Lest We Forget

(Originally published 25th April, 2007)

Today, in Australia, is Anzac Day. More than just a public holiday, it’s a time when the nation remembers the Australian and New Zealand soldiers who have found and died in the wars of the 20th Century.

On this day in 1915, the first wave of Australian and New Zealand troops landed on a beach on the Gallipoli Peninsula in Turkey. They were there under the overall command of the British, who were trying to smash their way through to capture Istanbul. Young men who had gone off to war thinking they were going to have a grand old adventure were suddenly thrust into a hellish and largely pointless situation.

Over the next eight months, over 8,000 Australians and 2,700 New Zealanders would die at Gallipoli. In the end, the Commonwealth forces abandoned their positions, having achieved nothing in the way over military significance.

By the end of the Great War, over 60,000 Australians had died. In terms of men killed as a percentage of the country’s population, Australia suffered the highest casualty rate of the war.

It had a profound effect on what was still a young nation. As early as 1916, people back home were already holding commemorative services to remember those who had been killed in action. By the 1920s, Anzac Day services and parades were being held around the country to honour those who had served and to remember those who had died.

As the 20th Century wore on and more servicemen and women went off to fight in a collection of wars around the world, Anzac Day expanded to remember those as well. Over 100,000 Australians have died in military actions since Gallipoli. Anzac Day gets bigger every year, with more and more people turning out to remember the fallen. For me, that’s a wonderful thing, because more and more people are really taking this seriously.

But who are these men and women who have died in combat? Are they just names on a roll of honour?

There’s a little room in the World War II wing of the Australian War Memorial here in Canberra that commemorates the Australian soldiers who died at the hands of the Japanese in the Sandakan Death March in Borneo. But rather than just listing their names, the military id photos of every man – all 1,787 of them – are posted up on the wall, from floor to ceiling. None of the photos are particularly good. Every one of them shows a man who looks bored or even numb. They stare straight into the camera without a smile or often without any expression on their face at all.

For me, it’s one of the most chilling things I’ve ever experienced. Standing in that room and looking at those faces, I realised that every single one of them died under terrible conditions and it touched me deeply. Their lives had been snuffed out, and with them, their memories, experiences and dreams. None of those guys ever came home from war. Sometimes I wonder if they knew they weren’t that when those photos were taken. It’s a lot more personal than just a list of names. Looking into the eyes of those guys almost lets them talk to you personally.

I know that every time I go into that room, I can’t help but be reminded of how much of a senseless waste of human life a war really is. It might – eventually – stop injustice and bring change for the better, but at what cost? The people who make the decisions go to war don’t see the real cost to those who actually have to put themselves in harm’s way. All they see is the abstracted figures and it’s too impersonal.

Even a list of names of the casualties doesn’t hammer home the cost. It doesn’t say anything about who these people were and what else they contributed to the world. It doesn’t say anything about the loved ones and friends they left behind and the emptiness that their deaths must have caused. It doesn’t bring home the fact that the world is now a little bit poorer because these guy aren’t with us any more.

Too often I can’t help but wonder why. I can’t help but think that all those deaths really did mean nothing. But as the guys from Carbon Leaf sing in “The War Was In Color”:

What good did it do?
Well hopefully for you,
A world without war,
A life full of color.

Wars create pain, massive amounts of it. It might be emotional pain on the part of those who lost relatives and friends. But on a larger scale, wars create financial and humanitarian pain for both the winners and the losers.

And pain is one of the biggest motivators in human existence. The human mind is designed to move away from pain and towards pleasure. Wars ultimately change the minds of the human race and drive us to realise that such activities are ultimately pointless and need to stop. Sometimes it takes death and destruction on a mind-blowing scale to make that happen, because some people are just too stupid or too proud – or both – to look at things any other way.

So on days like Anzac Day, I urge you to remember those who have fallen. Not in an abstract way, but a personal one. Find their names. Even better, find their photos and look into their eyes. But more than anything else, honour their spirits, so that they won’t be forgotten.

They shall not grow old, as we who are left grow old.
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn,
At the going down of the sun, and in the morning.
We will remember them

Lest we forget