Scary stories from a lovely place
This year’s Anzac Day is no different in how it draws me to reflect on the lives of my grandparents and what a cataclysmic event World War Two was in their young lives. But now that I am living back in Australia my desire to commemorate it has changed. While living in Jozi, I wanted to tell people about Anzac Day. I wanted to stop and remember and be one little Australian in a country full of people from everywhere else.
But now I am here, it’s different. My cynicism runs deep, and in spite of my sentimental ties to Anzac Day, today I recalled why as a national day of pride, it makes me uneasy. While I want to celebrate and be grateful for the sacrifice of the soldiers in the two world wars, as well as ongoing efforts in today’s skirmishes, I don’t want to celebrate war, or violence or death.
I just finished reading E.L Doctorow’s The March, about the final campaign of Sherman’s army in the American Civil War. Doctorow presents a gritty and disgusting vision of war, as the bodies of men, women and horses are churned up and smashed apart. David Malouf’s Fly Away Peter also comes to mind. In it, the friendship between three young Australians is irreparably fractured by the first world war – the two men who go to fight, and the woman who stays behind.
I visited some World War One sites in Belgium when I was 16 and the lasting memory I have is of the sheer number of lives that were lost in that war, that literally slipped beneath the mud. Even today on the cover of the Sydney Morning Herald was a story about a soldier who died recently in Afghanistan. It focussed on the trauma his family now feel at being without their son and brother. When one considers all of the lives lost through war, the trauma and grief is unfathomable.
But I feel like the way we recognise Anzac Day carries with it a fascination about war, rather than a respect for what soldiers have done, and continue to do. I wonder if the backpackers who camp on the shores of Galipolli and drape the Australian flag around their shoulders are reflecting on why Australians were there (which engages the mind politically and historically) but rather, what it would have been like, which turns the whole thing back inwardly to the self.
I hate to be cynical about commemorating something that bestows dignity on people like my grandparents. And part of me really, really wishes I could have celebrated today with less complicated feelings. Indeed, in Australia’s political landscape at the moment there isn’t much to be excited about – no leaders are invoking excitement or respect in me and the major parties seem to have seriously lost their way from their roots.
So Anzac Day feels like a way for me to identify with being Australian, when I don’t feel like there are any other good ways. But now that I am back here, in my homeland, the urgency has waned and the cynicism has returned to my belly.
But I’m still glad for the efforts of past and present soldiers. Here’s a quote from my Grandfather’s memoirs that I think highlights why he, and all the others, deserve the dignity today should afford them.
“Many men were falling out along the way, so we took turns to help them shuffle forward, by having a man on each side of the sick one and he with his arms around the shoulders of the two supporting men. One could have enjoyed the march in other circumstances for the woods were alive with beautiful butterflies.”
(More of his memoirs are recorded in this post, from Anzac Day 2010.