As we pause for a minute’s silence this Remembrance Day, it is important to stop and consider what it is that we are remembering, writes David Goodwin.
It’s a sight that would be familiar to anyone who has spent time driving through rural Australia. In even the smallest town you will find a war memorial, engraved with names, often the same family name appearing more than once. Almost a century on, it is easy to forget that each of those names represents a life, someone who lived and breathed, who left loved ones behind when they sailed off to war—and never returned.
These cenotaphs stand as a mute reminder of the cost of war, of the fact that it has consequences. It is not something that merely plays out on a television screen, or a distant shore, that has no impact on those safe and sound at home. Every war is invoiced in blood and paid for with death, and continues to take a toll long after the guns fall silent.
Like most of these memorials, Remembrance Day was first created to commemorate the end of World War I, but has since become a way of remembering those who have fallen in all wars. The minute’s silence that will be observed all across our country, with similar tributes across the world, aligns with the time and date that a suspension of hostilities was called, allowing the opposing nations to begin the process of negotiating a peace settlement to end years of fighting.
By that time, though, there were almost 18 million soldiers and civilians dead, and another 23 million wounded. The world had changed forever, with people questioning the existing social order that had led them to such a point. It was a war unlike any other, and would become known as “the war to end all wars”, because it was thought that surely, after such bloodshed and suffering, war on that scale would never be allowed to happen again.
Of course, we know that the seeds of an even bloodier conflict were already being sown, and that within two decades the world would be caught up in World War II, proving that the lessons of World War I had been ignored. Even now, despite our claims of progress, there seems to be no end to humanity’s willingness to kill one another in the name of country or religion or a hundred other causes.
Almost a century on from the end of World War I, it can be hard to see the relevance of Remembrance Day. There are no longer any veterans of that conflict left with us, and it is difficult to understand the causes behind the war itself—unlike World War II, with its clear-cut narrative of standing against one of the greatest evils of history and fighting for our survival.
Every year, we see people asking the question of whether it is appropriate for us to observe days like Remembrance Day or Anzac Day, or criticising our society for glorifying war by doing so. But I’d argue that shows a misunderstanding of what those days signify, and that Remembrance Day is more relevant than ever. It is not about the glory of war, but a reminder of its cost.
All the interviews with soldiers, especially Anzacs, that I have ever read or listened to do not paint a picture of glory. Instead they talk about the senseless waste of young lives, lives ended before they had a chance to flower into fullness. They talk about people left with wounds they would never recover from—wounds both physical and emotional. The memorials signify communities left with holes in them and families missing loved ones.
It’s a day that serves as a constant reminder to every politician, to every general, that war must be the last resort, when every other option has failed. Sometimes a nation has to fight, but those in power must be conscious of the responsibility they bear when that time comes, that the lists of names of those sent off to fight represent people, not just another statistic.
On Remembrance Day, it is not war we should be seeking to remember, but those who gave their lives in the hope that they were creating a better world.
It’s also a reminder of many of the virtues that make Australia the country that it is today, or inform our idea of what sort of country we want it to be. For many of the young Australians who set off to fight in World War I, the idea of defending the Empire was a nebulous one, and many of the places that they would end up laying down their lives for, simply names on a map.
What was far more immediate was the sense of duty to one another, the idea that you couldn’t let your mates go off to fight while you stayed at home. This sense of being there for those around you has become part of the framework of Australian society, and created a community spirit that sustains us through the most difficult of times.
When it comes to stepping up and helping one another, Aussies are the most generous of people—you only have to look at our response to the Boxing Day Tsunami, or the millions raised every year for The Salvation Army through the Red Shield Appeal.
Another one of the values embodied in our response to World War I was the idea that it was not where you were born, or in what social position, that mattered—but how you lived your life. Our soldiers came from every profession, every background, every walk of life.
Some were born in Australia, others were fresh off the boat; it didn’t matter. Some were Anglo-Saxon, some were Indigenous Australians—they came from every country imaginable. But what mattered was how they fought, how they lived, how they died. War was the great leveller; it treated everyone the same. And, at our best, Australia is a country based on the idea that your worth is not due to an accident of birth.
No matter its justification, war is cruel and terrible and tragic. It not only hurts those who are fighting, but also innocent bystanders whose only crime is to get in the way. But we also get to see people at their best in acts of heroism and self-sacrifice and love for one another, and it is these we should be celebrating.
Remembrance Day is not a day for glorifying war, or for portraying it as something noble or desirable. It is a day to remember those who have died in service to their country—and to each other—and to ensure that their sacrifice was not in vain. It is a day to ask ourselves what it is that they fought for, and reflect on whether we are remaining true to their legacy.
On Remembrance Day, it is not war we should be seeking to remember, but those who gave their lives in the hope that they were creating a better world, where future generations might not need to know war’s true cost.
Let us honour them by being worthy of that sacrifice, and letting it inspire us to keep working towards making this world the best that it can be—for all of us.