“Mummy, where’s Robert’s Daddy?”
“Oh, Darling, Robert’s poor Daddy was killed in the war.”
When I was a small child, the phrase, ‘he was killed in the war’ was an often heard reply to a query as to the whereabouts of someone’s father, husband grandfather, brother or friend.
Pause and think about that.
It was as though the dreadful war machine had randomly plucked men from their rightful places in the midst of their families and obliterated them.
How truly awful it was.
Sadly we accepted it; we had to.
On Monday last, I was a spectator at an ANZAC Day commemoration. (ANZAC = ‘Australian and New Zealand Army Corps’).
I was there for a reason not of my choosing so was not really a willing participant in this celebratory occasion. But there were hundreds of people there – maybe thousands; people of all ages and stages of life, from infants to the very elderly.
Some had medals pinned to their chests – left side (over the heart) if they had earned them; right side if the medals belonged to someone else.
I saw huge clinking banks of medals on the chests of old men and some single medals on youngsters.
Seating for the occasion was arranged in huge semi-circles, with each chair bearing the name of a person or organisation.
There were seats for soldiers, sailors and airmen - old and new, chairs labelled with names of brass bands, schools, service associations, ladies’ auxiliaries, ‘carers’ and more.
I found an unlabelled seat far away from the stage.
As folk gathered for the celebration – as that was what it seemed to be – a party atmosphere grew as people chatted and called out greetings to friends.
A choir began to sing but no one listened. As the singing of ‘Amazing Grace’ reached a crescendo, the excited talking and laughing coming from the group of people sitting behind me seemed to increase as well. Did they not hear the choir? Or did they not care?
Finally two brass bands appeared (walking), followed by a regiment of cadets, then vintage jeeps bearing old soldiers. As the vehicles drove slowly past most people stood, briefly stopping their talking, and watched the parade.
Next there was an address and speeches. Then the singing of the New Zealand and Australian National anthems and a formal laying of floral wreaths.
The crowd eventually became subdued by the time this more serious service was underway and I have to say that during the playing of the ‘Last Post’ and the one minute’s silence, there was a definite silence.
But, I also have to say that I was aghast at the circus-like atmosphere that pervaded most of the day’s proceedings.
I ask myself, ‘why do we do this?’ Why do we make such a performance of commemorating ANZAC Day? Is it to make the idea of war and the resultant killing and maiming of fellow man into something acceptable?
Is it really to remember or is it to take the ‘nasty taste’ away?
To make us more comfortable about what went on and what continues to go on in the name of protecting our land and our way of life?
My father reluctantly joined the armed forces in World War 2 and I was left without a dad – but only for three years, as (unlike Robert’s dad) he did return - slightly damaged and very cynical about the reasons for wars - and forever distrusting of politicians who agree to participate in them.
As a returned soldier he vowed to never accept any military medals that may have come his way.
What a brave man to oppose the general sentiment of the time.
(After my father died, we found some medals hidden in the back of his sock drawer; medals we could have worn in marches such as the one I attended, but they were not for display and I am somehow glad of that).
So, back to last Monday’s ceremony.
It was a day of celebration, but I was unsure of what was to be celebrated.
To me, respect seemed rather thin on the ground around some groups gathered to watch the proceedings.
There was a lot of chatter and laughter.
But then, I suppose some would say that the ability to talk and laugh freely with friends is what we celebrate; it has been said that it is this happy situation for which we owe so much to the men and women who ‘gave the ultimate sacrifice’, so that we and our country can live in peace.
Is this so?
I am confused.
Lest we forget.