In keeping with my tradition (interrupted by travel in the last little while), I thought I’d post a blog on ANZAC Day.
This morning I went to the Dawn Service at the Shrine of Remembrance in Melbourne. A few days ago I asked a friend of mine if he wanted to come along – he responded that I “know his views on that” (patriotism and war). It gave me pause to think about why I go every year.
Disclaimer: I am not telling you that you should agree with me; I’m not telling you that this is all there is to gain from reflection or attendance on ANZAC day. I’m just telling you how I feel about the day and what I get out of it.
Not why I go
Nationalism has never quite made sense to me, partly because it is usually demonstrated by people that were born into that heritage to begin with. They’ve done nothing to earn their nationality – why be proud of something over which one has no say or no control? You might as well be proud of your race or your eye colour. If anything it would make more sense for a “new” Australian to be proud: they have chosen to be called Australian, with all the good and bad and expectations and responsibilities that come with it (and that’s if they’re lucky enough to be born into a situation that allows them to travel and change their nationality in the first place: many people in the world still can’t leave their country of birth).
In addition to that, a country is essentially a group of people organised under a government. Australians may have an easier time of identifying with that because our borders are pretty much our continent (and haven’t really changed since federation) and we’re essentially a European nation in Asia, so cultures outside our borders are a strong contrast for us.
This is something that has been indirectly reinforced for me during my linguistics studies: there is a saying “A language is a dialect with an army and a navy”. Meaning that the difference between a dialect and a separate language is the establishment of a government to emphasise it, but there is essentially nothing special about that dialect as opposed to those around it. In the same way the separation of people into countries is only by declaration of a government. It’s a division of convenience, of politics.
Humanity has no lines. Lines are division, division causes aggression, aggression causes violence. The world could do with less lines.
Lastly, I don’t believe in war. I don’t believe in the glorification of war. And let me be quite clear here: my opinion on war is not a judgement on people in the military, it’s a wish that there was no need for the military in the first place.
So I don’t go to see that Australian flag waving and get a tear in my eye while honouring our military achievements. I have other reasons I think are important, to me at least.
Why I go
I have never been in a position where my life has been seriously threatened by violence or war. Almost all of my friends have never been in contact with war or military conflict – certainly the only Australian friends I know that have seen it have volunteered to the military for combat roles.
But I know that there have been (and are now) people who have died, willingly or unwillingly through war, like the children in my grandfather’s generation that lied about their age to enlist.
My grandfather faced the Japanese in the Bougainville Campaign – from what I know, he was enlisted from when he was 18 years old and most of his time was spent in Papua New Guinea with the 9th Australian Infantry Battalion. He came back with post traumatic stress and malaria.
He spoke to me about it on occasion. Only pieces – what man wants to tell his granddaughter horrible stories? – but enough for me to know that he lost many friends while under attack. He spoke about the time he spent in hospital in PNG with malaria and some of the men he got to know as they died.
I have a trinket he sent home to my grandmother from there… a small clear pendant with a palm tree etched in the back: a gift carved by a fellow soldier out of a windshield fragment from a downed Japanese plane. Sometimes I look at it and try to imagine how different my grandparents’ life was to mine: thrown into war in the prime of youth; the community losing so many friends, partners, husbands, brothers. Fearing for their own safety and feeling like the world was being torn apart.
When I used to go to the smaller dawn services in Newcastle, NSW I would wander down to the RSL afterwards and buy the local diggers a pint or to and chat to them. I have to admit, I’ve missed that small-town community feel this time around (my first ANZAC day in Melbourne and my first in a big city). Each of the diggers have stories of their own that are interesting, humbling and important to the community.
I go to ANZAC Day be reminded of all this horror, so I can appreciate what others have been through, what others have lost. So I value what I have.
I have been born into a time, place and culture where I have never (and hopefully will never) be put in a position where I will face violent conflict, either because I am told I have to or because I need to defend myself or my community. (There are many other things I appreciate about my life like access to education, free speech, equal rights etc, but I’ll stick to my main thoughts related to ANZAC Day).
When I stand at the Dawn Service I think of those people who have died in all wars on all sides, and I do cry at the thought of how terrible it was for them in their last hours or minutes. I don’t care how or why they got there, whether they were conscripted or bullied or volunteered or had to defend themselves. I see avoidable agony and lonely, terrifying death. I hope that I never have to see it and that our children and grandchildren never have to see it.
If there are restless spirits of soldiers somewhere I hope that it’s enough for them that I’m standing there of my own choice to remember the fallen, their experiences and pain, to appreciate the life I’ve been born into and the peacetime that I am fortunate enough to live in.
So, you see
I am not proud to be Australian. I greatly appreciate that I am lucky enough to be one, and one in the Australia at this point in history.
I am not proud of our military history. I sincerely appreciate that I don’t have to be a part of it.