A half-mile up the street from my place, there’s a busy bus interchange and railway station, a hub for three rail lines, bordered by a huge shopping mall complex on one side, and on the other by a few dozen shops that run each side of the old two-lane Pacific Highway, now a secondary road bypassed years ago by drivers preferring the freeway between Sydney and the northern coastal port town of Newcastle.
There, on a beautifully maintained grassy square, sits a stone war memorial, a cenotaph, engraved with the names of hundreds of men long since dead. It’s always there, sometimes with flowers left at the base, in all its silent, imperial-looking splendour, right opposite the traffic lights where I turn each day onto the old highway for the trip into town after dropping off my youngest daughter in her very prim and proper English-looking school uniform.
Underneath the engraved bronze plaques, on the side that you can see, are the names of a dozen or so battlefields from WWI and WWII – now fallen deadly quiet, and peaceful resting places for the Australians who lost their lives so far from home. Apart from the WWI human meat-grinder battles at Gallipoli, on the Dardanelles peninsula of modern-day Turkey, the slaughterhouses of the Western Front (France and Belgium), and the WWII jungle battles in New Guinea, the names of the campaigns are only vaguely familiar even to me, and would be unknown to most Americans, except for the history buffs: Salonika, Palestine, Egypt, Mesopotamia (Iraq), etc …
On the weekend, with Anzac Day approaching, and noticing that wreaths had been left in the rain at its base, I decided to wander up there and look at the other three sides of the memorial. Here, add Korea and Vietnam and a couple of little-known British wars of the post-war modern era, too, in Malaya and Borneo. Another side simply says “Other conflicts”, and would doubtless include The Sudan and The Boer War (Britain’s 19th-century Vietnam) and those in which we’re currently embroiled. Those honoured are all men from the local Shire. Many were just boys. The sandstone structure itself is unremarkable, and probably looks like the many thousands of other memorials you’d see across towns, cities and villages all over Australia, New Zealand, Canada, the United States, Britain, Africa, even Ireland, the Caribbean, parts of south-east Asia, and the Indian subcontinent.
Mostly, too, they’d be listing many of the same conflicts. I know for a fact there are memorials at villages across India to the many hundreds of Indian Army soldiers who died fighting a British war in Iraq (sadly, much like that of America’s today) in the 1920s and 30s. Which is also what got me thinking a while back: why are these all “foreign” wars, and is it just this and a common language that binds us, and keeps us close? Are we really all just engaged in one seemingly never-ending, blundering imperialistic adventure, Marks I and II, as our enemies would have us believe? So, is it just that and if not, then what is it that, despite all our obvious differences, makes us all so remarkably similar?
That little memorial near the railway station, and the thousands of others around the country, provides part of the answer but not all of it. In the the case of Australia, at first glance, it might indicate that a loyal but genetically recalcitrant former colony (I’m sure the stiff Germans and fanatical Japanese would have been mortified to know they were copping it up the backside from the unruly descendents of the unwanted, exiled convict dregs of the British Empire) suddenly switched allegience somewhere along the line as one master handed over the baton to another.
The battle lists on these memorials tell the story: they go abruptly from El Alamein, the last great battle waged by the British against the Germans and Italians in north Africa, to New Guinea, literally on our doorstep, where the divisions of Australian desert-war veterans were rushed home to reinforce the civilian Militia battalions fighting the Japanese along the Kokoda jungle track in New Guinea. Soon, they were to be joined by the Americans, and the whole thing came under the command of the prickly General Douglas MacArthur, and our new (neo) colonial masters in Washington.
You could say that except for New Guinea and the south-west Pacific, when the Japanese really did present a threat to Australia, all those wars were not ours at all. Even the naval and air force memorials are silent reminders of battles waged in sea and sky many thousands of miles from home, in the Mediterranean, the Atlantic and over Europe in WWII. But the truth is, when you think about it, they really weren’t foreign wars at all. Nor should the fighting of them be regarded with nostalgia or fond but jingoistic notions of the ultimate triumph of imperial grandeur – old-style, neo-, corporate or otherwise.
