Conflicting emotions on Anzac Day

Dawn service

This morning I attended the local Anzac Day dawn service, which commemorates the Australian and New Zealand soldiers who have died in battle. For many Aussies, this is the most sacred day of the year. I don’t feel that way, and I don’t usually attend, and it was a time of conflicting emotions and thoughts.

Then and now

Anzac Day wasn’t a big deal in my family when I was a boy. My dad served in the army in New Guinea (he commanded a small searchlight and anti-aircraft unit), but he never talked about it much and never attended Anzac or returned soldier events, I don’t know why.

My generation tended to find Anzac Day a problem, a glorifying of war. Alan Seymour’s 1958 play The One Day of the Year (which I studied at university) sums up the polarisation of the returned soldiers and the next generation. When Australia joined the Vietnam war in 1962, many of this “baby boomer” generation disapproved, and some joined violent and vociferous protests against it.

Australia’s involvement stretched our military capabilities, so the Government conscripted randomly-selected 20 year olds to fill out the numbers. I was one of those unfortunately selected, and spent two years in the Australian Army, though I didn’t serve overseas. The experience helped change me, from a conservative, patriotic supporter of this fight against godless communism, to close to a christian pacifist.

Generations come, generations go

So for a time, Anzac Day appeared to have a diminishing future. But then a surprising thing happened – the next generation found meaning in wearing their grandfather’s or great grandfather’s medals and remembering our history, and the numbers attending dawn services slowly increased. There would have been several thousand attending the suburban dawn service this morning, and most services around the country are packed.

In the cold and dark, thinking ….

Great sacrifice

Thousands of soldiers gave their lives in service. Many thousands more suffered injuries, while families back home suffered loss in many ways. This morning I watched a family who lost father and husband in Afghanistan lay a wreath to remember him. These people all deserve our help, thanks and respect.

Only a pawn in their game?

But I have also read enough about World War 1 to know that it was an unnecessary war, as much the result of posturing by jingoistic politicians as anything else, and one where the generals treated human life with disdain much of the time, using inhumane tactics to gain very little. Anzac Day itself commemorates a glorious and bloody failure. So many of our wars have been less than necessary, and it is the humble soldiers, not the politicians, who bear the brunt.

Reminders like Anzac Day make me proud and thankful to be an Aussie, but I also feel grief and anger.

Solemn but awkward

Aussies don’t do ceremony well, we tend more to informality. And the traditional Anzac service is very old fashioned – a short march where a group of old diggers are joined by twice as many children and a band, a guard of honour around the Cenotaph (an ’empty tomb’ Anzac monument), old christian hymns (The recessional, Abide with me and Lead kindly light) which few people feel comfortable to join in, a few readings, and the bugle playing the mournful Last Post as the sun slowly rises and the sky lightens. I can’t help wondering what the average post-christian Aussie thinks about all the ‘God stuff’.

It will be interesting to see if the dawn service ritual changes as the World War 2 generation passes on.

What is a postmodern christian to make of all this?

The dawn service is a nominally christian service, but Jesus gets hardly a mention. The God of Anzac is a God who rewards sacrifice and valour. Would Jesus be part of a dawn service? Perhaps he would, because he was where people were hurting, but whether he would agree with the content is problematic. Have we christians allowed the teachings of Jesus to be overshadowed by patriotism?

But one day a year, many Aussies get up early, think of sacrifice and look beyond their own interests. They call on God and pray, sort of. Does this reminder turn anyone’s thoughts back to God? I don’t know. But regardless, Anzac Day is growing in influence while the church is declining. What do we think about that?

IN memory

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  1. Jesus Christ had no problem with soldiers, duty, and a just cause. Consider his comments to the Centurion, a regular Roman Officer. The First World War, as great a tragedy as it was, did have to be fought. Imperial Germany was as much a threat as Nazism, and had to be resisted and defeated. Max Hastings has written well on this subject. Lead Kindly Light and Abide With Me have direct connection with the trenches and I have never been to an ANZAC Day where people were reluctant to express solidarity, through those hymns, with those being remembered. Those who are Christians with these understandings well and truly feel His presence in commemorating the loss. I also grew up in the time of which you write and nationalism, though perhaps in the background, was always secondary. Today, even moreso, the commemoration is for that loss and all losses due to service, and a prayer that they shall not be repeated – which they will if we fail to mark them suitably.

