This remembrance day, I suggest that we honour the fallen, but also register those who sent them to die.
Today, we remember. Mostly, we remember those we don’t know, those who died young in a war a century old. Maybe we know someone who fought, maybe we don’t. They fought dead Empires for the continuation of ours. Nations that no longer exist. Austro-Hungary. Nazi Germany. The Ottomans.
This remembrance day, I suggest that we lest not forget them, sure, but try to remember the formative lessons the forgotten names etched on quiet town centres are teaching us. Since the guns fell silent on this day in 1918, we’ve failed their examination. The War to End All Wars ended nothing.
The first global conflict begat another, birthed a civil conflict in Spain, which lead us to Korea, to Vietnam, to the Middle East. We’re still prematurely dying on behalf of reasons we’re not entirely sure of, other than that vague feeling of duty. You can see it in the parades on ANZAC day, those who fought for Imperial Australia are gone, and soon, our WW2 veterans will shift into the memory too, but the line does not dwindle or waver. It replenishes itself with wars anew. Older faces of dead wars are replaced with fresher faces of newer conflict. Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, where else next.
The visage of the noble digger is heavily ingrained in who we’d like to be. In that we could endure the worst of mechanised hell, walking in places like the Somme, Fromelles, Passchendaele. While they might fall, the fact that they stepped between the impossibility of bullet, of shrapnel and of rain is a noble example to follow.
In my family, my great uncle was deified on the Western Front, a spectre of nobility that pushed me to volunteer when we entered Vietnam. I discovered, probably the same moment that he did, when he saw those he knew viscerally split in twain, those screaming three feet away, but similarly, thousands of miles away, divided by the percussive clack of a machine gun, and a dirt road upset as if someone was flaying it with a giant whip.
To see those you know grow grey, then blue, to see the life evaporate from their eyes, as you crane your neck skywards to wish a helicopter into existence, so you don’t have to look down and see them, and force fictional reassurance to those quickly shifting to the past tense; he knew, I knew.
The noble death for one’s country is a myth perpetrated by those who organise war. Those who jangle jingoism, those who push young adults off the fence and into uniform. Those who pass judgement at a bar, or those who knock on doors and ask you whether you’re doing your bit. Those in small towns who start gossip circles speculating on so-and-so’s kid who won’t go.
Those same people who dismiss those who make it back as weird, dangerous, or weak, those who dared to be ruined by the war, and dared to show it in public. This remembrance day, I suggest that we remember all the tiny, safe things that lead to the last post. Be it a salute on an airline, or the gleeful pin-based nationalism of our leaders.
When I volunteered, it was to fight the international communist conspiracy, but I realise it was to help our American friends. They weren’t really our friends, per se, we were told that they were, but in reality, they were pals of those who made our decisions for us.
We fought the communists, but we really fought for the obligation. It was the same reason we fought in Korea, it was why we fought in the Middle East. It was the same reason why the diggers went to Gallipoli.
It was on behalf of someone else, masked by the pristine golden idea of being someone, to defend the place we loved so. To borrow the words from wartime poet Wilfred Owen, I suggest we beware that old lie, in that it is sweet and honourable to die for one’s country.
He fell one hundred years ago today, a week before the armistice.
Today, if we are to remember, I suggest we fall into the words of those who saw it. Those who recoiled at the true face of war, but were somehow able to articulate its features. Minds like Erich Maria Remarque, Tim O’Brien, Joseph Heller and Bill Ehrhart. Or, even the quips of Edmund Blackadder. Even in humour lies the truth.
War, will invariably continue. Young people who continue to do what is asked of them, and we will continue to stand for them for a solitary minute on an annual basis. But, today, of all days, we need to stop asking them.
War is always a mistake, and we should forever remember ours, lest we forget it.