This week was ANZAC Day, a day of conflicting emotions and stories. Growing up through the 60’s and 70’s, ANZAC Day wasn’t as prominent as it seems today. Nor was the mythos associated with ANZAC traditions. Perhaps it was the historical proximity to Vietnam in those days and the societal questions and issues around that particular war that affected the mood and discussion.
In recent years ANZAC Day and the myths associated with ANZAC Cove have grown and morphed into stories that seek to say something new and different about our nation and who we are. Descriptions of ANZAC ceremonies at ANZAC Cove paint a picture of a haunting and quiet, gentle place. People gather as mists roll over the ocean. There is the music of the waves, the sand and steep hills. There are also the memorials, the grass and the moving ceremonies that threaten to become a commercialised ‘Big Day Out,’ with pop music and entertainment as at the 90th anniversary. I confess that I cringe at some of the scenes broadcast on the news – Australians with footballs in the car park area, and a giggling festive mood.
In an age where things of faith are dwindling, it has also become a spiritual pilgrimage for many – the most meaningful thing that they can find in place of the religion they have either cast aside or never grasped. I sometimes wonder what the many people who make this pilgrimage think, feel or experience – or believe in relation to the ANZAC story. Certainly ANZAC Day is bigger than Gallipoli but somehow everything is subsumed into this story that has morphed from defeat into victory in the eyes of many who ‘celebrate’ it.
I feel conflicting emotions around ANZAC Day. There is the recognition of the sacrifice, struggle and courage that so many have men and women exhibited in serving our nation in the various theatres of war – both willingly and through conscription. I feel incredulous and a deep anger over the stories of war that many veterans have recounted both to me personally and the public stories of deep suffering, of hell on earth. Why did they have to endure this? Every time I hear the story of ANZAC Cove I feel very angry. 8000 young men sacrificed for what? The incompetency of British leaders turned this plan into a complete fiasco and men were sent into the paths of enemy fire – sacrificed for nothing. It was an horrific failure where good men died. Military historian, Dr Jonathan King wrote: ‘With the Gallipoli centenary approaching, the nation should remember the words of our last Anzac Alec Campbell, who pleaded on his death bed: ”For god’s sake, don’t glorify Gallipoli – it was a terrible fiasco, a total failure and best forgotten”.’
There are many stories that have been built up around this event to raise it to a national myth that gives us meaning. John Simpson Kirkpatrick and his legendary donkey, for example. The myth has surpassed the reality. Jan Wositzky, a storyteller, musician, writer and producer said in a Herald article this week: “[In]A government release on March 1 this year, the Australian Defence Honours and Awards Appeals Tribunal separated the myth-making from the facts. They rejected a posthumous Victoria Cross for Simpson because the evidence shows he was no more or less courageous than the other stretcher bearers, and that many of the men who gave witness accounts of his reputed feats of bravery were not at Gallipoli at the same time as Simpson.”
He goes on to comment upon the fact that Simpson with his donkey is a moving and attractive story – the myth is close to Jesus’ story of the Good Samaritan, with his donkey and his care.
What disturbs me most about much of the ANZAC mythology is that it desensitises the reality of warfare and tries to promote some positive elements whilst minimising others. In every conversation I have had with veterans, there is a deep silence behind any stories they are willing to share. There is a haunted look and the painful reminders of a hell on earth. They cannot fully communicate what it means to exist in trenches exposed to elements, rationed food, broken sleep, whilst enemies are trying to kill you with guns, bombs… The stories of mates killed and mass graves… are heart wrenching and difficult to hear – let alone experience first-hand. An old neighbour a few years ago spoke sparingly of his experiences as a WWII paratrooper. He wouldn’t say much except that it was awful! He never went to the ANZAC march; he couldn’t bear it. He and a few old mates gathered at the local RSL and drank the day away – best forgotten than celebrated seemed to be his approach. He had a few words for political leaders who send people to war but they aren’t printable! I have been constantly surprised that veterans continually say that we MUST learn the lessons of the past – war is never an answer. It may be good for the bigwigs in their fortresses away from the danger but not for those exposed to the harsh, hellish realities of war.
As a society we need to remember and give thanks for the 1000’s of men and women who have given themselves for the sake of peace and hope. We need to remember and understand the stories they are able to tell but we also need to look elsewhere for our myths of salvation and hope. Instead of glorifying the suffering of these people and sanitising the pain, we must recognise the reality and work for peace – in memory of what they did and would want of us. That is our hope.
This week we will read words of Jesus – ‘A new commandment I give to you: love one another as I have loved you. This way everyone will know you are my disciples – if you have love for one another.’ I think of the men and women who went into wars, who gave themselves in many ways for those they loved at home. I remember those who give of themselves in the service and well-being of others and of the wider community – here and abroad. I also think of the stories, in Gallipoli and the Western Front where there were brief truces and men from opposing sides spoke and interacted, buried dead together and recognised their common humanity.
There are, of course, the stories of heroes and heroines in every war, people who have risked all for their friends and others – to bring peace, life and hope. This is what Jesus was on about – peace, hope and life for all. He spoke of sacrificial love that liberates over violence and hatred. I hear the echoes of Jesus in the stories of veterans who want nothing more than peace, hope and life – not war!