All I hear these days is giving thanks to sacrifice, and valuing the freedoms we hold. Fair thoughts, no doubt, but it seems insulting to me that we've forgotten the importance of reminding ourselves of the complete and utter waste and tragedy of war. I could be wrong, but my memory tells me that was present in past ANZAC and Remembrance Days. One didn’t have to look far to find veterans more than happy to emphasise this.
My own grandfather is a good example. He served with some distinction (unspoken, of course, until after his death) in WWII, and his own father was killed on the Western Front before he was even born. I’d like to think that such a man might have some perspective on the costs of war. He would curse down very quickly any self congratulatory tone on either ANZAC Day or Remembrance Day. It was a day of bitterness to some degree, and this was always encapsulated by the prominence of the notion of the ‘futility of war’.
Surely this should be even more prescient on ANZAC Day. Really, what event in Australia's history demonstrates more aptly the bloody-minded futility and unreserved waste of war than the miserable campaign in the Dardanelles?
Alas, not, it seems. The past ten years have seen ANZAC Day elevated to Australia’s national day. TV stations compete with images of ‘live’ services, stock footage of WWI. Local councils compete with 'my dawn service is bigger than your dawn service', and people almost seem to be competing to see who values the ‘diggers’, the ‘flag’ and ‘the values that they died for’ the most. We hear much talk about ‘brave sacrifice’ and the victory of moral and cultural good over the evils of the world.
Forgive me for thinking that what blokes like my grandfather meant was that such days were about realising that war is a stupid, vain exercise and not worth the sacrifice. Forgive me for thinking that such days were once about denouncing the notion of war as an appropriate means to resolve dispute. It was about reminding us what war is really like, and what the costs actually are.
It brings to mind a quote from British wartime PM David Lloyd George, who at the height of the horrors of the Western Front allegedly conceded a newspaper editor that:
If people really knew [the truth], the war would be stopped tomorrow. But of course they don’t know, and can’t know.
That’s what ANZAC Day is supposed to be about in my eyes. Making sure that we remember what war is truly like. Remembering the sacrifice, absolutely. But also about remembering the true costs of war, reminding ourselves about the reality of war, and really and truthfully thinking about whether or not such costs are worth it.
I was looking for something from a soldier to emphasise this, and I can’t go past this extract from 1918 in a diary kept by private Roy Denning, 213, 1st Field Company Engineers. Denning landed on Gallipoli on 25 April 1915 and served there until he received a gunshot wound in the back on 16 June. He was evacuated to Malta, but after his recovery went on to fight on the Western Front until the end of the war. This is a man who should know something about the futility of war:
Digging trenches through forest. God give me back the day joined this blood sucking unit who are never satisfied.