Remembering shared humanity on Anzac Day

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My childhood was spent near Anzac Hostel, a repatriation centre for invalided soldiers, predominantly from the First World War. It was a towered white building on a large block of land surrounded by Moreton Bay figs, a gathering place for cicadas in summer.

A ward for the totally and permanently incapacitated in an Anzac Hostel, 1919 (National Archives of Australia)I was torn between the desire to sneak into the property in the hope of being able to boast that I had seen greengrocers, orange drummers, redeyes and other colourfully named cicadas, and my fear of the men in the hostel, whom people described as shell-shocked or damaged. They, and the Western Australian flowering gums along the road, each of which bore the name of an Australian soldier killed in the war, were the physical reminders of war and of Anzac Day in particular.

Even to children these things intimated a reality only later to be entered: the sadness of war. As did the Anzac Day celebrations, largely composed of fellow soldiers and those who had lost husbands, brothers, fathers and lovers in the war.

Today the celebration of Anzac Day has changed notably. Its participants encompass soldiers who have fought in a variety of wars since 1945, their relatives and descendants, and people who find the rituals of the day moving and encouraging. The focus of the day has switched from honouring and grieving the soldiers who died at Anzac Cove and in the trenches to honouring and celebrating the heroism of all those who have fought in the Australian armed forces.

Anzac Day has also been increasingly used as a commonplace by politicians for praising distinctively Australian values. They have accordingly spent heavily on facilities for remembering the war, focused on the site of the battle rather than on the hometowns of those who grieve, and often yielded to the temptation to glorify war.

The change of focus has not been universally accepted. The tension between remembering those who have died in battle and celebrating those who have fought in battles makes the celebration of Anzac Day inherently controversial. It is seen by many to canonise military values.

I believe that the risk is less to glorify war than to sanitise it by allowing time and space to take away its physical reality, and with it the sadness of war. The relationships involved in it are reduced to those that link soldiers on the battlefield to one another and to those at home who support them faithfully.

 

"Anzac Day is an occasion for dwelling compassionately on the things that bind us together, not those that separate us into allies and enemies."

 

If we celebrate Anzac Day we should be drawn to reflect on the full range and power of relationships involved in war. That means keeping in mind the relatives and friends of those who fought, not simply at Anzac Cove but in all Australian military actions, and especially the families who lost husbands, sons and brothers. We should also hold these relationships in our imagination, not simply at the moment when people fought, were wounded, died or survived, but afterwards.

Our reflection should include the way in which soldiers who survived negotiated the changed relationships with families, friends and lovers when they returned. It should encompass also the way in which the lives of families were devastated by the loss of children, lovers or parents, were affected by fathers returning with symptoms of stress and addiction and by the violence which sometimes accompanied it.

It should include, too, the long, dependent lives of those at Anzac Hostel and elsewhere who were so affected by physical or mental illness as a result of their war service that they lived the rest of their life in institutions or home care.

If we hold in our imagination those Australians who fought in war and the complex relationships that frame their lives, we should remember also the young people, women and children today around the world who are drawn into suffering or inflicting the horrors of war by necessity and not by choice.

On Anzac Day we should celebrate, not the achievements, but the humanity of soldiers recently caught in war, and be encouraged to attend to their welfare, especially to the hardest affected among them.

In a society and world in which military metaphors and binary choices are extended increasingly to international relationships, immigration, customs, policing and welfare, Anzac Day is an occasion for dwelling compassionately on the things that bind us together, not those that separate us into allies and enemies. It is a time for children to visit boldly those who live in the Anzac Hostels of our day and for both together to delight in the variety and the sound of cicadas.

 

 

Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.

