Thursday, April 26, 2012

worth remembering

 It has been a long journey for me, trying to understand what – if anything – ANZAC day could possibly mean.

My [step]grandfather fought in France during World War I, and was gassed. I don’t remember a time when he was not either languishing in the Repat Hospital at Heidelberg, or sitting in his favourite chair at home, coughing and spitting.
How could I not have a strong stomach when I spent years cleaning up what you do not need to hear described?

After my first impression – war is cruel – came a second, stronger impression: War is stupid. If I applaud Archbishop Mannix’s insistence that the first war was not a working-man’s war but an Imperial squabble, it is not because I identify as an Irish Catholic, but because he was right. It was a particularly stupid, unjustifiable and disgusting war, as wars go.
How privileged am I, though, living in a country where people had the right to openly debate the rights and wrongs of a war. In other, more ‘advanced’ western democracies, people were jailed for speaking against this war. 
And how grateful I am, still, that we still have the right to speak.

The Second World War is easier to accept as one which had some point. Britain’s ostensible excuse for joining in was to save Poland from Nazi occupation, but of course, the war was inevitable for many reasons. In any event, Poland got the booby prize at war’s end, and passed from Hitler’s control to the control of an equally disgusting Dictator.
The Second World War was just as cruel and stupid as the first but, in the long run, it’s easier to accept that my country was involved.

As my brother sweated blood about the possibility of being conscripted during the Vietnam War, it was hard for me to see Anzac Day as a positive sort of anything, let alone celebration.

With each successive military involvement, I have to ask myself if we should be involved at all. I don’t always agree that we should, but I respect those who volunteer to go, because they go on my behalf.

Bruce Ruxton, who recently passed away, was a tireless worker for returned servicemen, but in the 1960s and 70s, during an era of sweeping social changes, all many of us could see was a poisonous mixture of racism and sexism whenever he had our attention.

The marches, years ago, were far from inspiring. Grandfather watched them on the TV every year, from start to finish – no mean feat for someone who never glanced at the TV for so much as a second from one day to the next. Off screen, there was a great deal of drunkenness and gambling and I’ve never had one good reason to be impressed by drunks.
Of course, this was the return of the repressed in action. When people with post traumatic stress disorder revisit their demons, they re-experience them with the same intensity and horror they experienced the first time they met those demons.

It took me a very long time to understand that no one ever spoke about war because there is no way to explain the indescribable. 
Two comrades who had nothing in common beyond their involvement in a war were joined forever at the hip because they both knew the other knew what they were feeling. I suspect ‘mateship’ is a good name for it.

War touches everyone, some more than others, but we are all diminished to some degree by every conflict: I’m diminished by what is happening in Afghanistan as I sit typing away in my ivory tower.

It took a disgracefully long time for anyone to acknowledge that, as much as the soldiers, the people who tend the wounded and dying – many of whom were traditionally female nurses – never escape the consequences of war.
It took an obscenely longer time for anyone to acknowledge the contribution made by indigenous servicemen.

This guy lives at the Shepparton RSL
He doesn't carry a gun, he's just taking a break

Australia's acknowledgement and understanding of the nature of war is now a more mature and honest one than it was when I was younger, and the marches are now more inclusive than the White [male] versions I sat through with Grandfather.

I’m okay with it, now, that Anzac Day is growing in significance as an important day in Australia.

ANZAC day is not an important day for Australia because “we” were honorary Poms, but because the ANZACS went to war as British citizens, and [if they were lucky] returned home as Australians and New Zealanders.

Tonight I must finally give in, and give Julia Gillard credit for saying something worth saying.
Here is the full text of Prime Minister Julia Gillard's dawn-service speech at Anzac Cove today, [stolen, with thanks, from The Age Newspaper].

