Over the next week or so, the area where I live will be under invasion. Thousands of people, descending… to spend the weekend. (And after a few days here, most of them will go away again, so I’m sure it will be fairly painless).
The visitors are coming from all over the country (and possibly the world, I suppose) to commemorate the first troops who left Australia by ship, to fight in World War I. They were headed, after training, to Gallipoli, Turkey.
Gallipoli is a name so common in the Australian vernacular that it doesn’t even sound like a place in a foreign country. It feels as though it belongs to us, somehow. But I also find it hard to identify with the Australia of one hundred years ago, compared to the Australia of today. We had only been a nation since 1901, and we were going to war in defence of Britain. We were fighting a war which was literally on the other side of the world, in which our stakes were more emotional than strategic. The troops left the port here on the south coast, and as the ships sailed off to war, this coast would have been the last glimpse of Australia many of them would see. Ever.
Therefore, a weekend of events and commemorations have been planned for the town, including a march, a concert and the chance to board a navy ship. There will be Important People talking about what the ANZAC spirit means, and tributes to fallen soldiers and those who returned. And I’m conflicted about this (pun intended). I have respect for those who went to fight—I want to honour their decision, which was borne, to some degree, out of an altruism, a desire to serve their country. But I also feel uncomfortable at the way in which we glorify war and idealise the people involved. There is a tendency to believe that those who fought on our side were the bravest, the most selfless, and that those on the other side were the evil ones, deserving of death. It’s hard to have perspective, and yet, it’s been a hundred years. Is that not enough time?
With all the festivities and commemorations planned, First and Second Offspring have been full of questions about wars and ANZAC day and what it would have been like. ‘Why do we even have wars?’ asked Second Offspring over breakfast the other day.
Why indeed? We tell them all the time to work out their differences, to compromise, not to be bullies, to walk away if someone is bothering them. Why do we have wars? Because people are stubborn, because power goes to their heads, because sometimes you can get away with it?
World War I was supposed to be ‘The Great War.’ And it was, it was huge. We didn’t call it ‘World War I’ to begin with, because we didn’t expect another. And now we’ve named two of them, it implies there will be others. First Offspring asks, sometimes, ‘what if there’s a World War III?’ and the Handsome Sidekick and I assure him, that’s not going to happen. ‘There are too many people talking to each other, across borders. Think of all the friends we have in other countries,’ I tell him. ‘We have had other wars, smaller ones, and there are disagreements all the time, and we try to work it out with one another. And there are other ways to get information; people don’t believe everything their governments say, now.’
But perhaps I’m the one spreading the propaganda, this time. I’m telling him what he needs to hear, so he doesn’t lie awake at night, worrying about bombs or air raids or trench-warfare.
Since World War I, Australia has fought in a second World War, in Korea, and Vietnam, not to mention the many peacekeeping missions in which our troops have taken part. Then there’s the recent wars in the Middle East, not counting the current… thing with ISIS/ISIL, whatever it is. I’d like to believe that the formation of the UN has helped to mitigate the worst of the conflicts, and that without it, we’d be much worse off. But in any case, the last century has been bloody.
The weekend commemorations are focusing on the heroism, the camaraderie. That is what such memorials are for: they are to show the veterans and those who lost siblings or children or parents that we’re not forgetting them. They are to reassure everyone that the death and pain and aftermath were worth it, even if we can never be sure if it is. We want to think we go to war for the right reasons. (Everyone wants to think that, even the Baddies, who fight on the Wrong Side). But of course, nobody wins. Both sides have their dead and wounded, and the scars never really go away.
Apparently, in comparison to even fifty years ago, fewer people are dying in combat, even accounting for the larger global population. The optimist in me thinks that perhaps there is a chance that we could find our way out of this—maybe we are learning our lessons, after all? Yet, as I think about the young men and women of 100 years ago, meeting in the streets of Albany and getting ready to head off to the unknown, excitedly anticipating the great adventure on which they were about to embark, I feel such an immense sadness at what was about to befall them. They couldn’t have known, but if they had, would it have changed their minds about going? As much as we profess to dislike conflict, there seems to be some dark part of us which relishes the idea of defeating our enemies, and coming away from the battle, victorious.
Are we getting better at trying to talk our way out of military altercations, or are we just getting better at keeping the violence a secret? The way we fight war is changing, but we need to work hard to keep up with the ethical challenges presented by such a shifting landscape. We’ve had so many conflicts in the past one hundred years, our weapons evolving from mustard gas to nuclear bombs; we’re moving so quickly from one firefight to the next. I wonder when we are going to ever find the time to reflect on what has gone before?
Lest we forget? We’ve barely had a chance to do so.