised quickly, and are needed. But the civilians, and the citizens will be there long after the military goes, and they need to be the ones in control, and setting the directions.  I have also heard that there is a sense of relief when the army trucks roll into town, because they are familiar. But equally, if they were Red Cross trucks or SES trucks, then the connection with the safety of the emblems would also be similar. My dear Auntie Dawn, who died this week, was in her house on the wrong side of Whittlesea during Black Saturday (and wasn’t going to move). She said the first person she saw from the recovery system in the days afterwards, was a young, nervous, soldier who had been sent to check on her, because her bin hadn’t been collected. She was eternally grateful for the contact.

Having said all this, I have worked with some fabulous ex-military people, who do bring a different way of looking at things. It is also interesting to see people who are trained to be killers, to be compassionate and humanitarian. its a reminder that everyone is a person too, something often forgotten in conflict.

Where resilience comes in, I think is in the empowerment realm. it cannot be a military operation, its a chaotic system, Most people do have capacity, they do want to pull together, and help each other. We could do a lot better than to look at the indigenous peoples relationship with extreme weather, and how they manage it, rather than battle it. It part of their country, and their dreaming. And they know what to do.

RIP Dawnie.

2 thoughts on “Fight them on the beaches

  1. Thanks Richo. Agree with everything you say. The dramatisation and glorification of disaster response is disempowering to people, and dangerous for emergency service personnel. The construction of heroism is great for recruiting and maintaining image (and budget!), but damaging in overwhelming disasters where the ‘heroes’ find (to their distress) that they are just humans.

    I think your last paragraph deserves more of your (and our) thinking and writing. Accepting that we are just a species living on this benevolent and occasional hostile planet, and that we are part of it rather than deluding ourselves that we own it or control it, would serve us well. Belonging to country (and all its benefits and threats that this brings) would make us a better society.

    Best wishes, Steve.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. THanks Mr Pascoe, so true, it is not something that is wished for, but created. I’m in awe of indigenous weather knowledge. The seven seasons of Port Phillip area make so much sense (Here we are in Iuk eel season). I’d talk and love to write about it more, but feel a bit uncomfortable about it, as its not my story to tell. Perhaps your cousin Bruce can!.


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