Main image: A ward for the totally and permanently incapacitated in an Anzac Hostel, 1919 (National Archives of Australia)

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Anzac Day, war


 

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"On Anzac Day we should celebrate, not the achievements, but the humanity of soldiers recently caught in war, and be encouraged to attend to their welfare, especially to the hardest affected among them." I wholeheartedly agree. As a primary schoolboy I can remember singing "Abide with me" and "O God our help in ages past" in a school choir, as old diggers walked up or were wheeled up to the cenotaph to place flowers. Their wives, kids and grandkids etc. were part of the scenery, but it was the gnarled old blokes, weeping or blankfaced, who freaked me out. As I grew older and marched in parades, and later served in the Army reserves, the futility of war and the horrors they endured became clearer. Thank you, Andrew, for writing these words: "In a society and world in which military metaphors and binary choices are extended increasingly to international relationships, immigration, customs, policing and welfare, Anzac Day is an occasion for dwelling compassionately on the things that bind us together, not those that separate us into allies and enemies." My boy played the Last Post at his school this morning, as I, and my father in his time, had done before him. We've talked it out, and my son knows that his maternal German great-grandfather, his Australian Pop, and his deceased paternal great-grandfathers, and other rellies, had served in different armies; yet along with their families they had all faced the prospects of the same kinds of violence and horrors. Words like victory and defeat ring hollow when you look in the faces of the survivors.
Barry G | 23 April 2018


I used to say to myself, “I must go to a dawn service one day.” I never got there and now, if offered the opportunity, I would refuse. I sometimes have dinner at my local RSL but always book for after the nightly Last Post is played. I wouldn't have chosen to go otherwise but I visited Gallipoli in 2014 (some months after all the official activities) as part of an organised tour of Turkey. I was the only one of my tour group who wept. To the rest, I assume, perhaps wrongly, that the past has been “consigned to history”. I wept because my son is in the Australian Army and I could see the waste of all those lives, past, present and future. My son joined the Army completely out of the blue and said to me repeatedly when I expressed my concerns, “Mum, it's the Australian 'Defence' Force.” As it happened, he joined just before we joined (like lapdogs) the US in Iraq and as far as defence goes, it has all gone downhill from there. When my son first went to Afghanistan I told him that he should always do the right thing but he should never try to be a hero. If the worst ever befalls him, I won't be celebrating anything. He'll understand. He doesn't go in for all the glorification himself. Unlike the rest of my tour group in Turkey who are probably fairly representative of present day Australians, there is nothing like having a serving member of the armed forces in the family to live with unimaginable fear when they are deployed because the reality of war comes right into your home.
MargaretMC | 23 April 2018


This gentle reflection powerfully brings to mind the damage inflicted by war. I have attended dawn services in our town and been struck by the number of people attending and the palpable sadness. The hymn "Abide with me" a very poignant reminder of our loss. In recent days I've also been reading Kenneth Slessor's classic poem "Beach Burial", with its soft and humble beginning and ending in humanity's shared reckoning.
Pam | 23 April 2018


I would wish two things on Anzac Day. Firstly, that everyone who wants to remember the courage and valour of those who served reads Erich Remarque's 'All Quiet on the Western Front'; it's a reminder that war is about killing and being killed. Secondly that all politicians be excluded from any active part in the commemorations; lest we forget that it was the failure of politicians that led us into most past wars and that will lead us into the next.
Ginger Meggs | 23 April 2018


Fr Andy. Thank you for your memories, and thoughts in this very fine article. And for the image of authentic, human fragility.
AO | 23 April 2018


In Australian cities this evening people will gather on Anzac Eve to commemorate all who suffered in war emphasising the need for prevention of future wars. These peace vigils organised by the Independent and Peaceful Australia Network.
Annette Brownlie | 24 April 2018


Grandfather, 3 great uncles in WW1 and Uncle in WW2. Lived with 1 great uncle as a child. He was shell shocked and shell remained in his head - it could not be removed. One great uncle permanently damaged, 1 uncle had PTSD. As an 8 year old left home at 4 am to attend the Museum ANZAC service. Cry every time when I hear that trumpet.
Noeline Champion | 24 April 2018


i am encouraged by this as i have just listened to Richard Flanagan address the National Press club.
Noel Jeffs | 24 April 2018


