ANZAC Day. I guess it means different things to different people. But we all continue to be touched by war down the generations.
I note that the contingent of soldiers who march gets smaller every year and I wonder if the tradition will continue. There are now no surviving veterans of the Great War (World War 1) and those few remaining who fought in World War 2 are in their late 80s and 90s.
My dad (he passed away in 2019 at the age of 95) was in the navy in World War Two. He spent his war in the Asian Pacific ‘in the bowels’ (his phrase) of the SS Kanimbla tending to the engines. He didn’t talk much about his service to his family – in fact, he underplayed his contribution. Sometimes I think he felt inadequate compared with the combatants on the ground. I know he came to believe that war was pointless – a waste of time and people.
Two of my uncles were POWs in Changi. One of them died quite young not long after returning from Singapore. I’ve read the letters my other uncle, Ted, sent home to his family from that horrid place. They endured unspeakable hardship and yet, Uncle Ted’s letters were newsy, strangely lacking in bitterness and full of concern for family at home.
My eldest brother was of the age to be conscripted but his number wasn’t selected. It’s unimaginable to think about those young men, so naïve and green, being sent off to the jungles of Vietnam to fight an enemy they couldn’t see. And how shabbily they were treated on their return. No heroes’ welcome for them.
Today’s young men serve in Afghanistan and other inhospitable places, fighting terrorists in the name of democracy. It’s a different kind of war, where the enemy doesn’t wear a uniform and can’t be distinguished from the civilian. Today’s soldiers become dehumanized by their experiences – so many of them ill-prepared for this wicked type of combat.
As a woman I scarcely know what to make of ANZAC Day and the wartime camaraderie it symbolises. As a mother I empathise with the women at home, fretting for their beautiful boys (girls too) and willing them to come home whole and un-blemished.
But I think I agree with my Dad. War is as pointless as it is inevitable. It leaves its mark on the minds and bodies of all those who participate and those who love them. Some marks are visible. Some remain hidden and only appear later, often in some twisted and malevolent form in the dark aftermath of service.
I can’t watch the ANZAC Day service because I weep from beginning to end. I truly admire those who have fought for King, Queen and country. I acknowledge their sacrifice and I’m forever grateful to them. But when will we say the legacy of war is a price too great to pay?
In the words of the late, great Pete Seeger:
Where have all the soldiers gone, long time ago?
Where have all the soldiers gone? Gone to graveyards, every one
Oh when will they ever learn? When will they ever learn?
Oh, when will they ever learn?