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Anzac Day represents NOT so much The Past - but what we’ve learned from it

My old high school in Melbourne, Marcellin College, invited me to speak at their annual Anzac Day commemoration held at Bulleen on April 24. It was a privilege, not only to be back at the school I loved, but to address the entire student body on a subject dear to my heart. Here is an edited transcript:

Hullo boys, teachers, ladies, gentlemen. And thank you…What an honour it is to be here again.

Life’s gone by in the blink of an eye since my six years at Marcellin when I was a teenager here. I’d never have imagined I’d be speaking to you about Anzac Day, or that I’d have written two novels, raised a family of my own, been a foreign correspondent, and walked up and down the battlefields of Gallipoli with men who fought there.

When I was sitting where you are, I was dreaming of becoming a pilot, and thinking what an experience it would be to fight in Vietnam - what the Vietnamese call the American War.

Back then, I thought – go to war and have an adventure, travel-the-world for free, make money, and look sharp in uniform. I didn’t give enough thought to what I would have been fighting for, or whether or not Australia was threatened. Or what might happen afterwards if, say, I came home in a box, or legless, armless, or broken in mind and spirit with PTSD, and what that might mean for me or my family. I even thought the conscientious objectors to that war were a waste of space.

Well, a bit later, thanks to dumb luck, my birthday didn’t come up in the conscription ballot that sent many National Servicemen overseas. But 200 of those ‘Nashos’, as they were called, weren’t so fortunate, being among the 521 Australians killed, with nearly 60-thousand Americans, and perhaps 3-million or more Vietnamese.

Every Anzac Day, when we commemorate our wars and those soldiers-sailors-and-flyers who served, died or were wounded, were imprisoned or tortured, came back and were made into heroes or (in some cases) villains, it strikes me that in many ways they were once a bit like me when I was your age.

Today I’m here because I wrote about the Anzacs in a novel, and another that’s just finished - crime stories that move from the frontier wars of our colonial days, through the Boer War and on to World War 1. The main character is a teenage college student whose father is murdered, who hunts the killer, and ends up in Gallipoli. Along the way, he learns about friendship and betrayal, duty and innocence and, of course, murder, big and small.

Much of it was made up…but most was true.

Maybe some of you have visited Gallipoli. It’s a beautiful place – isn’t it? A national park now, all scrubby green bush, full of wildflowers and blood-red poppies…thriving in the earth where so many are buried.

I interviewed 50 or so Gallipoli veterans for the ABC when they went back to Turkey on an Anzac Day pilgrimage. They were in their 90s, one turned 103 there, old men in wheelchairs or on crutches, held up by strong young servicemen and women. We tramped up and down the hills and gullies, visited old trenches, stood in no-man’s land, and took in the view of the beautiful Aegean Sea..…all of us in tears.

It’s an emotional place and that visit brought it all back for them - old heroism, lost mates, lost innocence, broken dreams and wasted futures, and enduring suffering. You feel that when you’re there.

And you’re confronted with the Turkish story too - their pilgrims and memorials, their massed graves and tears, their view of us as invaders once, now welcome guests.

As the writer L. P. Hartley said, "The past is a foreign country - they do things differently there." When they were young, the Anzacs I met thought they were doing the right thing. They volunteered and marched off in a fervour of duty and patriotism, a love of ‘Mother’ England, and loyalty to God, King and Country…but also for an adventure, for a wage 6-times what British soldiers got, to escape dead-end jobs, and maybe to get away from strict parents in the stifling moral climate of the times.

Afterwards, they seemed to be conflicted about their war experience. It was the time of their lives…that they would regret till their dying day.

Let me read you a few examples…

From artillery gunner Bill Greer: “We were supposed to be defending Australia…why we were sent there I don’t know. I've never worked that out….To lose all those brilliant men… and we’ve never picked up. And that’s why we’re in such a mess today.”