Thank you for broadening our 'Lest we forget' to include families, surviving soldiers, women, children and so on. May I also suggest one more inclusion and that is those we fought against. If they are not to be remembered in our 'Lest we forget' then what do we do with them?
Richard Collyer | 24 April 2018


Yes indeed. Pleased to be able to link to it from our collection of similar sentiments at honesthistory.net.au . There is a lot more to war than blokes in khaki doing and dying. Australia is more than Anzac - and always has been.
Dr David Stephens | 24 April 2018


Certainly let us remember ".... . husbands, sons and brothers" as mentioned, but let us also include wives, daughters and sisters who served and to-day are serving in all aspects of war.
gerry burns | 24 April 2018


Andrew. We don’t celebrate Anzac Day, we commemorate Anzac Day. Regards John
John Crowe | 24 April 2018


My father was one of the men who fought in the Second World war, and returned physically well, but psychologically damaged for all time. he always went to the Anzac Day service, where he joined with those he knew. we never went with him, but his return was always with considerable anxiety because he could be so distressed, so angry, so devastated. and this would then be played out at home. we must never forget how damaged our men were by what we as a nation asked them to do, and that they in turn damaged their families, and the hurt and distress is passed on, generation to generation. War has a heavy price. we must always be certain that it is justified.
Helen Kane | 24 April 2018


Thank you Andrew for your reflection. I wish to comment as a Vietnam veteran and also recall the loss of my Uncle in Northern France in 1918. As ANZAC Day approaches my level of anxiety increases as I recall the loss of a mate, L/Cpl John Gillespie, who was killed on April 11th 1971 in Vietnam as he attempted to come to the aid of some Vietnamese soldiers wounded by a mine blast in the Long Hai hills. His Dust Off Chopper was shot down by Vietcong machine gun fire and he was burnt to death when it exploded on impact. His remains were finally returned to Victoria in 2007. Like John, I was a Medic with 8th Field Ambulance at 1 ATF Nui Dat. I saw the horror of death at first hand. What saddens me is the idiotic comments made at ANZAC Day Services by the politicians . With few exceptions, most have never seen active service and have little idea of the impact of their decisions on the servicemen and women they send off to war. They have even less appreciation of the pain and suffering of those who return and of families left bereaved by the loss of husband, father or son . War is horrific and life changing as I well know. Andrew you are so right to comment on the tendency these days to sanitise the impact of war. Maybe if the pollies went and saw the impact of their decisions on the people of the countries we have sent our troops to, particularly Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq, where we have engaged in conflicts of dubious moral and ethical value, they might pause and reconsider the collateral damage caused to the peoples of those societies, often many years later. Lest we forget.
Gavin | 24 April 2018


Anzac Day will be contentious until and unless the women, children, old and infirm are recognised. How many more of them are injured and displaced by war.
Liz Munro | 24 April 2018


Thank you for a very thought provoking article, Andrew. Like you, I tend to think that ANZAC Day has come to be seen by many as an occasion "to canonise military values". The day should be about remembering those who did not survive and those whose quality of life was irreparably damaged because of their participation in war. ANZAC Day should also be a day to remember the wars Australians have participated in and to reflect on whether they have been "just wars" or not and what we, as a nation, can do to actively work for world peace. The sad reality is that many of the wars our soldiers have fought in have been to support the agendas of imperial powers. The traumatic experiences of many veterans I have met have led to them becoming activists in the peace movement. Not too many of them thought that fighting in war was a great experience. To honour them, we should be reflecting on how our nation can contribute to the effective building peace, international social justice, human rights and care for our home, Planet Earth. It seems to me to be a more positive approach than just allowing our nation to be stampeded into imperial wars.
Andrew (Andy) Alcock | 24 April 2018


