Lest we forget…

Yesterday was ANZAC (Australia and New Zealand Army Corps) Day in Australia, the day we remember and honour those who have served and died in the armed forces, demonstrating what we call the Anzac spirit- a spirit of courage, mateship and sacrifice. It is a day that Australians hold dear and many an occa Australian male-who would otherwise endure a leg-amputation (without anaesthetic) with ne’er a glistening eye-can be seen with tears rolling down his patriotic cheeks during the Last Post. If we are brought to tears in that symbolic moment, I cannot imagine what it is like for the family members of a fallen soldier to remember their loved one on a day like today. I have a friend whose son died while in service and although a number of years have passed, he still comes up in every conversation we have, in every milestone her younger children reach, on every birthday and holiday and should-have-been. We can never forget! We don’t want to …

I spent the day with a friend of mine whose uncle died in 1942 whilst on a reconnaissance mission. He was a navigator in the airforce and stationed in North Africa or Italy at the time. It was an incredibly moving experience to hold in my own hands, the letter his mother received informing her that the youngest of her three sons had gone missing in action, that the armed services and the red cross were doing everything in their power to ascertain whether or not he had been taken as a prisoner of war. The language of the letters was touching: “I would consider it a privilege to be of assistance to you in any way should you address yourself to me.” There were a number of letters dispatched to explain that he was MIA and that, until they heard from the Red Cross or Geneva, they would not be able to receive or dispatch correspondence to the airman as they would not know to which camp he had been sent. They begged for patience and tried to encourage the family that their son was well thought of and had performed his tasks with ‘a cheerful heart’, that he was respected and missed by his colleagues, and that the war office would consider it to be a privilege to assist in any way in which they were able in the interim. The telegram informing them that the war office had received confirmation that their son’s plane had been shot down and that their son was no longer classified as missing in action but killed in action in September of that year.

I held the actual telegram, the same telegram that a mother held and wept over, that a father stared at in blank disbelief and shock, that two sisters would have re-read to be sure that there had been no mistake. it was like a window in history, a time portal or some other secret wormhole. I felt the history screaming at me from those yellow pages. I myself cried when I read the letters including the one sent to his brother who was still serving in the war efforts (somewhere in North Africa- possibly Addis Ababa) to inform him that not only were his friends dying around him, but his only surviving brother had been killed as well. I read this same brothers’ letter home to his parents and sisters the following Christmas, how he was thinking about them and what he was sending money home for for them- for a warm coat for his father, a rug for his mother, whatever his sisters’ needed. His love was carefully constructed on each page to make sure that they did not worry about him, that they knew he was getting enough food (though he did say he was continuously hungry), to tell them that he had a lady friend and that he wished he could be home for Christmas- enough that they knew of his love, but not enough to worry.

I will be grateful for the privilege of that afternoon’s reading for years to come! But it got me thinking about the price that is paid not only by those servicemen who go off to war, but by those they leave behind. The sacrifice that wives and mothers and sweethearts made, that children and neighbours made. Did the young man who died in 1942 have a young lady over there who had also loved him…and lost him? Had she had a child? Did her parents like the dapper airman who’d swept their daughter off her feet and promised her a life after the war?

And then the war was over and they came home- some of them broken on the outside- disfigured, dismembered by bombs and shrapnel, disillusioned, destroyed. How many of the men who had seen their brothers-in-arms felled in the field, did not live to hate themselves for having been the lucky bastard to survive? How many of them could not love their wives or enjoy their children because of the ghosts of others who would never return? How many were unable to drop the defenses that kept them from losing their sanity in the heat and horror of battle enough to let their wives in? How many of them swallowed their pain, their memories, their fears, their nightmares? What price did their wives pay then? What price was required of their sons and daughters?

These are the sacrifices that still touch our lives today, that shaped a culture of stoicism and kept our grandfathers from us, their sons from them. And still, our brothers and sons and sisters and mothers go off to war. And still they return…some of them broken, some of them disfigured, some of them disillusioned. How can we forget? We don’t want to…

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2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Phil
    Apr 27, 2011 @ 21:36:04

    Beautiful. As someone who has been deeply and personally affected by the destruction of war I feel that what you have written is not only beautiful and poignant, as Erin says, but also free from the trite and ignorant sentimentality that is bandied about every 25th of April. Yes, we rightly remember the fallen with deep respect and we honour courage and selflessness correctly. But war and its aftermath is ugly, dehumanizing and brings nothing but heartbreak. It is good for men to fight for freedom but oh so tragic that we fight each other for it.

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  2. Erin
    Apr 27, 2011 @ 07:06:37

    A beautiful and poignant tribute Arianne. The wounds from both World Wars, Vietnam, Malaya, Borneo as well as recent conflicts are still painfully present. You only have to attend an ANZAC day service to see how many families have been directly affected.

    In the words of Midnight Oil, ‘it aches like tetanus’ .
    Lest We Forget.

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