‘Why Remembrance Day fails to touch my heart’
The nation has paused for a few moments. Unlike the race that stopped the nation last week, a stillness descended at the official venues. Solemn speeches were made. And the nation was reminded that we owe so much to those who paid the ultimate sacrifice.
We cannot match our American allies in the loftiness of rhetoric about war and sacrifice. Perhaps that is because with the exception of sporadic conflict on our frontiers between colonists and the original inhabitants there are no epic battlefields on Australian soil.
There is no Battle of Antietam on the road to Canberra, no Gettysburg to attract every schoolchild on a summer vacation. Ned Kelly's murder of police and the unquantified losses of the frontier conflicts pale beside the scale of the American Civil War, or the Somme, much less the Russian Front in 1942 and 1943. Enormous loss summons up soaring mystical rhetoric. Humans strive to make sense of catastrophic loss of life, especially among the young in full bloom of potential.
So I do not denigrate Prime Minister Scott Morrison as he reflects on the 100,000 plus Australians who have died in war since we became a sovereign nation in 1901. Hopefully, he will avoid "How good's Australia?" Though, I doubt he will rise to the majesty of "We will defend our island home, whatever the cost may be." No doubt was can expect a fairly lavish diet of "they died that we might live to vote, even for Malcolm Roberts" and that "they died gamely, faces to the foe". And "mateship" will probably trend on Twitter.
Be assured, I am not a cynic. I believe that we participated in the "War to End All Wars" for unconditionally the correct reasons. We were on the right side of history in both World Wars and the Cold War.
The liberal democratic order that prevailed for much of the past 70 years has been an unalloyed good for Australia and for much of humanity. As a small maritime nation, it made abundant strategic sense for us to align with the dominant, democratic, global power of the day. We have been incredibly lucky that those nations have been the United States and Great Britain, with whom we share vital strategic interests and deep cultural ties.
Now, as that liberal global order frays around the edges, and as US Primacy erodes we may well rue the passing of the Pax Americana, to which most of our overseas military efforts were directed. And before, our expeditionary military contributions, especially in the Great War, were designed to maintain the maritime supremacy of Great Britain and its mighty fleet, which guaranteed the flows of our export trade.
Anzac and Remembrance Days were marked with considerable solemnity and ceremony in the Army. And generally, a generous intake of liquor could add vibrancy, if not strict historical accuracy to stories of contact with the enemy or other salacious if less dangerous operations in Saigon or Bangkok.
On Remembrance Day, I don my medals and attend the ceremony, at the Australian War Memorial, shedding a tear during the Last Post or some of the hymns. With a bit of luck, I may encounter an old mate or two. Having enlisted in 1974 our ranks are thinning, more from prostate cancer than enemy fire. But those fleeting encounters, which may be the final ones are always special.
Again, let me reiterate that I am a dyed in the wool patriot. My dad and his father served in the First and Second Australian Imperial Forces. I am a true believer - fiercely proud to have worn this nation's uniform and to have served overseas in command of Australian soldiers. But something about the large formal gathering at the War Memorial fails to really touch my heart.
Anzac Day is still incredibly special. It means a great deal to me and I invariably volunteer to deliver the commemorative address at a small regional town. Historian Ken Inglis captured the prosaic sense of the sacred that tiny country war memorials embody in our small towns. Often the statue of the tiny digger, in repose, resting on arms reversed dominates the main street. The eternal marble soldier is the lone sentinel outside the pub, eyes downcast to avoid shaming the drink drivers.
To me, those images are more authentic than the pieties of HG Wells. It was not the final war. We are still involved in one in Afghanistan and we are losing. Sure, conventional state on state war has been in steady decline since Waterloo, though the return of totalitarian capitalist states to the global system augurs badly for the so called 'democratic peace' that ensured after the fall of the Berlin Wall.
I am angry about suicide among our veterans and the apparent ineptitude of Department of Veterans Affairs. And I cannot take seriously banalities from our leaders about "they did not die in vain." It is a day for sombre reflection.
My hope is that we have a serious discussion about how we secure our nation over the next decade. And let us ask how we support those who, on our behalf have been fighting the wars that have not ended any wars.
Catherine McGregor AM is a freelance writer and former military officer.
This piece is republished with permission.