This is an important line of defence that kids learn very young: I didn’t do it! It just happened. The distinction is not just about the choice of words. Kids are, unconsciously, recruiting an important grammatical distinction when they say these kinds of things.
Active and passive voice are different grammatical forms, and they allow us the choice to say “the doll’s arm was pulled off” (the passive form) rather than “you pulled it off” (the active form).
In the passive form, you can choose not to say who did the doing.
But whether you say “you pulled it off” or “it was pulled off” you are saying someone or something is responsible for this action. Both the active and the passive impute responsibility.
By contrast if you say something “fell (off)”, you are saying “there was no intervention, human or otherwise into this process. It just happened all by itself”.
Which leads me to the recent announcement of a new ‘war’ memorial in Yungaburra, on the Atherton Tablelands in far north Queensland. Named the “Avenue of Honour”, it is dedicated to “the fallen” in Afghanistan.
Australia already, apparently, has over 6000 war memorials, dedicated to remembering “the fallen”.
The website of the new memorial has a special page for “the fallen” here: http://www.avenueofhonour.com.au/the_fallen.html
You can read the names of the men who “fell” – the majority are in their twenties.
Within days of its opening, another young Australian male, Cameron Baird, “fell”.
He was the 40th Australian to “fall” in Afghanistan.
A Tasmanian paper, The Mercury, led its report with the headline “Tributes to fallen hero”.
Did he “fall”? No, of course he didn’t. “The fallen” is a euphemism, which helps politicians hide many ugly truths.
For instance, it allows them to lump together all deaths in a war. Any list of “the fallen” in a war puts soldiers killed by “the enemy” together with those killed by one’s compatriots in so-called “friendly fire incidents”.
“The fallen” even includes those killed because helicopters weren’t properly maintained.
Moreover, “the fallen” has a mysterious power; it evokes ideas of bravery and sacrifice. It makes us believe that these men have fought and died for some great and noble purpose.
The homepage of the “Avenue of Honour” begins with a tale of a “brave and proud 'band of brothers' … being inserted deep inside enemy territory in the defence of freedom and liberty”. These “fallen heroes” died because their helicopter crashed.
And, happily, for the politicians and businessmen and women who have profitted from the deaths of “Coalition” soldiers – painstakingly recorded, and numbering over 3000 – and the unknown number of Afghani people killed, “the fallen” obscures from view any notion of causation.
This is the beauty of the grammar of middle voice. “To fall” is an act in which there is no agency or human volition.
“I didn’t do it. It just happened.”
So politicians, remembering “the fallen”, can put their hands on their hearts and feign veneration. They can sigh, and squeeze out a tear or two. They can hug the parents of “the fallen”, and console the spouses.
And then do it all again next time.
This column was first published by the NTEU here.