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It is my duty to remember


Spirits of soldiers watch as children pay tribute to their memory. Cartoon by Chris Johnston

It is a truth universally acknowledged that the whole business of forgetting and remembering increases in significance as we age: we struggle to recall what happened yesterday, while early memories remain sharp. I can, for example, remember my first school Anzac Day.

I was four and a half, and my mother had made me a cross of white chrysanthemums. I held my partner's hand as the long crocodile wound toward the town's memorial; then I deposited the cross beneath the list of names I could barely read.

And it was on that day that I saw the words 'Lest We Forget' for the first time: it took me ages to work out what they meant, but eventually I learned that the word lest comes to us via Old and Middle English; it is best translated, I think, as for fear that.

I recently read a piece called 'George W. Bush and the Forever War' by fiery American journalist William Rivers Pitt. He does not mince words, Pitt, and is enraged by the fact that former President Bush is publicising the book that contains 66 portraits he has painted of men and women maimed during fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, conflicts for which Bush should bear the lion's share of responsibility.

Pitt has a list of epithets for Bush that is almost as long as the number of portraits, but finishes by calling him 'the man with no shame'. The writer is also highly critical of the TV hosts and journalists who are giving Bush so much time and space.

What really appals Pitt, however, is the ease with which people apparently forget. He points out that the media forget, politicians, in their extreme cynicism, always deliberately forget; we ordinary people also forget. But it can be argued that whoever wants to live must try to forget; forgetting is, at least in part, a defence mechanism.

This was (and still is) a major problem for veterans who were victims of shell shock, now called PTSD; they found it practically impossible to return to so-called normal life, since even if they could forget on a conscious level, their unconscious minds gave them no rest from terrifying nightmares and flashbacks, as many a sleepless wife could testify.

The phrase 'Lest We Forget' entered the culture of remembrance because of Rudyard Kipling, author of the hymn 'Recessional'. Kipling has had a mixed press over the years, being labelled a jingoist and an imperialist. He was certainly a son of Empire, and endured great personal loss when his only son was killed in the 1915 Battle of Loos.


"In the past I have taken my turn at rebutting views that express the belief that such days, with their marches and memorial services, are part of a wholly reprehensible glorification of war."


But Kipling was a complex man whose writing was always nuanced. 'Recessional', which was written to honour Queen Victoria's Jubilee in 1897, in fact sounds a warning: 'Lo, all our pomp of yesterday / Is one with Nineveh and Tyre'. People were upbraided to remember God, the effects of Time, and 'Thine ancient sacrifice / An humble and a contrite heart'.

Every Anzac Day there seem to be arguments about the legitimacy of what has been called the One Day of the Year, and in the past I have taken my turn at rebutting views that express the belief that such days, with their marches and memorial services, are part of a wholly reprehensible glorification of war. I've had a great deal of time to think about the matter, and also have a personal involvement: my grandfather and father were in the Australian Army, and both saw active service, about which periods they hardly ever spoke.

I don't think war is being glorified on Anzac Day. Rather, I think the day is set aside for an acknowledgement of the sacrifice so many young men and women were prepared to make. The thought persists, at least for me, that they enlisted because they believed themselves moved by the spirit of love and devotion to the mysterious concept of Home. We may consider them to have been misguided, but they were products of their time, as we are of ours. I, for one, had two very good chances of never being born, so I consider I am not entitled to forget: it is my duty to remember. At least once a year.


Gillian BourasGillian Bouras is an expatriate Australian writer who has written several books, stories and articles, many of them dealing with her experiences as an Australian woman in Greece.

Illustration by Chris Johnston

Topic tags: Gillian Bouras, dystopian novels, Charles Dickens, George Orwell, Aldous Huxley, Jonathan Swift



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Existing comments

It is my duty to remember, millions of young men butchered in a needless war. Initial euphoria disappeared when casualty lists arrived. Descriptions of the horrors were banned. The main players in 1914 were colonial powers, Germany, Britain, France and the Ottomans. Pretext for war was the assassination of an obscure duke in an obscure place by an independence fighter. The result was division of losers empires among winners. I knew one WW1 veteran, he lost both legs at Gallipoli. He never talked about it. Many returned soldiers boycotted Anzac Day. I knew three strident critics of Anzac Day all ex-soldiers, who thought they had been conned. They were my father, wounded twice in the Middle East, an uncle evacuated from Crete and a family friend. The latter two had no physical injuries but mental ones they never recovered from. Anzac Day as an event, not a holiday, was disappearing, until it was revised to secure support for war in the Middle East. I have great respect for military personnel prepared to risk all for a noble cause. I have greater respect for those accepting opprobrium, public disgrace and prison to say no.