"Secondly that all politicians be excluded from any active part in the commemorations; lest we forget that it was the failure of politicians that led us into most past wars and that will lead us into the next." couldn't agree more, GM. Andrew's article and the comments point to the "collateral damage" (such a weasel expression) of war. But I feel much of the nation is lulled into sadness to disguise the questions raised here about Who decides we go to war? Who tells young men to do so? Do you always obey orders? And alternatives to war such building better relationships with relationships like overseas aid. Unfortunately it is difficult to have these discussions when it looks as if we are disregarding the enormous suffering many families experience. But if patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel I think those who died and their relatives are twice pained when politicians use the day and the concept for anything but sober reflection and genuine compassion.
Michael D. Breen | 24 April 2018


Thank you Fr Andrew for this article. I worked in the Outpatients Dept at the Repat hospital in Melbourne for 18 months as a pastoral carer. That Dept is at the heart of Wearie Dunlop's memory ... his ethos is etched into the walls of the building and the soldiers who fought alongside him ... who attended the clinics there. I was there the day of 9/11 too. I've never been to War but I've seen deeply into the peoples' eyes who have been. Unspeakable suffering. Every year on Anzac Day, there would be a ceremony there in the Peace Garden with schoolchildren attending as part of adult expectation. Shots would be fired at close range to these children ... I saw this same look in their eyes as the noise cut through into deafness and horror at the use of these weapons. It was definitely a case of the "canonising [of] military values". We ask our soldiers to engage in inhuman activity and then spend money on war memorials instead of the unspeakable suffering these people and their loved ones have to bear ... all for other countries, not ours. Lest we forget indeed. As Richard Flanagan said in his address to the National Press recently ... what we are doing is in fact a forgetting ... a glorified forgetting of what War demands of us as a Nation and why it is demanded of us in the first place. May Peace prevail.
Mary Tehan | 24 April 2018


The phrase "It is seen by many to canonise military values" would appear to have struck a particular nerve with other commentators. I am deeply moved by MargaretMC's words: "I sometimes have dinner at my local RSL but always book for after the nightly Last Post is played." I don't know and can barely imagine how it feels to have a son on active service, in the hostile places of a violent world. I do wonder if the 'glorification' that is remarked upon here is not engaged in at some RSL establishments by the range of defunct(?) military hardware so often displayed outside them? Field guns are all too common; at Cowes on Phillip Island I'm fairly sure there is a tank parallel-parked alongside the footpath. I always imagined such souvenirs would be more likely to aggravate the conditions of those returning damaged in body and mind from war... or am I missing something? Ought not these reminders be beaten into ploughshares (or 21st century equivalent thereof)?
Richard Jupp | 24 April 2018


The Anzac story is a sad and tragic one. We need to be constantly and forever reminded of the inhumanity of war in the hope that some amongst us, particularly those in power, will eventually learn the lessons so far rejected in our flawed humanity. Anzac Day is a day of mourning, not of celebration. We should never forget that it represents the sacrificial offering of the flower of innocent, idealistic youth in the name of human hubris. It is a day that honours the truly sainted martyrs amongst us, the Anzacs, not one that honours the brawling German cousins, the King and Kaiser, the famed Jew hater or the intellectually deprived US presidents and their co-conspirators who used them in their flawed hubris!!
john frawley | 26 April 2018


You always take such a nuanced and thoughtful approach in your articles about various issues. Thank you very much and keep up the good work!
Maree Brown | 02 May 2018


All wars were – and are – being fought on behalf of the most predatory private interests – even the wars against dictators and terrorists. And if you look closer at the real history – not the heavily censored version thereof – you find that it's these same private interests that brought most of those dictators and terrorists into existence, in the first place. And they don't even bother to conceal it these days, they just keep on lying instead. The veterans have at least as much of a reason to regard themselves as victims of gross abuse as the victims of child rape. And the families of the war dead are the families of murder victims – killed with malice aforethought – not for the country, but for the greatest private profits of the most rotten cabal of crooks.
John Smith | 25 May 2018


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