Today is ANZAC Day. For those outside of Australia and New Zealand ANZAC Day is the commemoration of the landing by Allied troops at Gallipoli, Turkey in 1915. In straight military terms the day (which lasted for about eight months) was an unmitigated disaster. Yet the ordeal faced by the troops at Gallipoli, and the bravery and tenacity displayed by the soldiers in the face of extreme hardship is one of the important founding myths of our nations. Indeed, ANZAC Day is probably the most sacred day on the Australian calendar, with the possible exceptions of Christmas and Easter.
Most towns in Australia celebrate ANZAC Day one way or another. Like many other places, Colac has a pre-dawn memorial service and a march and memorial service later in the morning. I had the privilege of playing the ‘Last Post’ at both ceremonies today.
I’ve always been of two minds about how I should celebrate ANZAC Day. At the heart of it all I’m a pacifist. I can’t think of too many situations where I think the use of military force is really justified. Loving your neighbour and shooting him don’t seem to be easily reconciled. Yet I would say that my understanding of war is informed as much by the veterans I have met as my reading of the gospel.
When I was at primary school in New Zealand we would have an ANZAC Day celebration at school every year. A member of the RSA (New Zealand’s veteran association) would come and speak to us about his experiences. I remember one gentleman getting up and telling us that war was nothing like the movies—it was terrible and nobody should ever want to go there. I don’t know why I remember that. But it stuck with me.
The other influence was my grandfather, David Mangelsdorf. I never really knew much about Grandpa’s involvement in the war. I knew he got injured fairly badly—he had toes missing and he carried shrapnel in his body until the day he died. He’d also tell us some of the funny stories—like the time he gave a beggar outside his tent a handul of laxatives to eat, or the time he went missing from a military hospital so he could go to the pub.
He never talked about the nasty stuff (although the beggar outside his tent might disagree!) Many of his wounds were psychological, and I suspect Grandma wouldn’t let him talk about it. Yet whenever war was mentioned on TV, a shadow would come over his face, and he’d say, ‘Why are they sending all those young blokes overseas? They should give old buggers like me a tin hat and a gun and send us away instead. Get rid of us first. No sense in wasting young lives.’
When Grandma died the stories became much darker and more graphic than I was used to. Finally, after Grandpa died, I learned about the event that took him out of the war and left him emotionally scarred for the next sixty years. It turned out his platoon found itself in the middle of a minefield. His best mate, who was just in front of Grandpa, stood on a mine and was blown to bits. Grandpa sustained permanent physical injuries in the blast, but it was the memory of his friend being killed that pained him till the day he died.
The thing I have seen written in the eyes of just about every veteran I’ve ever spoken to about war are the words ‘Never Again.’ I know many who wish they’d never returned. They were prepared to die for their country. They didn’t count on coming home scarred.
By and large, that seems to be a recurring theme of every ANZAC Day service I’ve been to. The Diggers march for the memory of their friends, hoping like crazy their children will never have to endure the horror they endured. There is no glorification of war or victorious chest thumping. In fact, our former enemy is often eulogised as much as our own.
So I will continue to observe ANZAC Day. Although I don’t agree with war I can respect those who have fought. ANZAC Day is about remembering the legacy they have left to my generation. The Diggers took arms and headed overseas, and I will honour their memory by doing everything in my power to make sure we don’t have to.
(Thanks to Kat Featherstone for the photos!)