I read Tracee Hutchison’s opinion piece in The Age today. She really irritates me. Her opinions are so terribly predictable and, above all, shallow. I am so mad that I am sitting here at one in the morning typing.
Hutchison’s piece is driven by her ideological motivation (which is to criticise John Howard, those who are nationalistic and those who don’t agree with her particular idea of how Australia should be). While I’m certainly not a fan of Howard, or blind patriotism, I think she really needs to take off her idealogical blinkers and look at the big picture.
She describes ANZAC day as “tub-thumping over diggers”, and seems to see it as some kind of militaristic and nationalistic occasion that is harnessed by John Howard to keep the right wing death bogans happy.
Has she ever participated in an ANZAC day ceremony? Hutchison has ANZAC day all wrong. To my mind it is not a glorification of war or of brutality. It is the very opposite. Hundreds of thousands of young idealistic Australian men volunteered for war in foreign countries, for a cause that did not directly involve Australia, and many of those young men died or were wounded in terrible ways. Other people showed great courage and bravery. Should we forget that sacrifice just because Australian society at that time was not perfect according to the standards of today? The standards of today didn’t exist then, so why should people in the past be judged as worthless for failing to live up to them? It’s so easy to look back at the past and judge people harshly. Hindsight is a marvellous thing.
I think it is a real mistake for commentators to judge the actions of people in the past solely according to today’s standards, using today’s political agendas. It is also a mistake to draw broad and loose analogies between two very different wars at very different times (eg, World War I and the present conflict in Afghanistan).
My great-grandfather fought on the Somme. He lied about his age so as to be enlisted, and was only 16 years old. He was apparently in some of the worst battles of the Somme. He eventually died many years after World War I because of shrapnel which could not be removed from his chest. My grandmother tells me he had one word of French, which he proudly pronounced as follows: “Lez Erfs” (otherwise known as les oeufs). He never spoke of what happened otherwise. My grandmother was not fully aware of where he had fought until my mother sought out his war records. I am proud of my great-grandfather, and that he bravely went and fought in a foreign country. I am also proud of my paternal grandfather, who was a sapper in Borneo in World War II, and fought against the Japanese. He suffered nightmares for the whole of his life as a result of his wartime experience.
I am proud that these men risked their lives because they thought it was the right thing to do for their country. And I am proud of being Australian.
However, this does not mean that I’m Pauline Hanson in legal garb. (God forbid!) Quite the reverse. What I know from my forebears, and ANZAC day in general, is that war is a terrible thing.
Few who have read the histories would argue that World War I was a glorious event. In fact, it was frequently futile, resulting in terrible loss of life for no strategic gain. The conditions were appalling beyond belief and the casualties unimaginable. One Christmas I heard someone reading out a story of how the German, ANZAC and English soliders played soccer together on Christmas Day in World War I in the battlefields of France. The next day, they went back to trying to kill each other. I cried. The fact of the matter is that most of these men were ordinary decent men, with families and loved ones. They had just been pushed into a hideous situation by the exigencies of war.
The cause of the Allies in World War II resonates more strongly in modern terms, as the Allies were fighting the forces of fascism and intolerance. Surely Hutchison is not arguing that the Allies should just have let Hitler invade whichever countries he wanted to in Europe? The problem is that a person like Hitler can’t be stopped by asking him nicely.
To sum up: ANZAC day is about remembrance. It is about remembering those who died fighting under the Australian flag, and those who were wounded. It is also about honouring those who came back safely, and saying that we appreciate their sacrifice. While we may be able to see with hindsight that a particular war was not a good idea, or was motivated by improper political motives, this does not mean we should dishonour the people who fought and died in them. Part of the message of ANZAC day is that war is a terrible thing. Certainly, my forebears seemed to have been indelibly scarred by it.
ANZAC day tells us that we wish for peace in all areas of the world where war rages. I would like nothing better than for soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq to be unnecessary, and for the populations of those countries to live in peace.