For what they really signify is the willingness of men and women to give up peaceful lives (reluctantly too, one would suspect, for who wants to throw away a life barely lived?) to fight for a common and shared belief. Read: mostly for a good cause, even if sometimes flawed, imperfect, or arrogantly and naively executed.
That common and shared belief has as its foundation the concept of a civil society (in the most literal sense) that values the personal freedoms of its peoples above all else, and has made that possible through tolerance of opposing viewpoints and the evolution of grand institutions of democracy and law that makes governments answerable not to Kings, Queens or Presidents but to the people who elect them.
It’s about societies that have a shared hatred of real tyranny. And these notions have nothing to do with race, either. It is not about some blind, Nazi-like belief in the racial superiority of one over another, for people of many races have come to share the same beliefs that continue to grow along that same, common thread. For example, there is room in my country, and many of the others I’ve mentioned above, for people from many different backgrounds. The reason they come here is to live a life of hope and opportunity, rather than of fear and hopelessness. They are not all anglo-saxon, or anglo-celtic, or European or North American. They come from all over the world and now they, too, are bound with us in this wonderful shared belief.
It’s what makes Anzac Day nothing like a celebration of useless war and senseless slaughter. Of course, I didn’t really understand any of those things as a young Air Force cadet in the 1970s, the first time I marched along George Street on Anzac Day, or even why I was marching – although I felt I knew. In preparation for the event, all our parade time for weeks before was spent drilling and marching around town, much to the annoyance of motorists, some of whom helped us on our way with a gobful of Aussie invective. We polished our boots for hours the night before, so you could shave in them; our collars were starched stiff and our dark RAAF Blues pressed with knife-edge creases, even the shirts underneath that no one would see _ in honour, of course, of the fallen Anzacs who stormed ashore at Gallipoli at dawn on April 25, 1915, and for the veterans dead and alive of all those battles before and since. Or so we thought, anyway.
In marching order, brass and steel shined up and glinting under the bright southern sun, chests puffed out and heads held high, stiff leather and metal soles crunching loudly in perfect time on the asphalt as we wheeled through Sydney like the Brigade of Guards at Buckingham Palace, I thought I’d like to be like the old Diggers marching with their battle flags and medals.
I thought the “Anzac Spirit” and its notions of “mateship” were just about being brave, being a hero, and winning the Victoria Cross, but none of those ideas lasted long. The Vietnam War was still on, and to say it was unpopular would be an understatement, and it could have gone on for another 50 years for all we knew. At a certain age, I had no desire to be packed off there, or anywhere else for that matter, and left because I wanted to go surfing, not flying, and became a journalist instead. I certainly wasn’t ready to die for Her Majesty when the beach seemed like a much better option.
And that’s really what this is all about. Because, as I came to understand later, for my grandfathers’ generation, and my father’s generation, and for me, it wasn’t about any of that bullshit hero stuff in the final wash-up. It all came down to being given the opportunity that allowed me to make that choice. It really boils down to a clash of civilisations, or even clashes of sub-civilisations, and of ideas.
That’s where my thoughts will be when I go to the Dawn Service tomorrow (Wednesday). No doubt too I’ll shed a quiet tear as the bugler plays out the last mournful and haunting notes of the Last Post.
It won’t be about glorifying war, because there’s nothing glorious about war or killing or dying and anyone who thinks so is a fool. No – just silent thanks to all those who were prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice, even when they’d rather have been doing something else. I will also understand that in spite of our many imperfections, it’s not just a matter of good luck that’s made it that way, but the result of collective good management going back 10 or more centuries that has given us all the wherewithal to stand up to tyrants, mass murderers and modern-day barbarians.
I will also be reminded that these grand institutions and the contract between people and government that give us these freedoms also come with certain responsibilities, even if we have to take them up with sad reluctance and weary resignation.