The (Great Ocean) Road to Recovery

I’ve just come on board as Post-doc researcher for the Tragedy and Congregations Project. When I say ‘come on board’, I haven’t had your average first few days in a new job. I had already planned to be in Australia for a few weeks either side of 1 September, my official starting date, spending time with family and doing various teaching gigs for dioceses and theological colleges. On 1 September itself I was in the middle of a week-long journey along the magnificent ‘Great Ocean Road’ in South Western Victoria that runs from Warrnambool in the West to Geelong in the East, taking in such famous landmarks as ‘London Bridge’ (which has duly fallen down) and the ‘Twelve Apostles’. I grew up in Warrnambool and had driven the road many times before, but this was the first time that I realised that the whole road had been designed to be a 151 mile-long war memorial (the world’s largest). The Great Ocean Road was built, I discovered on this trip, immediately following the First World War by returned servicemen as a memorial to the Great War and to those who died in it, and possibly also to the new sense of Australian nationhood that had been forged through the heavy losses suffered at Gallipoli and in related campaigns.


Somehow the post-war Australian powers-that-be had recognised that the soldiers who returned from these campaigns needed a kind of ‘half-way house’ to assist their transition to ordinary civilian lives after their experiences of war. More recent research done on the experiences of returning military veterans indicates that the trauma encountered in theatres of war often leaves veterans unable to cope with a return to ordinary domestic life. The only thing enabling many veterans of war to feel ‘alive’, this research suggests, is further experience of dangerous work undertaken alongside fellow-veterans. The Great Ocean Road project was therefore an ideal solution to the problem of large numbers of unassimilated and traumatised ex-soldiers every bit as much as these same ex-soldiers were an ideal solution to the problem of the large work-force required to complete such a major project. The amateur road-builders lived in male-only camps over the extended period of construction, which involved back-breaking work blasting into rocky cliffs in order to create the scenic road that today snakes around Victoria’s spectacular but rugged coastline. Signs along the road that record its history specifically note that some of the men who suffered from what we would today label ‘Post Traumatic Stress Disorder’ were excused from activities that involved blasting into rock because the loud explosions caused distress and flash-backs. These signs don’t say that at the end of the road-building project the men were better equipped to return to ordinary jobs and wives and families, but it is tempting to think that this may have been so for many of them and to surmise that the combination of creative work, familiar social situation and surroundings of extraordinary beauty were effective in helping to ease returns to ordinary domestic lives.  


A little bit of hasty research is all it takes to discover that this Australian post-war project was by no means unique. The Skyline Drive that travels through the ‘blue-ridged’ mountains of Virginia, for example, was also built in the aftermath of the first World War, and in the context of the Great Depression, using a labour force from Roosevelt’s ‘New Deal’ ‘Civilian Conservation Corps’, which from 1933 included a separate branch for veterans, who lived and worked in special veteran-only camps.


Modern trauma theory owes its origins to research undertaken by those treating the trauma of returned service-men and women, yet the intuitive wisdom of these creative post-war projects has perhaps been lost. Veterans of the Vietnam and Korean conflicts, as well as those more recently engaged in Afghanistan, Syria and elsewhere, would no doubt benefit, or have benefitted, from similar ‘half-way house’ projects. Whether because of lack of public funding or of creative imagination, governments tend not to think about care for returning veterans in terms of major re-deployment programs. Might there be some be some kind of lesson, or model, here? Today governments across the Western world are struggling with their responses to influxes of traumatised peoples. These include veterans of war and of peace-keeping operations, certainly, but also refugees and asylum seekers fleeing war, terror and starvation in their own countries as well as the disillusioned seeking to return home from ill-judged flirtations with Islamist fighting forces. As Germany’s recent experience makes clear the problems of the immigration crisis are not resolved simply upon acceptance of asylum seekers. In some respects problems are magnified as large groups of traumatised newcomers seek to find their places in their new homes, though assimilation or not.


Major assimilation projects require large amounts of public funding, of course.  As I write, however, the Australian government is spending enormous amounts of money detaining asylum seekers (many already confirmed as genuine refugees) off-shore in appalling conditions as a means of deterring other would-be ‘boat people’. How would it be if such funds were instead spent on major public works projects designed to offer employment and long-term opportunities for genuine assimilation for traumatised peoples?


Such major public works projects are not in the remit of your average congregation, of course, and will thus not be at the forefront of my thinking as I return to the UK and begin my work on the Trauma and Congregations Project. Nevertheless, I hope not to lose sight entirely of the beauty of the Great Ocean Road on my return, and hope also that I might find echoes of the lessons of its history as I begin to assist the team in thinking about how to resource congregations in the UK to respond to tragedy and trauma in ways that are creative, fruitful and life-giving.