Bruce | 21 April 2017  

Forget not the Armenian genocide, contemporaneous with and proximate to Gallipoli campaign. Aussie prisoners saw Turks enact genocide Turk ambassador to Vatican recalled to Turkey recently as pope Francis in Armenia mentioned the Armenian genocide by Ottoman Empire. Another remembered also in 1939: "I have sent my Death’s Head units to the East with the order to kill without mercy men, women and children of the Polish race or language. Only in such a way will we win the lebensraum that we need. Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?" – Adolf Hitler, in Obersalzburg, 22 August 1939, urging his generals to show no mercy in Poland The Armenian Genocide ( Hayots tseghaspanutyun), also known as the Armenian Holocaust, the Armenian Massacres and, traditionally by Armenians, as Medz Yeghern (Armenian: ??? ?????, "Great Crime"), was the Ottoman government's systematic extermination of its minority Armenian subjects inside their historic homeland, which lies within the present-day Republic of Turkey. The number of victims is estimated at between 800,000 and 1.5 million. The starting date is conventionally held to be 24 April 1915, the day Ottoman authorities rounded up, arrested, and deported some 250 Armenian intellectuals and community leaders from Constantinople to Ankara, the majority of whom were eventually murdered.

Father John George | 22 April 2017  

I think you put Anzac Day in the correct context, Gillian. Tribal memories are the things we live on and that animate us, the connection with our ancestors and the past. Most - all? - World War 1 vets are gone now and those of WW 2 are fading fast. Of course we have Korea, Vietnam and other vets still alive, some still suffering horribly. Someone once commented that, as a nation, we have spent far more recently on war memorials comparatively than any other. I am not sure whether this is true. To me a simple monument in a local park is as good as any. War memorials in country towns are particularly evocative. I am glad Australians remember their ancestors who went to war, because, sadly, many never came back or came back horribly maimed. Leaving aside WW 1, Australia was really in danger of invasion in WW 2. So many, including Aboriginal people, kept watch, reported and fought to prevent that. The exploits of the Commandos and the "Krait'" in Singapore harbour are as brave, dangerous and exciting as those of the British Cockleshell Heroes. I was pleased last Anzac Day that the organisers in Brisbane got some of the latest African migrant refugee school children to lay wreaths at the Shrine here. Anzac Day should encompass everyone. It's not meant to be a narrow racist event.

Edward Fido | 23 April 2017  

Thank you Bruce for your strong words, which to me ring true. I have always been suspicious of Anzac Day, which my ex-ww2-soldier father never acknowledged, but it was not until I read Albert Facey's description of the Gallipoli campaign in "A Fortunate Life" that I was able to find any resonance for my misgivings in the telling of history. At school I heard the visiting military man intone in our Anzac service, "they were pure of heart and clear of eye". From Albert Facey I learned just how awful it was and how alcohol prepared the young men for what was ahead. Reading Sebastian Barry's "A Long, Long Way" adds to my disgust when, every Anzac Day our local RSL has old army trucks and tank rumbling into town, together with the defence recruiting truck. I am not sure how any of that justifies the claim that we remember so we will never do it again. Right now, of course, we watch our leaders puff up their chests at one another, hoping it is a mock enactment and that we will not soon be wiped out by nuclear weapons.

Janet | 24 April 2017  

Perpetual wars will always be necessary to feed the ravenous armaments industry and to enable short-term politicians shamelessly to harness fear. Youth will always be sacrificed to power and male aggression. There is no public holiday for us to reflect on peace. Peace Studies is not taught here in schools, nor seriously researched in universities, for 'Blessed are the peacemakers…'

Richard Peterson | 24 April 2017  

War is never the answer and for those of us whose parent/s were involved -we know their silence was deep. The shame, killings and ongoing shame and trauma runs deep on both sides. War should never be glorified nor is WAR the answer. We are at a time now when Peace is needed. Then we must also break the silence of what happened on Australian soils post 1770. Paul Daley's article, "BLACK DIGGERS ARE HAILED ON ANZAC DAY. BUT THE INDIGENOUS 'GREAT WAR' WAS IN AUSTRALIA " is also a sobering read and reminderof atrocities that we must all come to face, ...“https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2017/apr/23/black-diggers-are-hailed-on-anzac-day-but-the-indigenous-great-war-was-in-australia?CMP=Share_iOSApp_Other

George | 24 April 2017  

Well said. I think it was last year that Sam Neill hosted a TV meditation on Anzac, and how its meaning has changed. I'm still gob-smacked that he could do so without even mentioning Alan Seymour's play "The One Day of the Year" which created such enormous controversy here in the late 50s and 60s, contributing to a considerable revision of its observance. And he an actor! Surely could not be unaware of it, even from across the Ditch. Did he choose to ignore it?

