Saturday, 25 April 2015

V is for Veterans — a personal apology

This month I’m part of the A-Z Blogging Challenge (check out who else is here). I’m writing a series of 26 letters, each of a different type/genre/style, inspired by the letters of the alphabet. 

Ironically, today is V. I say ironically, because today is also ANZAC Day (Australia New Zealand Army Corps) and the centenary of the dawn landing on the Gallipoli Peninsula of the four infantry battalions of the 3rd Brigade, First Australian Division at a place now called Anzac Cove — a place where young men massacred each other.

In 1915, Australia had only been a nation for 14 years. Our population was fewer than 5 million. Of them, almost 500,000 young men enlisted to fight under their new flag in World War 1— 61,5000 died. 

On 25 April, commemoration services are held at dawn to honour our veterans.

Dear Veterans of Australia,
I owe each and every one of you an apology — one that’s been a long while coming — and today is the perfect time.
Dawn, Cowes foreshore. 25/04/2015
I think I must have been about eighteen, for it was early in my university career. We were seated around the family dinner table — for some reason I remember that the cloth that night was orange. I don’t remember what we had eaten, but my father and I were engaged in a discussion as we so often were, especially after he had had a couple of glasses of red.  It was Anzac Day.
Incited by the swagger of youth and my newfound independence, I declared that I thought it was stupid to have a public holiday to glorify war. War brings devastation and brutality. War is evil. It makes no sense to give everyone a holiday to watch old blokes march down our streets wearing medals. And even less sense to applaud them for having been killers and accomplices of killers. Anzac Day is nothing but an excuse for old codgers to have a booze-up. We need to look to the future, not aggrandize the mistakes of the past.
Dad’s reaction was explosive, ‘Don’t be so bloody stupid. Honouring our armed forces is not the same as glorifying war, Wendy. Not the same thing at all.’
I’m sure he went on to explain what he meant, but I recall nothing else. I feel certain I would’ve been sufficiently arrogant to argue and contradict him, but most probably I just stopped listening.
Well, several decades later, I finally understand what Dad meant.
For the past few years, I’ve worked as a volunteer at the National Vietnam Veterans Museum (NVVM) — a collection begun by a veteran that has grown to a museum big enough to fill an aeroplane hangar,almost completely run by volunteers. I have become, by default, the closest thing NVVM has to a curator, and the spirit of the place now dwells deep within my soul.

Many of my colleagues are, themselves, veterans of that ten-year conflict, some conscripted to go and fight a guerrilla war in a country they knew nothing about. A war that divided Australia politically. They served, often not by choice, then returned to be ignored by their nation, or worse, held in contempt. 

These amazing men have a connection that only shared experience can forge. And the things they shared were often unspeakable. ..unimaginable. They are humble, mostly softly spoken, and all deeply affected by their intimate knowledge of the truths about warfare. Like most veterans, there is no bravado. Most are reticent to speak of what they endured.
Through them, and the stories I now seek to preserve for future Australians, I have come to see the vast gulf that lies between glorifying war and honouring our veterans.
I am truly sorry for my brash disregard of the significance of Anzac Day and the disrespect I showed all veterans. I hope you can forgive me.

Song of the Day: Redgum: I Was Only Nineteen (1983) 

A special request from me to my non-Aussies visitors and friends, and anyone unfamiliar with it, to watch and listen this through to the end. Aussies in Vietnam 1962–1972

I can't hear it without crying.

Lest we forget.

Question of the day : What do you think about commemoration days?


  1. We live and learn. Everyone does. The lesson, I suppose is harshest for those caught up in the theatre of war, wherever and whenever that is, combatants and civilians alike.

    I think commemoration days are inevitable and vital. And almost never how we plan them to be. Because as we live and learn, and truth expands to encompass new perspectives, we are constantly confronted with new challenges and feelings that relate to the thing we are remembering. It's all good, but difficult too. But at least as you feel it, you know you're alive. (If that makes any sense.)

  2. We have Armistice Day in November where we honour our dead. I think it is very important to commemorate what these people sacrificed for us.

    1. We recognise 11/11 too, but not as a public holiday... just a pause for silence. So many people have gone before us and tried to make the world a better place. It humbles me.

