Today, on ANZAC day, I will be wearing a poppy badge as a sign of remembrance.
I’ve had a lot of opportunity to reflect on war over the past few months.
For a long time I have taken a position of pacifism. Many of the people who have inspired me most are those who have had the courage to actively resist war and militarism whether they be the conscientious objectors that demonstrated courageous sanity in the face of global madness in World War I and were prepared to face the full force of the law (often being sentenced to death) to do it, the masses of people who resisted the war in Vietnam or the Ploughshares Activists who break into military bases and weapons factories to disable the tools of death. I’ve heard similar views to my own described as Nonviolent Action. My position is not a passive position, it’s actively attempting to resolve conflicts with a belief that violence is never the best solution.
I never came to this position seeking to disrespect those who made a choice to join the military. My ancestry includes people who fought in World War I. One of my great-great grandfathers was an Australian soldier who served at Gallipoli. After falling very ill at the front he was eventually discharged. Within months of his return, one of his sons signed up and went to the western front where he was wounded in the head during the Battle of Ypres. On my mother’s, side another great-grandfather, still really a child, was sent into the forests of Estonia armed with an axe and the orders to kill Germans. He would later serve in the Australian Air Force as an airplane mechanic in Townsville during World War II.
Both of Emily’s parents served in the US military and her family connections to the American military, as far back as we can tell, include someone who fought in the Battle of Machias, one of the first armed engagements of the American War for Independence. By no means do I speak for Emily in any of this (she can speak for herself), but I mention her family by way of honouring the experiences of people I know well and care about.
Currently, I have a cousin in Afghanistan with the Australian Army. It’s interesting. I’ve always been told that our personalities are very similar. One of us signed up for the Army, the other is filling in forms to ensure his status as a conscientious objector. I think about him often wondering what his experiences are like there. I bring with those thoughts all of the deep concern for peace and wholeness that have led me to be a pacifist. After all, it’s not soldiers I oppose, it’s what puts their lives at risk that I oppose.
Now I work at the Australian War Memorial store in Australia’s capitol. Thankfully the memorial’s approach to war avoids celebrating it. I do find myself uncomfortable with the attitudes of war as a fun adventure that I see from some kids, but then I also realize that those were my own attitudes at their age and that time, maturity, and education can make a lot of difference. I frequently come across members of different military services from around the world (so far including the US, Canada, Singapore, Israel, Indonesia and New Zealand) and have found myself reflecting on the reasons people join militaries. Very often they are for very noble reasons. (I may not agree with all of them, but I respect them as noble.)
What I have found as I explore my feelings on war is that I can maintain my opposition to violence and militarism and remain comfortable being supportive of those who have made different decisions. I do not necessarily agree with their choices, but I recognize that we all make our decisions based upon our varied understandings and life experiences.
War is an awful thing. ANZAC day is celebrated on the 25th of April because that is the date that, in 1915, the battle of Gallipoli began in Turkey. Gallipoli was a massive disaster. Thousands of lives were lost for no gain. Some suggest that Australia was founded on the shores of Gallipoli. I wouldn’t say that’s entirely the case, but in the disaster of that conflict I would like to think we learned something about the senselessness and horror of war and learned to be a little less trusting of those who would make the decision to send living, breathing, loving, and courageous people to die senseless deaths.
As I have spent a little bit of time researching my ancestors’ war history, I found a treasure trove of files and documents on the National Archives website (most of the World War I documents have been digitized and can be easily perused). Most poignant to me of the documents in the records was a letter one of my great-great-grandmothers wrote after hearing that her son had been wounded (they had told her basically nothing other than that he was wounded).
It’s not a very emotional letter at face value (perhaps filled with British restraint). But as I read the words “very anxious” I get a sense of the grave concern they had that they might never see their son again and that he would be lost in a blaze of mud, blood and chaos somewhere on the Western Front. Those words “very anxious” are very emotional. To me, this is what war is about.
So should conscription ever be reintroduced in Australia, you will find me with those burning their draft cards. But to those who go willingly, you have my respect and love. I will be resisting war, and will be very anxious for your safe return.