They were strangers in a strange land.
Men who came from "the ends of the earth" in an enterprise of hope to end a far-off, dreadful war.
But it was not to be.
Even at dawn, the shadows were already falling over this fate-filled day.
Here on these beaches and hills, so foreign and yet so familiar, a skilled enemy lay in wait, led by a man destined to become a great leader.
A world of war was described in the mortal struggles of a million men on the narrow confines of this peninsula.
For the allies, this was a battle of nations fought by great powers and the might of their empires for a wider strategic goal.
For the Turks, this was a defence of the soil and sanctity of home, for which Ataturk ordered his men not only to attack but to die.
And the men who fought here from our nation, our allies and from Turkey did die – terrible deaths that spared no age or rank or display of courage.
Over 130,000 men gave their lives in this place, two-thirds of them on the Turkish side and 8700 from Australia.
So this is a place hallowed by sacrifice and loss.
It is, too, a place shining with honour – and honour of the most vivid kind.
A place where foes met in equality and respect, and attained a certain nobility through their character and conduct.
Eight months later, this campaign ended as it had begun – at dawn.
At 3.57 on December 20, 1915, the last Diggers quietly slipped away.
They did not begrudge the victory of their enemy, which was hard-fought and deserved.
They did share a regret greater than any defeat – having to leave their mates behind.
So the Australian and New Zealand commander, General Godley, left a message asking the Ottoman forces to respect the Anzac graves.
But no such invitation was required.
The Turkish honoured our fallen and embraced them as their own sons.
And later they did something rare in the pages of history – they named this place in honour of the vanquished as Anzac Cove.
We therefore owe the Republic of Turkey a profound debt.
No nation could have better guarded our shrines or more generously welcomed our pilgrims.
A worthy foe has proved to be an even greater friend.
Through Turkey's hospitality, we do today what those who left these shores most dearly hoped:
We come back.
As we will always come back.
To give the best and only gift that can matter anymore – our remembrance.
We remember what the Anzacs did in war.
And for what they did to shape our nation in peace.
In this place, they taught us to regard Australia and nowhere else as home.
Here where they longed for the shape and scent of the gum leaf and the wattle, not the rose or the elm.
Where they remembered places called Weipa and Woolloomooloo, Toowoomba and Swan Hill.
Or the sight of Mt Clarence as their ships pulled away from Albany, for so many the last piece of Australian soil they would ever live to see.
This is the legend of Anzac, and it belongs to every Australian.
Not just those who trace their origins to the early settlers but those like me who are migrants and who freely embrace the whole of the Australian story as their own.
For Indigenous Australians, whose own wartime valour was a profound expression of the love they felt for the ancient land.
And for Turkish-Australians who have not one but two heroic stories to tell their children.
All of us remember, because all of us inhabit the freedom the Anzacs won for us.
These citizen-soldiers, who came here untested and unknown, and who "founded a deathless monument of valour" through the immensity of their sacrifice.
This dawn will turn to darkness at the ending of today.
But the sun will never set on the story of their deeds.
Now and for all time, we will remember them.
Lest We Forget.


  1. That's a beautiful speech.

    I agree with you about war. It's often pointless and it causes so many problems in people's lives.

    It's not just about surviving the war, but surviving all the after-effects. It's so sad to see stories of families dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder and/or debilitating medical conditions.

    1. Dina, sometimes it seems as if the effects of war are like the effects of radiation, reaching out from a toxic centre to touch as many as it can, and with a half life that takes too many generations to finish doing harm.

  2. A great post for ANZAC day. I cannot see the sense in war. I cannot understand why civilised nations can't resolve their problems around a table. However, I do believe Australian soldiers are very good at what they do and I feel sorry for all those who lost their life or were traumatized by war.

    1. The word "all" is good one, isn't it Diane? That's why I was chuffed by the very inclusive tone of Julia Gillard's speech.

  3. A very moving speech. I was surprised how interested foreign born workmates were in the Gallipoli ceremony.

    1. It was interesting, Andrew, to read comments and letters in the paper from new Australians who were embracing the spirit of the day more readily than I had ever done. It made me wonder why Anzac Day has been increasingly important to more recent generations and arrivals, and why it was so unpopular for a time. I think it's good that as a society we are now much more open about the effect of war on people who serve, and the ripple effect it has on their families.

      Julia's speech was a good one, and it was surprising the media didn't give the whole of the speech the approval it deserved.

  4. I read somewhere that it would take at least a generation or two before the full effects of WW2 could be appreciated, accepted and understood because before that was just too close. Maybe that's why the resurgence is happening now??

    But it still enrages me to see shrines of remembrance for WW1 that speak of the honour of death for 'God, King and Country', when none of that trinity should have wanted a whole generation to be decimated.

    1. Hi Red,
      That's an interesting point about the timing of this resurgence. We have a whole new generation connecting with fathers and grandfathers they never knew, so there is a distance. Also, we seem to have let go of the warped gender divide that was fair to neither sex.

      God King and Country - another good point which I must confess I tend to ignore or dismiss. I guess there were people building these monuments who were yet to discover the Australian-ness that returned soldiers had discovered. Perhaps the loss of family members would have been unbearable if they'd had to acknowledge they'd been had. Empire schmempire.