  3. Very interesting post. Ironic, as well, because I saw The Water Diviner today, which raised my awareness and interest considerably. I, too, made the typical mistakes of youth, not valuing all the education that was just handed to me, but it's never too late to learn.

    Commemoration days are important to recognize the sacrifices made by the men and women who served. At the same time, war is so stupid and I hope our human species will learn ways to solve things without it.

  4. I went to Italy with my 80 year old uncle in 2004 to honour the Canadian campaigns in Italy during WWII. He was a veteran.
    Spending two weeks with those veterans and visiting those battlefields and cemeteries was an eye opening, and soul opening experience I will never forget. It has changed my connection to Armistice Day ever since. Thank you for such a heartfelt letter.

    1. What a magnificent experience that must have been. The cemeteries in France for Australian WW1 dead had that affect on me too. They are exquisitely beautiful, well-kept and cherished by the villagers around them. But my Vietnam boys beak my heart almost daily. thank YOU for acknowledging that my words came from the heart. They did. xxx

  5. I think commemoration days are important.
    When I was in first year at Uni, there were 9 PNG soldiers living in our campus residence. They were studying Indonesian to help them working on the border. They quickly became our mates. On Anzac Day that year we all went into the city (Brisbane) for the march, and what a completely new perspective I gained that day. This was 1984, so there were still many WWII vets alive and marching. Our PNG mates wore their uniforms and we were in the front row of the crowd with them. As the groups of WWII vets marched past, especially those who had served in PNG, they all waved and shouted their thanks and respect to our mates. I have never seen a prouder group of men. Our PNG mates were smiling from ear to ear that day, their chests puffed with pride - pride in their uniforms and pride in their own countrymen who so bravely helped our soldiers who served there during WWII.

    1. What a beautiful story... Please write about it!
      The human connection seems to be the key... living reminders... This year Lauren was in the Anzac Choir that performed at the 11 am service, and she saw some of my Viet Vet mates march and lay wreaths. I think she now has respect for the day..Fraser came to the dawn service with me as one of his mates was giving a speech on behalf of the youth of the shire. Not sure if he GOT it... but at least he came.

    2. Did you tear up when Lauren's choir was singing? I'm so glad she had the opportunity to participate, and to make a connection between the event, your vet mates, and the wonderful work you do at the NVVM.
      The 3000 people at your dawn service - was the high number due to the NVVM? There were 3000 at our local dawn service (so I read), but that's from a population of over 100K.

  6. BTW the permanent population here on The Rock is about 10,000... there was some 3000 people at the dawn service...

  7. Sounds extremely similar to our Vietnam Vets tales here in the states. I still get mad when I think about it. That in a large way, by protesting and fighting the war so much, we made the government afraid to sink the money they really needed to into that war. So, in essence, all that was accomplished was that our guys were on the ground in a hostile nation without all the support and equipment they could have had. And then the the terrible tragedy that so many mistreated or ignored them when they did make it home. Just a sad, sorry, rotten shame. Shame on those who were adults then. Shame on our nation. As to you and your conversation with your dad, you must remember, you were only nineteen.
    Visit me at: Life & Faith in Caneyhead
    I am Ensign B of Tremps' Troops
    with the A to Z Challenge

  8. I think it's an easy mistake to make, especially whilst young. ;) You learned from it a valuable lesson and now am making amends by educating others and volunteering on behalf of veterans. So I hope you are able to forgive yourself: remember you was only 18. :) <3

  9. I agree with Elly. You were young and you have learned and I'm sure you must feel you have atoned for your immature mistake.

  10. As long as your views about the matter changed for the better, I think that your apology for your younger self is acceptable. And you’re doing an admirable job of sharing these veteran’s stories; stories that would’ve otherwise been left unheard by many, had you not started writing about them. As for commemoration days, I think it’s a fine way to honor those who have fallen for one’s country. As long as it stays solemn and focuses on the things that should matter, then I see nothing wrong with having one. Of course, helping those who are with us and struggling to live in a society that shrugs them off is a better way of honoring these group of brave souls. Cheers!

    Brad Post @ Jan Dils

    1. thanks for visiting, Brad. And I totally agree with your sentiments.