Val Reilly | 24 April 2017  

Thank you Gillian for your thoughts about Anzac Day. it is not a day for needless discussion on why war occurs and whose fault it is when a country goes to war. it is a time for veterans to meet their mates, recall stories about the times they shared away from the battlefront and to thank God for their survival.

Pat | 24 April 2017  

Dear Gillian, I am a baby boomer, born in Britain in January 1947. My father fought in WW2 and my grandfather in WW1. I was not conscripted nor have I served in any war. My memories of ANZAC day are of being marched as a school cadet to the Dawn Service and made to stand during a commemoration I did not understand. Others of my generation associate ANZAC Day with fathers going off to get drunk and coming home to vomit and lose control of the their bowels. My wife and I now avoid ANZAC Day and we do not encourage our children to observe it. A man 30 years my junior does observe ANZAC Day. He wears his uniform and his medals and goes out to pick up women on the strength of it. I remember ANZAC Day with shame.

Gwilym | 24 April 2017  

A memory I have of ANZAC Days in childhood is of the ritual broadcast on ABC Radio National of "The Snow Goose", by Paul Gallico, which brought home poignantly, through its portrayal of the courage of one disabled, non-combatant artist, how personal and pitiable is sacrifice in time of war.

Jena Woodhouse | 24 April 2017  

I recently read Belgian writer Stefan HERTMANS's reflections on The Great War - "War and Turpentine" - stories back to his grand-father who fought in the ghastliness of that war and Stefan retracing the places he undertook. I thought of my war-damaged paternal grand-father and of my maternal grand-father who by mere chance survived a shell-burst on the hammock where he should have been resting - and seemingly un-affected by his war service - a lucky man in many senses. I understand there is a need to recognise the lives lost - and of those who survived - to respect the horrors faced - and the fall-out on their families and society in general - but there is an element of glorification going on - those who died having aims and objectives imputed to them which were not in any way realistic of those times. Over the past couple of decades in Australia we have seen a beefed-up militarisation taking place - political figures waving farewell to khaki-clad troops sent to wars of no relevance to our land except as arm-twisted to support them by our powerful friend kitty-cornered across the Pacific from our east coast. Thanks, Gillian!

Jim KABLE | 24 April 2017  

Thanks for an interesting article Gillian. People's responses and feelings are quite varied. I particularly liked Bruce's, but I believe all responses are very valid. Life is complex, as are feelings about Anzac Day. I was fed Anzac Day from early days as a Boy Scout representing at the memorial in a country town. It is as I have grown older that I have fully understood the diversity of viewpoints. Any time I ponder the phrase 'Lest We Forget' these days my thoughts remain broad and very much embrace the emphasis of 'let us not ever forget the utter folly of war' rather than get overly caught up with the militaristic aspects of various campaigns, which can be seductive if overly persued.

John Whitehead | 25 April 2017  

Both my father and grandfather were soldiers in their "great" war. They served well and had the medals, wounds and bits of paper to say so. Neither really recovered. But both said repeatedly how much they hated it, how much they felt conned into it, and how if they had the time again they would refuse to go! My father refused to let me wear any type of uniform, as he felt it was all part of the con. Boys and youths genetically seem to want war and the excitement and perceived glory the goes with it, at least until the truth dawns in some god-awful place. But it is nothing like they imagine, especially in the good old days when it was massed infantry against artillery and machine guns. On their behalf I am appalled by the ANZAC day association of militarism with football of all thing, and generally the jolly old time we now make of it. One positive about the Brits; their armistice day is much more sad and conscientiously deliberative.

Eugene | 25 April 2017  

We are fortunate as a people to have chosen to have "Anzac Day" - a day when we can remember the horrors of war, the terrors which caused engagement and the futile sacrifices of the youngest and often most beautiful in our nation as well as the human bravery standing against iniquity. For me Anzac Day is a day of weeping, almost like Good Friday, I cant control my tears. I am so glad that as a nation we have a chance to do this together esp about war.

M.F. Agsten | 26 April 2017  

My dad rarely spoke about the Great War. He spent just a few days off 4 years in Egypt. Saved his captain at Bersheba. Was told the he would be mentioned in dispatches, which did not happen. The last year was mainly keeping the Egyptians under control, due to the breaking of the British and French promises of independence after the cessation of hostilities. He rarely if ever spoke about the horrors which he encountered.

Nev.Kelly | 28 April 2017  

The last paragraph says it all for me. Simple and true. I do worry about the AFL and other commercial enterprises exploiting ANZAC day though. This is not right.

Stephen | 02 May 2017  

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