Australian children are brought up with ANZAC Day. Almost every village, school and church holds their own commemoration ceremony every year, and I have been regularly attending ANZAC Day ceremonies since my time in the Australian Army Cadets when I was 15.
Once again this year I made my way to the ANZAC Day Dawn Service in my town, but for some reason this time was different. I first noticed that the traffic was particularly heavy this morning – perhaps it was even record attendance for our dawn service. When I got out of my car and joined the masses walking towards the service, I had this feeling of community which I feel rarely these days. So many people, peacefully moving in that hushed way that people do in the early morning, gathering with the intent to remember the horrors of war.
The dawn service I attend is held overlooking our local beach, and the service always starts with a spokesperson talking about how it was on a morning like this on a beach like this that all hell broke loose.
They played a short audio clip with the sound of gunfire, shell explosions, shouted commands and screams, which again, they do every year. This time, as I stood in that soft predawn darkness, I looked up at the flag above us, listened to the awful sounds of pain and war, and for the first time started to understand. After learning about the battle at Gallipoli, the Somme and others for my entire life (over 25 years), only today did I start to understand it. To feel it. And an unexpected and uncontrollable wave of emotion rose up within me, unbidden.
This beach, so peaceful now, could easily have been the place of battle. Could easily have been the place where I and many of the people I know would be killed or wounded. Could be the place where I would feel that I needed to kill and wound other human beings in order to protect my country and people.
I remembered that all of those Australian and New Zealand forces in WW1 were volunteers. This generation of Australians before me were driven to kill and be killed because they believed they needed to protect their country. Many of them were slaughtered because of poor reconnaissance or poor command decisions. The fact that they volunteered to be involved in violent war and meet this terrible end did not make me mourn them less, or take any more pride in their actions.
ANZACs are often called heroes, and maybe they are – I am not terribly patriotic, and abhor violence, so the concept of a national hero being someone who died in battle is a little alien to me. That is not to say that those dead are to be disrespected. All I know is that many, many young men died terrible deaths in battle, and even those that survived were left horribly scarred. I stood during that ceremony and felt for them – not some pride to be put on display, not some patriotic symbol of Australian values – but a compassion for every one of those men as individuals. For the fear they suffered, the mental, spiritual and physical pain they endured. I wanted to somehow reach back into the past and comfort them on the battlefield – prevent their pain. To gently take the weapons from their hands and lead them from the place that would become their open grave.
The wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and other areas of unrest are being fought by people my age. People are dying right now in deliberate violent acts. Preventable acts. My heart went out to those people also. Finally, I felt for all people in the world who were scared, alone, or in pain.
It started raining heavily during that ceremony, and I stood there silently in the cold Autumn morning while the sun slowly rose from behind the ocean and the rain ran down my neck and through my clothes and hid my tears from those around me. The wet cold didn’t matter. Those masses of dead and wounded deserved more attention than twenty minutes of rain.
Every year more and more younger people are choosing to attend these services – perhaps with many of our own involved in these wars, the younger generations feel somewhat closer to those who fought and died in years before. But this is what ANZAC day needs. ANZAC services usually use \Rudyard Kipling’s “Recessional” in song, and a particular phrase from it in prayer – “Lest we forget”. We choose to gather together and re-tell the stories, lest we forget all those that fell before us. Lest we forget the horrors of war. Lest we forget the feeling of fear. As detached from the blood and gore and fear as we are, it is vital that we force ourselves as a people – as a global people, not just Australians – to remember.
We cannot continue the killing. As long as we remember, we have hope that one day we will be able to stop it.