From signaller Bert Matthews: “Anyone who’s seen it, cannot like war. I hate war…but we can’t seem to do away with it.”

Ernie Guest, who said of the Turk: “He turned out be a good soldier, I’d shake his hand and say - you bastard, you gave us a tough go.”

Infantryman Jack Ryan, who stole a belt buckle from a dead Turk, and waited 75 years to hand it back to the FIRST one he saw at Istanbul airport.

Sam Thompson who got a surprise while visiting the cemetery at Lone Pine – by finding his own grave, and who said about the Turk: “I might give him the bit (of metal) I still got in my leg, if he wants a souvenir.”

And my favourite, 94 year old Bill Bevis, who had everyone applauding and laughing at a crowded night club… when he got up on stage and belly-danced with a young Turkish girl.

I’ve never forgotten those men. Their voices and larrikin spirit ended up on the pages I wrote. Their stories are part of our history now, as are the myths about Gallipoli’s glory and nobility and the Anzacs being a rugged race of bush-bred athletes. Many of the old men I talked to had a good laugh at all that.

These days, we see Gallipoli more realistically, more honestly, as a tragedy and defeat, a brutal blood-letting and the opening shot to much, much worse on the Western Front.

What we respect is their bravery and resilience, their best intentions and their sacrifice. We commemorate them, and the wives, sisters, daughters at home who suffered during their absence, or afterwards when they came back.

I won’t ever forget those men and their humanity, or their doubts about what they did. I’ll always see Gallipoli as a warning to think carefully before engaging in someone else’s wars.

War has changed so much over a hundred years. Conventional-guerilla-nuclear-the ‘war on terror’ and drone warfare. No longer do we recruit, train or deploy young men in the same way, or in the same numbers, and throw them into the meat grinder.

And I suspect that these Centenary years represent the high-water mark for general interest in World War One. More recent, contemporary stories from subsequent wars will prevail. But, as we know from the news, it remains a dangerous world, and who knows whether you will be called upon to serve?

I think those men who fought and died did so for your right to make up your own mind, for you NOT to get sucked in by the political rhetoric of the moment, not to follow blindly the moral crusade of the day, or chase the bit of action in some far place of no importance to you.

Not all wars are right. Some are just, to stop evil or to defend home. But not all.

My point, and I think many of the Gallipoli survivors would agree (if they were still with us) would be to think very carefully before you throw yourselves into the breech, whether as a serviceman or in whatever capacity that assists in war.

Ask yourself - Is the war just? Is anyone pressuring you? What better ways might there be to serve your family, your community, your country…perhaps with your voice, your vote, your participation in politics or public service?

You boys are the future. You may well be a leader in your field, making important decisions for the country, or in a position to advise or financially support those who make decisions about war.

Wouldn’t it be great if your generation led us further away from the kinds of events we commemorate tomorrow, into a far better world?

For me, Anzac Day is about remembering, not only that so-called ‘Great War’, but our part in all those since. I hope it’s a day that is relevant to our new citizens from countries like Afghanistan and Burma, Lebanon, Somalia, and Syria, who came here desperate for peace. And, one day, I hope Anzac Day will also commemorate the war we often overlook - the one where the First Australians fought the invaders from Europe.

Tomorrow is about respecting those who died, or survived, believing in what they were fighting for - freedom from oppression, including your right to say NO, or YES, if called upon.

As your principal says in his blog, “love the warrior hate the war.”

Why? Because war is to be avoided at all costs. Patriotism can be the very devil. War isn’t an experience to be had - or a game to be played. It’s pain - for you, your families, and for the enemy. Wars always end in tragedy.

Most of all, I think Anzac Day represents NOT so much The Past - but what we’ve learned from it.

- That we mustn’t follow our leaders or allies into dangerous military adventures for the wrong reasons.

- That we should try everything we can, every avenue of diplomacy and politics, to avoid sacrificing the lives of our people.

Lest we forget.

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