The Centenary of ANZAC Day is upon us and the attention of the nation will turn, once again, to remembrance. One commentator has called into question the commercialisation and glamorous nature of so many elements of this commemoration. He pointed to cruise ships off the Gallipoli coast, complete with tourist opportunities, pop stars and themed entertainment. He commented upon the manner in which corporations have already been taken to task for equating their products with ANZAC mythology. There are football matches that are advertised in war-like terms and as ‘ANZAC’ matches. So much of this is far from the reality of ANZAC Day and the mythology that touches deeply into the hearts and minds of so many Australians who are looking for deeper meaning, hope and something of the spirit amidst the ordinary life.
As we turn our minds to this myth, central to Australia and our national story, we read the stories of this day in the light of the story that lies even more centrally within the life of the Christian Community – the Story of Jesus and the traditions of faith. Whilst the two are not mutually exclusive neither are they mutually inclusive. The Christian story has much to speak into the ANZAC mythology and the programs of war and conflict that entwine themselves into our conscience.
As I have spoken to many veterans over the years to understand their story, their experience – to listen and sit with them in the sacred space of their telling. Most do not want to say very much about the actual experience. For them war is too terrible, to horrific. It is too much of hell! For some the adventure of teenage years, responding to the call of King, Empire and country, began as an exciting interlude to ordinary life. A bit of training and then off the see the world, battle and vanquish the foe and return in a few months to continue normal life. They ended up in deserts, on cliff faces and in a plethora of strange places for which their training ill-prepared them. One commented that the first day of war, reality struck deep, clear and horrifically quick. In deserts he wasn’t ready for he realised that the enemy was shooting at him – real bullets, real grenades… That first day two mates were killed. This was real and it was dangerous deadly and he had no idea what he was doing or why! He said: ‘Son don’t think war is good – it is hell on earth! We should do anything to avoid war and sending more young men and women into it.’
Another was a paratrooper and often behind enemy lines. That’s about all he would say except to get angry with politicians who support wars without understanding the first thing about it and then glory in the men and women going out or coming back! Another was a pilot who ended in a POW camp and escaped on the Long March, was hidden in an abandoned house and liberated by the Allies. None spoke about the realities of war; it was too hard but the pain, the struggle, the evil horror was clear in their eyes and being. War is not the answer, they repeated time and again.
I read of the current problems facing veterans of recent wars, from Vietnam to Afghanistan and Iraq. One story begins: IT WAS around midnight when Nicholas Hodge stepped into the middle of the road, lay down on the white line and placed his identity card on his chest. A passing taxi driver was the first to spot him and pulled over. The driver picked up the card on Hodge’s chest, reached for his phone and began dialling.
Soon, a police patrol arrived and two officers made their way towards to the large, powerfully built figure lying face-up on the bitumen. One of the officers recognised Hodge: a factor, he says now, that – combined with the way ACT Policing handled him that night – probably saved his life. Under the gaze of nearby diners in the trendy Canberra restaurant district of Kingston, Hodge begins to sob. “I was hoping a car would run me over,” he explains. “I just started bawling my eyes out, saying, ‘I need help, I need help’.” Hodge was a veteran of multiple deployments with both the army and Federal Police in Afghanistan. The story is told in the Canberra Times and outlines this veteran’s nightmare life filled with depression, loneliness and haunting ghosts of war from which he cannot escape. It is one of countless such stories.
These veterans have many of the physical injuries but the psychological manifestations of war are growing more intense and difficult. There is a 3x greater suicide rate amongst veterans than the rest of the community and mental health issues are becoming chronic with up to 50% of all veterans needing significant support and help of some description. PTSD is rampant. In some ways this has always been the case but it has been hidden and allowed to hide in the lives and minds of veterans who tried to ignore it and families who hid the pain.
Unless one has been in the place of these soldiers it is impossible to understand. We can only listen to the stories and feel the pain in their eyes and tears. We can also take them seriously and hear the message that echoes through the memories and stories – War IS NOT the answer! It is hell on earth and should be avoided at all costs. For young men and women on the ground, obeying orders and so often fulfilling the political pipedreams of national leaders, war is extremely dangerous and leaves them wounded and psychologically damaged. That is the nature of the culture of violence and the more extreme it is, the more significant the pain for these pawns of our wars.
Somehow this message is lost in the grandstanding of leaders who parade through ANZAC Day bathing in reflected glory and intoning platitudes of ignorance. The silence that we are encouraged to embrace is the only fitting response to the horror and evil that these young men and women were exposed to, embraced in their being and courageously endured. The silence we hold ought to embolden us to listen more deeply to the words of veterans and heed their sombre warning that war is NOT THE ANSWER! Sending troops to wars that are not our own, with no basis in defence and lacking sanity is not honouring the memory and sacrifice of those who have fought. It is playing with people’s lives.
In remembering those who served through the theatre of war, we want lift up and celebrate particular characteristics that rise to the surface in times of deep stress, danger and need. These young men and women displayed courage, sacrifice, perseverance and persistence, loyalty, faithfulness, mateship that was really a deep, deep dependence and trust in each other through the darkest times. These are qualities to hold up, to give thanks for and to emulate in our own lives. They are also qualities at the heart of faith and exemplified in the story central to our life as a Christian community – the death of Jesus and the response of God in the Easter story.
