When war shall cease this lonely uknown spot
Of many a pilgrimage will be the end,
And flowers will shine in this now barren plot
And fame upon it through the years descend:
But many a heart upon each simple cross
Will hang the grief, the memory of its loss.
– John William Streets, extract from “A Soldier’s Cemetery”
ANZAC Day, for those who might not know, is a day of commemoration or remembrance of those who served and still serve in the Australian (and New Zealand) military forces. Most countries have a similar event in their calendar, such as the United States’ Veterans’ Day. As with other important groups in society, those who risk their lives and dedicate a career in the defence of the country ought to be remembered in particular, I think, in a solemn and wary manner.
This is not meant to be jingoistic or extremely nationalistic. It doesn’t put Australia at the top of the international heaps for a day from which we can look down our collective noses at other peoples and their histories. Not even those who are the descendants of our past enemies, especially not them. For if we do, there was no point to the conflicts.
This is not meant to be a day of glorification of violence. Many Australian soldiers – including my great grandfather (note how I mention this in the hope that it gives more weight to my argument, as others do) – never spoke about his experiences overseas beyond saying that he never actually saw battle. Only recently my mother discovered that he was medically discharged due to frostbite, which could only have been gained on the battlefields of the Western Front, not sitting in a training camp in England as he told us he did. If we glorify violence and the death of ‘the enemy’, we are inoculating ourselves from the horrors faced by those in conflict.
This is not meant to be a day of militaristic supremacy. A vast number of soldiers, sailors, airmen, nurses, drivers and other military personnel were volunteers. Ordinary citizens who donned a uniform at the time that was deemed necessary and did things you don’t do in ordinary society – like run towards the fray rather than seek to quell it.
For these reasons, and others, ANZAC Day cannot be a day of celebration. Perhaps, in some families or veterans’ groups, it might be mildly celebratory for the return of loved ones safely from the whirlwind of violence. That’s fair enough. But there is a reason that the ANZAC Day march happens after the dawn service. There is a reason that at sunset in every RSL (Retired Servicemens’ Leagues) Club in Australia the lights are dimmed and the ode and last post are played. There is a reason why more families regret the need for ANZAC Day then welcome it. None of these reasons include ticker-tape and a Gatsby-esque party atmosphere.
There’s a reason that we look at the newspaper headlines and celebration that took place at the outbreak of The Great War and cringe. We know what those men and women were to experience for the next four years. We know that the outcome of that conflict was not a lasting peace but a descent into further catastrophe.
So as we rightly commemorate those who fell and those who came home, let us remember without the rose-coloured glasses of temporal distance. Lest we forget.