  2. Hi Christopher, thanks for sharing your ideas. I’d like to question a couple of them if I may.
    How do you know that Jesus “had no problem with soldiers, duty”? He praised a soldier’s faith, but surely you are only guessing about what he thought about his job. Compare the woman in Luke 7:36-50. Here too, Jesus says nothing to condemn the sins in her life, just forgives her, but no-one would say he approved of prostitution (assuming she was a prostitute). The two cases are more or less parallel.
    So with that uncertainty about what Jesus thought about the soldier’s profession, surely we have to go on Jesus’ actual teachings, and they were very clear. Love your enemies, turn the other cheek, don’t return evil for evil. And he lived it out too, when he was being tortured, “like a sheep to the slaughter, he didn’t open his mouth”.
    I think it is quite clear that he was NOT in favour of fighting, and his lack of judgment to the centurion should be interpreted in the same way we’d assess his lack of judgment to the woman.
    I am not a historian, but I’m not sure it is true to say that the first world war had to be fought. My very inexpert reading of history was that all the major powers had been sabre rattling and looking for an excuse to fight. But even if it had to be fought, it shouldn’t have been fought with such callous disregard for the lives and sanity of the soldiers. The aristocracy, and the church, sent brave men off to be slaughtered for little possible gain. Many literally went mad with the hell of it.
    I appreciate your comments about commemorating the loss and sacrifice, and I agree with that. But I cannot help but think of the totally unacceptable way men were sent to certain death with no real prospect of any gain. Whenever I read anything about WW1 in Europe, I see evidence of that folly and inhumanity by the leaders and generals, and I can’t help feeling that should be more clearly stated and remembered too.
    The interesting question, for me, is how to square Jesus’ pacifist teachings with something like the need to stop Hitler. Christian pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer faced this question and in the end joined an unsuccessful plot to assassinate Hitler. But where is the line we should draw? I don’t know.
    Thanks again. I’d be happy to discuss further.

  3. The fallen woman’s sins were many, so Jesus did comment, negatively, on her life as well as forgiving her. He made no such comment on the character of the Centurion. Also in Luke 3:14 he did not instruct soldiers to give up their profession. Christian soldiers at the state level are not that different from policemen. States and organisations, as well as individuals and criminal gangs, can engage in abhorrent behaviour which must be curtailed with the utmost professionalism and respect for rules. The world could not have turned the other cheek against Nazism, nor against the aims of the Kaiser’s Germany. The alliances may have led to the First World War, but historians are pretty clear that Germany caused it. Please have a look at Max Hastings. On the Allied side there is also evidence that failures of leadership and generalship were not due to inhumanity, but rather a great difficulty in coming to grips with the complex nature of conflict following the industrial revolution. Come to grips with it they did under commanders like Monash, who was one of a number who designed the combined arms battle, to secure victory over that which would have been tyranny. I’m no great scriptural scholar, but there must also be right and justice as well as love, forgiveness and turning the other cheek. At the international level, principled armies such as the Australian and British provide mechanisms for the enforcement of that right and justice, or preferably deterrence, just like the police in civil society. Unfortunately it may be that ISIS etc, through execution, rape, persecution and slavery, may not be getting sufficient exposure to that effect… However it is noted that they are being defeated by a coalition of Iraqi, Kurdish and free Syrian troops, who seem to subscribe to some form of soldierly conduct.

  4. G’day Christopher, thanks for further clarification. I think maybe we are not entirely on the same page, so let’s clarify.
    My post basically made four points:
    * How Anzac Day lost and the gained popular interest.
    * A great sacrifice but an unnecessary war (WW1)
    * Solemn but awkward
    * Are dawn services really christian?
    I wonder which of those points (if any) you disagree with. You seem to think I have argued that no war is ever justified, but I didn’t do that. Rather I posed some questions about problems and conflicting emotions I see and feel as a christian.
    So perhaps I can ask you two questions please:
    1. Do you not have conflicting emotions about war, especially WW1 when trench warfare was conducted in a way that millions of lives were lost with very little gain, and men were subjected to incredible mental, emotional and physical trauma?
    2. Why do you think that Jesus’ apparent silence (we only know what was reported) when talking to a Roman soldier is more of an indication of his views than his clear statements about loving enemies and turning the other cheek?

