Nobody won: Reflecting on ANZAC Day

In his capacity as school principal, Sanctuary member Dave first shared this reflection with the students of Warrnambool College at their ANZAC Day assembly. He writes:

I know that on ANZAC day we’re supposed to sit quietly and in reverent memory of those who sacrificed so much, so many years ago, so we can live lives of relevant freedom today. We absolutely need to show our respect to those that have fallen. Yet this year I find myself wondering whether we are truly honouring the legacy and gift that our ANZAC brothers and sisters have bestowed upon us over the past 106 years.

Have we learnt the lessons they would teach us, or conveniently ignored them for 364 days of the year? What impact has their sacrifice had on changing me, changing us to be at our best all these years on? I worry that our memories and these lessons are being clouded, covered up by a ritualistic football match and silence, which simply hangs in the air for 60 seconds and does little to positively influence our approach to life. I worry that we’ve conveniently distanced ourselves from the rigorous values of our ANZAC forebears and instead focused on selfish wants of the 21st century. I worry that with so much violence and hatred still persisting in a world overrun with pandemic challenges that we’ve either given up hope of peace and resolution, or completely missed the point of what ANZAC history would tell us: that true mateship is looking out for your neighbour before yourself.

As the first ANZACs sailed away from our shores in 1914, they sought to fight the war that would end all wars. It took only a few years and the deaths of almost 20 million to realise that when all was said and done, when the bodies had been buried and the wounded shipped off home, when the country boundaries were realigned and countries shoved into incredible debt, no-one was the winner. Just a lot of grieving folk left to pick up and reassemble pieces of lives torn apart. As Bertrand Russell reminds us, “War does not determine who is right – only who is left.”

And of course, those left couldn’t resolve their differences nor seek to understand the other with empathy and compassion. The theatres of war where the ANZACs valiantly fought at Gallipoli, the Western Front, Egypt and Palestine were not bringing about a war to end all wars. No, rather the violence and bloodshed and hatred sowed the seeds for World War II just 20 years later, which took the lives of 75 million, the majority of whom were civilians caught in the crossfire of political will. The allies, which our ANZACs fought alongside, claim to have won. Yet Jeannette Rankin quips “You can no more win a war than you can win an earthquake,” while Joseph Heller laments “It doesn’t make a damned bit of difference who wins the war to someone who’s dead”.

Certainly, it made no difference to the mates of my Pa who never returned home from Papua New Guinea with him. As my Pa steadfastly refused to march on ANZAC day and hid his war medals and memories away, it became obvious to me that he didn’t feel like he had won. My Pa didn’t join the Royal Engineers in the Australian Army to create lasting friendships. He barely saw those he fought alongside after his service was up. My Pa didn’t fight to kill and maim others – he built hospitals and facilities in the jungle to care for those wounded and needing care. My Pa served because he felt he had no other choice in a world gone mad. “A true soldier fights not because he hates what is in front of him, but because he loves what is behind him.” G. K. Chesterton. My Pa certainly wasn’t alone in reluctantly living out these sentiments, in war and in life beyond war.

Soon the mistrust and hate rose up again; we were back at it in Vietnam. This time around it was my dad who got involved, not through his choosing but because his birthday happened to be pulled from the conscription lottery barrel. And because it was not his choice, and because my dad cannot justify violence from the end of a gun barrel in any scenario, my dad picked up anti-war placards rather than rifles.

Rather than marching with hundreds of others through the swamps of the Mekong Delta waiting for the Viet Cong to strike, he marched with thousands of others through the streets of Melbourne protesting. He listened intently to the speeches of Martin Luther King, who at the time said: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. Hate multiplies hate, violence multiplies violence, and toughness multiplies toughness in a descending spiral of destruction … The chain reaction of evil – hate begetting hate, wars producing more wars – must be broken, or we shall be plunged into the dark abyss of annihilation.”

Some ten years later, we realised that the war in Vietnam was not ours to fight. In fact, it was no-one’s to fight. Soldiers returned to Australia not to ticker tape parades but in secret lest they be ridiculed by the masses. No one who serves their country deserved such a conflicted return to their homeland. And yet, in my eyes, no ANZAC needed to leave our shores for Vietnam in the first place. Yoda reflects as such. “To answer power with power, the Jedi way this is not. In this war, a danger there is, of losing who we are.”

And so we fast forward to just last week, when after 20 years of conflict in Afghanistan, our Prime Minister announced that our last remaining troops would be called back home. Yoda again reflects that, “Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering.” We entered Afghanistan with much fear in our hearts as our government reacted to the disaster at the Twin Towers in New York. Despite the incredible fortitude and efforts of our soldiers over two decades on the ground, I wonder what suffering and internal conflict we will leave behind.

Which brings me back to my worries from the start.  As we reflect on the ANZAC spirit, on the dead whose lives were cut down, on the suffering that has been collectively committed against billions, have we, as Yoda suggests, lost who we are? Surely the ANZACs, who fought and died so we might know peace, would not want us to repeat the fearsome mistakes of our forebears. I wonder what we might learn if we truly embrace the ANZAC model of service to others?

How might we be changed if we put other’s needs before our wants, as our ANZAC brothers and sisters have done over the generations? What are we doing to become less fearful of others and instead replacing this with kindness? What does that look like in our classrooms, in the yard, in our homes and even online? When the last post plays shortly and then we bow our heads for a minute of silence, I encourage you to think about the positive lessons you can take from our ANZACs for the remaining 364 days of the year. Honour their memory and their sacrifice through your actions: Be your best and champion others to be at their best, too. Lest we forget.

Emailed to Sanctuary 28 April 2021 © Sanctuary, 2021. Image shows Peter Corlett’s sculpture, ‘Simpson and his donkey, 1915’, found at the National War Memorial in Canberra. Simpson used donkeys to ferry the wounded out of Gallipoli, until he himself was killed a mere three and a half weeks into the work.

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