Our central faith story speaks of One who is so filled with belief and hope and conviction in the Reign and way of God that he sacrifices his own life for the sake of God’s way in the world, to proclaim the deepest truth of life for all people. Jesus is courageous, self-sacrificing, persevering, graciously welcoming of all people, embracing them into the community of grace as friends/mates and builds deep trust. Jesus is also absolutely non-violent and resists any effort by his followers to use sword or spear – he is a leader who understands and leads truly.
Jesus defies the world’s culture of ‘violence as the only response to violence’. He proclaims a way that is the only true way to peace. He knows full well that violence begets more violence and inevitably the little ones suffer the most. True peace is only ever born out of love. This is the hardest truth for us to grasp because everywhere we have a culture of violence influencing us until we know it alone, as the way of the world.
Yet, isn’t this the message of our diggers, young and old? Isn’t this the truth they learned in the midst of hell? Isn’t this the deep wisdom forged into their consciousness whilst being shot at, having mates gunned down in the most god-forsaken places on earth? We honour these men and women. We remember them, but we fail to heed their message and therefore we fail to truly honour their lives and sacrifice, their memory. Most people I have spoken to fought in the vain hope that their children and grandchildren wouldn’t have to. What are we doing?
As a few war veterans in recent times, said to me, remember the past – those who fought, those who died, why they fought and died, how they fought and died – and work towards peace! War is not an answer.
No-one I spoke to condones war – all were united in their opposition and hatred of what war is about; the pain and suffering, the futility?
It’s hard to comprehend that not so long ago Australians were united in their opposition and hatred of what war is about; this pain and suffering, this sheer futility of loss. But those born after WWII, what do we really know? What do those who are making decisions for war understand? Do they know of air raid shelters and sirens; blackened windows and blackouts; working at home to support the war effort – including the sacrifices…; waiting for word about loved ones – not knowing where they were, whether they were dead or alive…?
It is difficult for younger generations who are not related to service men and women, to understand the debt owed to those who fought for our freedom; people who sacrificed much for their relatives, friends and their country. War is too often glamorised and glorified – especially in Hollywood portrayals! But there is nothing, absolutely nothing, glamorous about war! It does bring out some of the best qualities in people as their lives are bound together in a struggle for freedom. They strive together towards a common goal. When the comforts and ease of life is stripped away and everything is reduced to absolute basics, truly great human qualities emerge – sacrifice of self for others, working together, trust, community and, often, faith in God (One veteran remembered lying in a trench with gunfire all around. There was himself and two mates who often joked with him about his faith. In the trench that night they all prayed for their lives!). There is much love realised and released when people struggle under tremendous hardship.
Having said that, war is ultimately a futile exercise that brings death, destruction and suffering upon people and the earth. It is tragic and the scars are imprinted on the national psyche forever – ANZAC Day is a sacred day in Australia, but one that often misses the point – in honouring the service men and women doesn’t hear their cries for peace! As a result of the ending of WWII we have grown up in a very different world – one in which we have the capacity to destroy everything in a few minutes. The rules have changed in war and we must remember!
This day ought to be about peace. For if there is any message that we must hear from those who have served our nation in war, it is to work for peace!! In the place of such deeply felt hatred that exists in war there must be peace! The world, the human race, the earth itself, cannot bear much more war. We must work for peace.
One person told me of meeting a German some years after the war – they were both on opposing sides and possibly shooting at each other. They were together on a trip and it was difficult but they were both men, with families – not very different. He looked back and thought of how they had to hate each other in order to do what they had to do. People were fighting people who were, often, very much like them. He said: ‘People experience such hatred – how can it be?’
This week’s reading, Psalm 23, is a psalm that speaks of God as our shepherd, the One who leads, guides, nurtures and sustains us through the good, the hard and the realities of life. It invites another way of living and believing – the way of God that contrasts with the ways of the world leaders who use power through weapons of violence and warfare. This psalm invites us to ponder what we really need and what really offers us peace, life, hope and contentment. It affirms, from the voice of a king of Israel, that God is the one who brings contentment, meaning and the true way of life for us. It is a way of peace! There must be peace; we must strive for peace! Peace that is not just the absence of war but wholeness in human relationships. This includes justice – looking after the poor, sick, weak and our children. It is wholeness in our relationship with the earth – living peacefully with the earth is not to abuse and destroy the planet needlessly. It means standing up against those things and people which devalue human life and promote the causes of separatism, elitism, racism, sexism, classism… It means to stand up against injustice, whether it be in systems (political, church, business…) or people (one another, politicians, business leaders…).
In Australia the relationship with aboriginal people must be dealt with honestly, once and for all – there must be recognition of the past and a commitment to move forward together with love and seeking true peace!
Today also means living peacefully with one another, listening to another and respecting them as a human. For it is in our small conflicts that the roots of war and fighting begin.
Peace does not lie in power over another or intimidation; it lies in vulnerability and love – this is the simple message of a Galilean carpenter/storyteller who turned the world on its head. If you want to follow Jesus, then walk the way of peace and love!