I was somewhat uncomfortable with the jingoistic clamour of Anzac Day propaganda that has been ramping up for the past few years and will no doubt continue for a few years yet. One of the things that made me most uncomfortable was the involvement of some of our most recent VC recipients.
There can be no question that they are sincerely committed to the ideals of gallantry and self-sacrifice that are at the heart of the military tradition. These brave young men were volunteers, in fact professional soldiers, who were part of a military which is highly trained, extemely well supported and which engages in conflicts that are tightly constrained, yet often as vicious and brutal as any in history. They have seen the impacts of warfare on their mates, on the families of those mates and even more, on the families in and around whose homes, fields, schools their wars were waged. They have faced their own fears and they have nothing to prove to anyone.
My Grandfather, Joe McDougall, was a volunteer soldier in the AIF in World War 1. He was a Gunner, who was wounded and gassed on separate occasions, suffering "shell shock", which we now call PTSD. He was awarded several medals. After the war he was among the returnees who founded the RSSILA, which became the RSL and was a strong advocate of ANZAC Day and even more strongly, of Remembrance Day.
He was awarded an MBE for his services to the RSL, as was my Uncle Alan, his son (who served in the Middle East and New Guinea during the Second World War) for their roles in forming the Burwood sub-branch and serving as voluntary office bearers for many years.
They weren't professional soldiers, they were ordinary men, both of them tradesmen. They both hated war and all it stood for and their RSL work was not about glorifying valorous deeds or eulogising some nebulous concept of an ANZAC spirit. They wanted to make sure their ordinary mates weren't forgotten, that the ordinary wives and children they left behind were given some support and to try to ensure that war was never thought of as something glorious again.
My Grandmother, who lived with my family when I was growing up, widowed when my Grandfather died very shortly after my birth, would never take part in ANZAC day parades, but was never late for the Dawn Service and was a big part of the behind the scenes work at the RSL for the day's functions. My Mum would march, wearing the medals of the father she had idolised and I often accompanied her. They would both always go to the RSL for Remembrance Day, dressed to the nines, to observe the minute's silence and the playing of the Last Post.
I grew up in PNG. My home was built on a former Japanese base and battlefield in Lae. I spent much of my childhood at Salamaua, which was a favoured weekend destination in the same way that Moreton Island is for Brisbaneites.
My Mum used to make a regular semi-annual pilgrimage alone to the War Cemetery in Lae, which is very large and beautiful. It wasn't until I was in my late teens that I discovered she was visiting the grave of the young man who had been her fiance and who had died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound in Wewak (officially it was an accident caused by his Owen gun falling over) at 20 years of age. She would go on his Birthday and on the date that they had intended to be married. She didn't observe the date of his death overtly...
Young men all over the world are brave; they seek out danger, they look for trouble, they put themselves in harm's way to protect those they love. They are driven to earn the respect of those who they respect and those people have an obligation to use their position of influence wisely; to give wise counsel using the insight drawn from having "been there and done that".
The carefully scripted performances of the young, very respectable VC winners that formed part of the prelude to ANZAC Day, while no doubt sincere, left me wondering whether Joe and Alan McDougall and their ordinary mates would have thought that it qualified as wise counsel.
More importantly, it made me wonder how many young men (and women) might be influenced by those performances (not to mention their own heroic performances in their computer games) to forget the lesson that Joe McDougall and his mates tried so hard to teach.
"Lest we forget" is not just a eulogy, it is a lament.
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