Some thirty years ago, my dad got chatting to a very old man. In the course of the conversation, the old man remarked that he'd been his mother's favourite son. He then added, 'But the other four were killed in the war'. Four bleak telegrams, each telling a mother that the child she'd raised and loved was gone.
I'm one of those who sporadically attend the Dawn Parade. I do it because I want my children to understand what happens when the world goes crazy, casting aside morality and sense in favour of mindless nationalism and militarism. That's the one and only lesson I'm able to draw from World War One.
I was horrified one year, when the Dawn Parade speaker took the opportunity to talk about how New Zealand must be ever-vigilant, poised to enter international military conflict. I had the same feeling again a couple of years ago, when a group of women were derided for commemorating the sexual and other violence against women during wartime. The feeling returned last year, when Australian veterans refused to allow the children and grandchildren of deceased veterans to march with them, wearing the medals of their fathers and grandfathers. (Following an outcry, the Aussie vets backed down, allowing the descendants to join the parade.)
These three examples have a common theme. Each understands war as a story of heroism, with room in the cast for only one group of actors: the men who served. And I understand why they feel this way. By acknowledging the cruelty and injustice which is an inevitable part of any war, for civilians and military alike, they feel that the enterprise in which they suffered and lost friends is lessened or even mocked. So, too, is their service.
I don't believe that admitting the horrific nature of war, and its impact on civilians, diminishes the individual men who've gone to war. I may not believe in the principles for which these men served, but I acknowledge that it takes courage to go to the other side of the world and face harsh and brutal conditions, knowing that it might be a long time before you see the people you love once more. To take the stance that war is undesirable is not an attack on those who served.
I have a fear that some people are attracted to ANZAC day celebrations by a combination of romanticism and nationalism. Discussions of Gallipoli often end up with the trite observation that WWI camaraderie between kiwis and Aussies exists to this very day, in the form of good-natured rugby rivalry. Forgotten amongst the glib media-packaged nostalgia is the cynicism of war: the facts that dispensable Antipodean men were sent into the Gallipoli campaign in the service of an indifferent empire; and that Turkish casualties, military and civilian, far outweighed those of the ANZACs.
War is not a simple tale of noble men serving high principles. It's a far more complex story of wealth and territory; kids who grow up without dads; women who raise families alone, unsure whether their partners will return; conscientious objectors; torture; deprivation and cruelty against civilians; a number of men who return home, physically and psychologically broken, to families that don't know them; and some men who don't make it home at all.
The theme of ANZAC day is 'Lest we forget'. If we treat war as some romantic, nationalistic boys' own adventure, then we've already forgotten.