With news of the royal commission into veteran suicide still rolling across the airwaves, I found myself last weekend in Bundanoon in the Southern Highlands, where I attended the Anzac Day ceremonies.
The ceremonies evoked many elements of war, but not, in this case, military precision. As the dawn service commenced, the sound system failed, and the voice of the veteran who MC’ed reached only a few of the 300 people gathered in the darkness around the soldiers’ hall. The lady who strode forward later in the day to sing God Defend New Zealand found herself flummoxed when the tape introduced her with the opening bars of Advance Australia Fair. The lone bagpiper, valiant but in need of a little more practice, serrated the nerves of the audience with the occasional missed note in a way of which only the bagpipes are capable.
And yet, both ceremonies enveloped the gathered throng in a moving solemnity because of, not in spite of, these little catastrophes. Everyone assembled knew instinctively that the true service of the grey-haired diggers who fumbled in the dark with the sound system was not the service they gave that day, but the service they had rendered years ago as hale young men confronting the rigours and deprivations of life in Australian uniforms.
It was, perhaps, easier for non-combatants at home to comprehend the horrors of the battlefield when the nation itself was at war. Today, Australia is a nation at peace, but our service men and women still find themselves on foreign battlegrounds. The real value of the coming royal commission may be to bridge the experiential gap for civilian Australians between their lives and the lives of those they send away to fight and suffer in pursuit of Australia’s national interests.
This is, of course, precisely the purpose of Anzac Day. As I scanned the faces in the crowds at sleepy Bundanoon, I pondered how the heartbreaking evidence which will inevitably emerge from the commission will affect the willingness of Australians to enter into further conflicts where service people will suffer. This issue is far from to being hypothetical. The world today is a less certain place than it was when the Afghanistan War began 20 years ago; democratic societies face a crisis of confidence, the United States’ role of world leadership has faltered and, in our region, the growing power of China creates new anxieties.
We may like to believe that formally-declared wars between nations are now a thing of the past, but that may be a complacent self-deception. Consider how, until very recently, the world smugly assumed that the eradication of polio and malaria demonstrated the definitive triumph of science over disease. Covid has shattered that illusion.
Sadly, it is likely that Australia has other fights left to fight. Future Anzac Days are likely to have their own new resonances, new tests of our tolerance and understanding, new moral dilemmas to wrestle with and resolve.
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