Anzac Day is a time I reflect on my father, my relationship with him, and the life he led. Because the Second World War shaped his life: his health, his attitudes, his work, and above all, his happiness.
He and my uncle – a school friend who ended up marrying Dad’s sister – both volunteered early in the Second World War. In Dad’s case, it was after a year of studying Vet Science at Sydney University.
He ended up spending four and a half years in New Guinea, from when he was 19, to 23. Signal Corps in the RAR.
He and my uncle were both men who refused to talk about the War at all. They viewed those who made their war service central to their identity with suspicion and disdain.
In particular, they disdained the epidemic of formal, quasi-Victorian language that emerges on Anzac Day from people trying to show they understand and respect those who put themselves in harm’s way.
For them, even worse were the regimental wannabes. The ones who used war service, and the recognition of war service, to build social standing.
Like an after-dinner speaker trying to channel Churchill, or a North Shore housewife acting like she’s running a Chelsea household in Edwardian England, Anzac Day gives space to people who embrace the form without the emotional reality.
My Dad really hated that.
But Dad got it wrong as well. His reluctance to talk about the war, or to even consider visiting any war buddies, came back and bit him hard. His denial of the effect of his service denied his own identity.
As I discovered when I was a bit older, he had all the classic symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress. Unpredictable explosive rages matched with periods of depression. Sleeplessness and social isolation. Vigilance, control and hyper-responsibility. Emotional unavailability. It made for an interesting childhood.
It was only towards the end of his life that he spoke at all of the war, and that was mainly due to medication side-effects.
But the real problem of grandiose Anzac Day language is that it distances the listener from the experience, and from the people who went through it. The attempt to sacralise the experience, understandable though it is, is to my mind a mistake. Because to make an experience sacred is to lift it beyond the realm of normality and normal people. When it is sacred, it is distant.
The point of remembering war and sacrifice isn’t to create a class of heroes different in kind from us. It is to engage with the extraordinary actions of ordinary people, and even with what were considered at the time the ordinary actions of ordinary people. To realise that they were us, and we are they.
This is particularly important for children and young adults who haven’t had enough life experience to read between the quasi-poetic lines.
While I appreciate the attempt, all those Facebook posts using vocabulary you wouldn’t see in any other circumstance; all the antiquated grammatical structures; all the grandiose rhetoric and rhythms (rather like this sentence); all they are is a type of social posturing.
They are as distant from the reality as a video game from a gangland.
The sacred is important. Anyone who thinks about societies can see how important it really is. But so is reality. So is the real lived experience of our forebears who were part of war. Our public language doesn’t do that justice.
The festival of cliché that is Anzac Day lets down people like my Dad and my uncle. What is needed are plain Anglo-saxon words that tell their story. Not one of national identity and pride, but one of getting a crappy job done and paying a price for it.
Talk about their lifelong rage and unhappiness. Talk about the mud, the footrot, the hunger, the fatigue, the physical pain and the fear. Or what comes later: the recurring effects of malaria, tropical liver parasites and an unbreakable smoking habit. The memories and unavoidable shame of having seen a buddy machine-gunned while stringing a wire up a tree, and being unable to do anything about it. Or sitting in a wheelchair, close to death sixty years later, sobbing over Germans shot sixty years before.
Or worse: the shame of knowing their rage and unhappiness affected their families.
If a tattoo design isn't something you'd consider good enough to put on your living room wall, the question is, why would you put it on your body? In a permanent way? Do people even ask themselves that question?