War and Peace

I took my husband to work at half past five this morning, which meant I took my husband and the dogs in the car, dropped my husband at work and then had to find somewhere to walk the dogs.

Our usual park has a small war memorial surrounded by a rose garden and once a year, a crowd of local people meet to watch the sun rise over Western Australia and to pay their respects to the country’s fallen soldiers. I passed them on my way to an alternative walking area for the dogs, lit up like a silent prayer in the warm but wet pre-dawn. As my car climbed the hill, yet more families were walking down to join the service, some with small children. The cars were double parked up the normally quiet surrounding streets.

This would have been one of many such services taking place around the country. Australia is a massive land, divided into eight quite distinct states and territories (if you include the ACT). Each one has its own personality, but if there is one day that seems to unite the citizens of this vast and largely empty place, it is ANZAC day.

Australia has its own day, January 26th, but nothing seems to resonnate quite as much as the 25th April, and it has always puzzled me. If you were to make sweeping generalisations about the Australian character, you may come up with words like ‘forthright’, ‘open’, ‘unfussy’, ‘direct’, ‘wry’ or ‘hardworking’, but I would not have put ‘sentimental’ near the top of any list. Many years ago, when I was first over here, I remember being amazed when my hairdresser told me she was off travelling for a year, and that one of her big ticket items was to visit Gallipoli.

‘But the Australians were slaughtered at Gallipoli!’ I replied, ‘Why would you want to visit a place where Austrlaians were used as cannon fodder?’

‘It is a big deal,’ she assured me. She was right. There is a sizeable ceremony there every year and it got so big at one point there was talk of ticketing it to restrict numbers.

Not being a fan of war, I am actually not sure how that all panned out in the end. And I have also never been entirely sure why we gather for these solemn occasions, ‘lest we forget,’ when it seems clear to me that those who make the decisions in these matters make a professional habit of forgetting, of repeatedly dressing citizens in uniforms and sending them off into horrific situations that if they are lucky enough to survive, they may not be lucky enough to forget.

I understand that huge sacrifices are made. I understand that when a country is under threat, there is an impulse to protect it and I absolutely understand that human beings, both civilian and military are placed in intolerable situations during warfare, I just wish it didn’t happen, that is all.

I watched Peter Weir’s brilliant film, Gallipoli the year it was released in 1981 and have not been able to watch it since. I remember not choosing the essay question on it for my final exams, which put the argument that the final image of Archy on the screen is one of triumph, not loss. All I saw was a young man, full of life and humour being gunned down in a pointless military campaign, along with a load of other young men. The fact that he died bravely and wth dignity did not make him a braver or more dignified corpse – it made it all the more tragic.

By complete coincidence, I had rented a documentary on the show Roger Waters toured a few years ago, of the Pink Floyd album The Wall. I had loved the film, starring Bob Geldoff, about a washed-up, burnt-out musician and remember not being able to speak for sometime after leaving the cinema, so profoundly I had been moved. We went to see the live show  when he came to Perth and it was stunning – brilliant visuals and surprisingly anti-war. (Waters’ father died on active duty during WWII and this album is his response to his father’s death and his ensuing obsessions).

The documentary picked up on these anti-war themes and showed the live show in its entirety, peppered with a film of Waters making a road trip to Italy to visit a war cemetery where his father’s remains were laid to rest. He arrives and takes a silver trumpet from a battered leather case and plays the solo piece from the album in tribute, while the calm whites and greens of the cemetery sit peacefully in stark and solemn contrast to the blood, mud and violence that brought their permanent residents there.

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