Lest we forget. Or have we already forgotten?
On two occasions recently my view of ANZAC Day has been challenged by others who believe it should be abolished because, in their words, it glorifies war. One was a relative; the other was a friend. They’re entitled to their opinions. We’re fortunate to live in a country where we’re free to have them.
Yesterday morning, I attended the ANZAC dawn service in the local town. I arrived early because I was laying a wreath for the local surf club and needed to get a handle on the proceedings. Once briefed, I stood with others in the cold pre-dawn hush and waited for the ceremony to begin, watching new arrivals trickle in from surrounding streets, all on foot, their faceless shapes emerging from the darkness. Ones and twos, young and old, families; so many people yet so quiet. Heads bare or capped with beanies and regimental berets. Elderly men and women with medals pinned to their hearts; others, mostly younger people, wearing the medals of a departed parent or grandparent on the opposite side. Some with medals on both sides. But most people had no adornments of service. Of the town’s two thousand inhabitants, nearly half of them stood before its modest war memorial, their combined mass barely a murmur as the dawn began to glow in the eastern sky. Then silence, broken by the MC's welcome: ‘Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls.'
Throughout the remembrance service, I looked for anything that might be described as glorification. There was a communal sense of pride and purpose, but no glory. Nor was there glory in the words of the bemedaled master of ceremonies, nor in the faces of those who had served, nor in the young Army Cadets of the catafalque party. And if there was a single glorious note in the Last Post (which was flawlessly performed by a local schoolboy bugler), I didn’t catch it. Rather than glory, there was reverence, respect, and gratitude.
I was reminded of another commemorative occasion that others had condemned as a glorification of war: the 50th anniversary of D-Day. On 5 June 1994, twenty-one ships anchored in line off Portsmouth, UK, waiting to salute the Queen as she cruised passed on the wing of the Royal Yacht Britannia. I stood on the upper deck of one of those ships, HMS Fearless, behind a row of a dozen or so dark-suited old men who sat with their medals glinting in the milky sunlight. An unbroken line of sailors stood ‘at ease’ along the ship’s railings.
The Royal Yacht Britannia and HMS Fearless on D-Day's 50th anniversary in June 1994. The veterans are standing next to the funnel. (Alumy stock photo)
A distant cheer reached us on the wind. Then a call to ‘attention’ over the ship’s loudspeaker. The sailors responded as one. The grey-haired veterans next to me stood up, some of them taking a moment or two to find their balance, all of them with spinal stoops in various stages of advancement. As the Royal Yacht steamed past, with the Queen and President Clinton standing together in the shelter of a covered balcony, the loudspeaker called out, ‘Three cheers for Her Majesty the Queen.’ Along the railing, from bow to stern, every sailor’s hat went up in unison, three times, and the old and bowed veterans straightened up as if made young again. Some had tears on their cheeks.
What did those men remember as they stood shoulder to shoulder, their first time on a warship for decades, as their monarch waved to them across the churning sea? What horrors had they faced? What mates had they lost? They were some of the few surviving members of an operation that turned the tide of the Second World War, which, had it not been fought, would have allowed Hitler to extend his reign of terror unchecked. Hence the commemoration. Did those survivors not deserve to be recognised? Did those who gave their lives not deserve to be remembered?
It's about gratitude.
Since the end of the Second World War, wars are something that happens in other places. We’re too civilised for such brutality. Our privileged society can afford to be more accepting and inclusive than cultures who don't share our freedoms. Professional soldiers may be sent into warzones by our government, but here, we’ve lived without existential threat for seventy-seven years. Without a living memory of being at war, it's easy to forget that it’s sometimes necessary to take up arms to defend our way of life, to defend our freedom, and to defend our right to have an opinion — including the opinions of those who believe that ANZAC Day glorifies war.
Whatever opinion we hold, is it too hard to get up early one morning of the year to say 'Thank you' to those who defended, and continue to defend, our right to disagree? ANZAC Day exists lest we forget our debt to them.