  5. Hi E
    I’ll declare my bias as a Christian Army Officer!
    I’m grateful that any disaffection with remembrance and ANZAC Day – although I didn’t detect it – has been recovered. It’s only through commemoration that the great tragedies of history will be prevented from re-occurence.
    Germany caused World War 1 and had to be stopped/defeated. The alternative for Europe and the World would have been a barbaric Prussian tyranny for 100s of millions as it would have been if Nazism had been victorious. I can’t see any other option that the British and their Dominions could have pursued. Appeasement failed with Hitler, and the Kaiser was a prototype. The sacrifice was truly dreadful but the alternative would have been worse – again I cite the historian Max Hastings.
    I find no awkwardness with the services that are rooted in the years of the War and soon after. They provide a link and solidarity with the sacrifice. It is not our place to modernise them and perhaps make them happy clappy. We should understand them and seek empathy to really understand. It was their sacrifice not ours.
    Dawn services are certainly Christian for Christians. However, we all aren’t Christian and services need to be relevant to all without being modified to suit a safe, bland taste. For me, the gospel message of ANZAC and remembrance of service generally, ‘greater love hath no man (or woman)’ resounds.
    All war subjects combatants, their families and friends, and proximate non-combatants terribly. The horrific attritional trench warfare of the Western Front was not a command choice. Rather, it was forced upon the combatants by the machine gun and heavy artillery which were new, shocking and not well enough understood, and it took three years to break the gridlock. I’m currently in the British Army and Afghanistan, and the learning required to deal with the Taliban, has been equally horrific. That doesn’t mean that the Taliban should have been left to criminally persecute a society. We should have stayed in Afghanistan. About 25,000 troops would have kept the lid on it, the bazaars open, and girls at school and unmutilated. Taking on the Taliban in war was not a mistake. Withdrawing too much was.
    Of course we must love our enemies as Christ commanded, but we do not have to love what they do. If an enemy refuses to negotiate and continues to persecute large parts of mankind, such as the vicious and violent ISIS treatment of minorities in the Middle East, then he must accept the consequences of his conduct – as criminals must accept those consequences in civil society.
    Although Christ was radical he was reasonable. At no point do I see in his teaching a lack of accountability that offers pacifism only as a panacea for all of humankind’s problems. At a personal and indeed organisational level we should offer the other cheek. It worked, to a degree, for Ghandi and King. However, society must ensure justice after that offer, and not the continued persecution of the meek and weak.
    Sorry, a bit wordy…

  6. Hi Christopher, thanks for all that information, it wasn’t at all too “wordy”. I can understand your “bias” and I appreciate that being a christian in the army leads to some dilemmas.
    I don’t know if I said that my father served in WW2. He joined the regular army as a tradesman apprentice before the war, was promoted to Warrant Officer and then Lieutenant during the war and commanded a searchlight and Anti-aircraft group in New Guinea. So his was very “hands off” combat.
    I served 2 years in the Army as a conscript during the Vietnam war, but I was in a noncombatant role (radio operator and pay clerk), never went overseas, but learnt a lot from a Major who lectured in small unit military tactics – he was in charge of the “enemy” and the umpires in the last exercise before one of the regiments left for Vietnam, and I was his radio operator. We sat on a hill for almost a week directing “enemy” operations, and in the spare time we discussed (never argued!) how conscripts felt. I went into that 2 years as a convinced anti-communist, but came home close to a pacifist.
    I have never said that christians should never fight, and I certainly don’t believe I should ever tell anyone else what they should do. So what I say isn’t personally directed at your choices, you must do what you believe is right. But I still think there are many dilemmas.
    For a start, I think your analysis of the causes of WW1 and WW2 are very simplistic, perhaps what an army officer might be taught, but not very nuanced. I know Wikipedia is very variable in quality, but I quickly read its summary of WW1 causes and it conformed my previous statement that the war was the result of sabre rattling as powers jostled for position after the Ottoman Empire declined. It might be true that Germany was more aggressive than other, but everyone was to blame. Likewise, it is easy, and right, to blame Hitler for many evils, but the poor deal given to Germany after WW1 became a reason for German dissatisfaction leading up to the rise of Hitler. Few conflicts, whether wars or divorces or anything else, are the fault of just one side, and I believe preparedness for war, and even eagerness for war (especially by politicians) is a major problem. As an example, the invasion of Iraq (2nd Gulf war) was strategic folly that directly led to the loss of several hundred thousand lives and the rise of ISIS, and was motivated by false patriotism and politics rather than common sense or good strategy.
    I’m not sure that Jesus was “reasonable” – I think on many things his spoken sayings are extreme and unreasonable. That in some ways is the attraction. His way is more radical that any of us can manage. But I think that trying to take hm as seriously as we can is still the first step, and that means starting from a position that non-violence is the default. Then there will be some situations, perhaps ISIS, or Hitler or police confronting domestic violence, where force is the lesser of two evils. I accept that. But I still think we have to say that Jesus taught non-violence, and anything else is a compromise in a fallen world.
    I can understand that in your position you cannot easily be ambivalent, but I still feel that is the right response for most christians.

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