Remembering the Old Diggers

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ANZAC Day in Australia is usually a time of national self-relfection. See, for example, this article from the Sydney Morning Herald.

It is a public holiday, and the day when the nation remembers its war dead, the sacrifice of its sons and some daughters in two world wars and other wars since then: Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan.

There are different views about commemorating wars. One view is that it is a bad thing, a perpetuation of primitive attitudes like jingoism and machismo. A glorification of violence as the answer to human conflict. A distortion of history because it extols the bravery of men while ignoring the rape of women.

Another view is that it is entirely proper to remember those who died on our behalf. Whether they did so to defend us may depend on the type of war: where it happened and why. But it is clear that all of the young men who died in the wars had nothing to do with starting the wars, and their passing merits acknowledgement, and gratitude.

On the radio today, I listened to an interview with a New Zealander named “Westy” who was a veteran of Gallipoli. The Gallipoli veterans in Australia have all died of old age. I assume the interview was recorded some years ago. The scenes Westy described were surreal.

When he arrived at Gallipoli by sea, Westy saw uniformed soldiers lying drowned in the sea by the beach having been sunk while disembarking by the heavy ammunition they were carrying. Bullets from Turkish machine guns were falling on the beach “like rain”. He later borrowed a friend’s watch so that he could “punctually” leave his trench for an attack precisely at 10:00am, only to have his leg mangled by an explosion. When he crawled back to his own trench, his friend’s first inquiry was whether he could have his watch back, after which his friend carried him back to the beach to be loaded onto a hospital ship. In the hospital ship he was offered a gournmet meal, by comparison to his food rations, with champagne, and had his leg amputated. He considered himself lucky and was glad to have been severely wounded as he knew he would be evacuated.

I don’t know if we can “celebrate” what happened to Westy. Is that the right thing to do? It was a tragedy. All wars are tragedies. But today, on ANZAC Day, I remember Westy and all the other young men who did what they felt was their duty.

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The photograph is from the Australian war archives and shows a group of Australian soldiers at Gallipoli, Turkey. H G Wells, the British author who lived in that era, wrote of World War I: “In 1914 the European Great Powers resorted to war, as they had resorted to war on many previous occasions, to decide certain open issues. This war flamed out with an unexpected rapidity unril all the world was involved; and it developed a horror, a monstrosity of destructiveness, and, above all, an inconclusiveness quite unlike any preceding war. Whatever justifications could be found for its use in the past, it became clear to many minds that under the new conditions war was no longer a possible method of international dealing.” – The Salvaging of Civilization (1921). The attempt to avoid future wars by settling up the League of Nations was not sucessful, and World War II 1939-1945 happened, and brought even greater horrors: the Nazi death camps and the atomic bombing of two Japanese cities. After that, another attempt at setting up a permanent forum for international diplomacy, the United Nations, was successful.

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One thought on “Remembering the Old Diggers

  1. Commemorating the sacrifices of young men doing their duty (however much, in retrospect, we may view it as having been pointless), is never a bad thing.

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