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Think piece – What is commemoration?

Thursday 26 November, 2015

Graham ParksThose who wrote the early histories of the Great War, called it “The War to End all Wars.” It was a poorly perceived utopian dream.

Australian servicemen returned to face a much harsher and more personal war – resumption of a normal life. The carnage Australians endured from Allied leadership and the Germans, ruled their lives. Civilian life became a dystopian dream. As one, they spoke little of the war except to each other in the confines of mateship and the safety of the RSL.

The dedication of monuments began during the war and today as we experience the commemorations of “100 Years of Anzac,” the public has clamoured to find a family connection to the war, particularly Gallipoli. Yet for ex-servicemen and women, Anzac Day is a grim reminder of those who died in service, and those who died of their service. It is a funeral cortege for survivors.

When our men closed ranks and refused to talk of their experiences, families missed the subtlety of their indictment. Tours of battlefields from Gallipoli to the Kokoda Track are brimming with exhilarated relatives who pay to walk in the footsteps of those who fought.  But are they?  Kokoda for instance – maintained steps, handrails, porters, and no one firing at them makes it a walk in the park. Similarly those who walk Gallipoli, camera in one hand and a water bottle in the other, face no shrapnel shells, no Ottoman snipers and no privations. So we embrace our militancy in similar fashion as the US indulges its patriotism. But do we honour the memories of those who fought?

Perhaps real honour lies more in dispelling myths and legends and revealing the truth of the horrors war brings. It’s inconceivable that mankind will end wars but it’s conceivable that we can better understand the effects war has on society. Battlefield tours have nothing to do with Remembrance if we don’t know what it is our ancestors did that we are remembering.

The ultimate end-product of the First World War was mateship, an esoteric characteristic that those who have seen war, fully comprehend. The greatest opponents to war are those who have fought.  Historians can tell us what happened, yet they can’t provide the physical experience. It is said you don’t need to be hit in the head with a hammer to know that it will hurt. But you do need to be hit to know how much it will hurt and how it will affect you.

Those who returned from war were changed and the mateship of service closed many doors to family and friends. Post -World War l, it was that mateship that overcame the horrors of war that allowed Australians to enlist again in 1939.

So perhaps it’s not the men or the deeds we should be honouring but the collective generosity of spirit that cause young men to go to war in the first place.

Graham was a National Serviceman who transferred to the Regular Army. An Infantry Vietnam Veteran, he served in other Corps including a posting to Papua New Guinea. After leaving the Army, Graham worked for British Aerospace Australia Military Vehicles and later Tenix Defence Land Systems.  Now retired, he is a Justice of the Peace and a Regional Coordinator for the RSL.  He is a member of the Last Post Association, Ypres, the Victoria Cross Society UK, and the Gallipoli Association UK.  He is a passionate military historian who with his partner Martina has given military history talks to the community since 2014.


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