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Anzac Day: A New Way Of Giving Voice To Our Anzacs

This paper examines the "Lest we forget" mantra of Anzac Day, and offers a new way of commemorating what the Anzacs really wanted, which is no more war. It proposes that every Anzac Day, as well as commemorating as we have for a century, that we set aside a time for teaching the skills of conflict resolution to every child in Australia.

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Lest we forget.

What is it that we should not forget? What are we supposed to remember?

We are told it is the courage and sacrifice of all the people who went to war on our behalf, and the very people who died in the war.

My Grandpa Bill Laing, and my Dad Ross Laing, went to war in each of the Great Wars. They each wrote diaries recording their every day in the conflict. Their diaries are simplicity itself, describing mostly the mundane aspects of their day, and they silently scream a detachment from the conflict which raged around each of them for four years. Their diaries are missing the sane response to smashed bodies, missing heads, and maggoty human carcases, which is "By God, I don't want to see that ever again". Bill and Ross both eventually came home from their wars, and Ross went to Anzac Day services every year afterward, and took his wife and us five children to watch him march. Bill and Ross both came home from their wars, and never talked about them again.

It is patently clear; from the spoken words in their diaries, the unspoken words in their subsequent lives, and their actions, that my Anzac Grandpa and Dad wanted to forget the whole bloody thing. Their view is globalised in Alan Seymour’s famous play "The One Day of the Year", where the young central character Hughie declares “That whole thing - Anzac - Gallipoli - was a waste. Certainly nothing to glorify.”

If Bill and Ross and Hughie didn't want to remember, perhaps they did not want us left at home to remember any of it either? But maybe, just maybe, they wanted us to learn something from their sacrifice? Their behaviour tells me that they wanted us to remember with intent.

If Dad and Grandpa were with us still, they would be saying "No more war! No more empty phrases like Lest we forget. Let us remember that war is anything but glorious; (you'd better believe us) it is horrible. Let us remember that war kills fathers and mothers and sons and daughters and children and babies and the unborn. Let us remember that war is a testosterone-filled self-indulgence by a few middle-aged men from the safety of their offices, prosecuted by a million other young men and boys who have no say in it. Let us remember that war artificially turns people against each other (in most recent wars our opposition had to be re-labelled from friends to "enemies", and our soldiers had to be taught to hate them), and it turns people without a quarrel into mutual murderers. Let us remember that war has as many killers on each side as it has dead on each side. Australia had 100,000 men killed in the two world wars, which was 1 in every 50 of our men; a huge number for a young nation. Russia had around 25 million people - mostly civilians - killed in the Second World War, which was 1 in 5 Russians; a truly monstrous number. Above all, let us realise that war is not inevitable; unless a hundred million people on each "side" have a synchronous failure of imagination, commitment and courage so big that we cannot entertain sitting with each other until a peace is negotiated. Let us remember with intent; that going to peace takes more courage than going to war, a lot more imagination, and infinitely more love. And are not our common religions and values built on love, not hate?"

Our nations set aside trillions for war-making, and almost nothing for peace-making. We now have a complete science of conflict resolution (with 56 million Google references), which remains unknown to the vast majority of citizens. Our schools send whole classes off to Anzac Day parades, but are cancelling programs to teach kids how to beat bullying and respect each other. We have a US President elected on a stated platform "I love war .... you gotta knock the hell out of them! Boom! Boom! Boom!", who has bombed another country with missiles made by his own company, and the media have not seen anything wrong with this. We have media who trot out the same stuff every year around "Lest we forget", but never talk about what we should remember, and whether with any intent.

A media response to Anzac Day today, 26 April 2017 (K. Winchester, The Guardian, "Is Anzac Day relevant to kids?"), while "progressive" and containing some excellent points, perpetuates the profound depth of disconnection between what we think Anzac Day is about, versus what it can be about, if we are to honour, then eradicate in the future, the unwanted, horrific, memories of the Anzacs themselves. Winchester says "Big ideas .... allow children the chance to encounter issues of human concern and gain deeper emotional understanding of important events. Concepts such as sacrifice, mateship and remembrance (my italics) are commonly accepted themes that surround the mythology of the Anzac legend that most Australians would identify with .... Learning opportunities .... can lead students past simplistic and stereotypical understandings to ask wider questions such as “how did the families left behind feel?”, “why did young boys want to go to war?”, “how did the returning soldiers cope?”, “how do we honour women within the Anzac legend?” Unfortunately Kate Winchester's "wider questions" remain rooted in conventional "wisdom", and only at an individual level. Grandpa and Dad would be chastising The Guardian for failing to ask the bleedingly obvious (to Anzacs), over-arching question "Can we avoid war in future?" R. Clutterbuck's opening words of his book "International Crisis and Conflict" (1993, cited by E. Jokovich, New Politics, 27 April 2015) provide the big picture that Winchester misses: "War is mass lunacy .... war must be seen as a failure of the political system and, especially of the politicians that wage war."

The shapers of social values, the world's leaders and the media, systematically ignore the question "Can we avoid war in future?" A notable recent exception was Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan, who in 2005 on Anzac Day, said "We should exert more efforts to prevent wars and act co-operatively and with determination against elements threatening peace in the world. Within that scope, instead of struggles based on military methods, we should take measures to remove the true reasons behind disagreement". This generalised exhortation contains one specific, and highly fertile strategy, "to remove the true reasons behind disagreement", but this is as far as the Turkish PM was prepared to go. This strategy is the first stepping stone into the realm of conflict resolution. Unfortunately the same Prime Minister since then has waged war increasingly on a number of fronts in the complex theatre of conflict that is the Middle East.

What is the ideal Anzac Day? What sort of Anzac Day would Grandpa and Dad want us to observe? Would we prefer our schoolkids to attend the Anzac Day march, or attend a class at school on Anzac Day which arms them, for example by playing some simple theatre, with the tools of conflict resolution? Does the ideal Anzac Day have an outcome comprising, every year, the same affirmation "Lest we forget" while not knowing what we are supposed to remember; or does it have every year a new cohort of kids who know how to resolve differences and conflict in the most effective way possible, which is not mindlessly punching a bloke in the face or blasting millions of people into oblivion?

The ideal Anzac Day will give my Grandpa and Dad a voice at last. Their voices will say "Teach our children never to want to go to war. Teach our children that there is a path to avoiding war, a path called conflict resolution, and that it works in our personal lives and in the international arena. Teach our children to explore this path, to work to understand other cultures, to give international conflict resolution research dollars, and to negotiate peace as committedly as any G20 international trade deal. Teach our children that there is no need to make the same mistakes that we did; that we have all the tools we need to avoid war". There will always be people who assert "We cannot stop war"; in ignorance of history (humankind's history has a sustained trajectory toward avoiding war), and of conflict resolution (the new science of avoiding war as our response to conflict). The majority of us simply need to be so committed to conflict resolution, from experience, that our words and policies prevail in the meeting rooms of the international community. A majority of the world's citizenry armed with conflict resolution is easily imaginable; witness the environmental movement, which grew from a handful of insightful scientists into a dominating mass movement, inside 50 years.

Too idealistic? Lest we forget .... the alternative. Is avoiding war not worth fighting for - politically?

Lest we forget .... to commit.

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