Friday, April 25, 2014

...the other 364 days of the year...

Anzac Day, 2014. 

For the Fallen

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:

Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We will remember them.

Lest We Forget

--from a poem by Laurence Binyon, 
first published in 1914, in The Times

Anzac Day, 2014. And so it is with today, a day where we commemorate the ill-fated landing at Gallipoli in 1915. It involved Australian and New Zealand soldiers. It has come to stand for all Australian (and New Zealand) deployments to theatres of combat, war and peacekeeping operations. Next year will be the centenary. The country is gearing up for a big event next year, here and at Gallipoli. 

Readers of the #project365 blog will know I attended a special live broadcast at the 612 ABC studio yesterday, where Rebecca Levingston co-hosted a special program with Matt Wordsworth. An edited version of the show will go to air on the Queensland 7.30 program this evening (25 April). It was a thought-provoking evening and I've been giving it some thought for most of the day. 

I always have mixed feelings about Anzac Day. I'm in the business of ending war. I teach an area of international relations, security studies, which is underpinned by political philosophy and thinking which questions the validity and necessity of war; even more difficult: it constantly questions the notion that war is inevitable, 'it is human nature'. It is the subject of philosophical questioning since Aristotle was lad. In 'modern' times, it manifests itself in the debate between Thomas Hobbes who wrote Leviathan (1651; and who is characterised as saying war is inevitable) and Immanuel Kant, author of Perpetual Peace (1795). It is where I am engrossed in my research at present...I don't believe it is necessarily 'human nature' that states must go to war. It is a tough argument to make, the alternative is so much easier. Nonetheless...

When I set out on my academic career, I never envisaged working in this area. Japanese politics was my interest and while I had come close to the sensitivities around Japanese and Australian engagement in the Pacific War in the first half of the 1940s, it was not something I felt I could add to with my work.

In the 1980s, during one of my early sojourns in Japan, I had the opportunity to visit Hiroshima Peace Park: the museum as monument to the destruction of the atomic bomb and the iconic dome, the remnants of one of the buildings left behind. I think it has had a major impact on the direction of my work.

Gallipoli veteran from the 75th commemoration

It brings me to the mixed feelings about Anzac Day. Sitting in the studio last night we saw serving defence personnel stating their positions. We saw retired and discharged personnel, stating their contrary and sometimes painfully articulated positions. We saw, overwhelmingly I think, exactly what the 'other 364 days', as the show was subtitled, mean when we take away the hero status, the nationalism, the pride of Anzac Day. This is not a criticism. Although I have my views about the futility of war, I nonetheless respect those who seek to commemorate it in important ways, in ways that matter to them. Indeed, as a community band member, I have played in bands on Anzac Day, whether part of the dawn service, part of the march or the dance band in the sub-branch later in the day...(provided I kept my Japanese-speaking, republican feminist ant-war views to myself (^_^*)...)

Nurses marching, Canberra, 1990
Anzac Day has evolved to become a much bigger commemoration than I remember it growing up. This is a discussion being had in fora across the country at the moment. At school in the 1970s, the senior group each year led a commemoration at the school assembly closest to Anzac Day proper (when the public holiday was always the nearest Monday). I remember watching Vietnam Veterans finally taking their place in Anzac Day marches following their very belated 'welcome home' march in 1987. In 1990, living in Canberra at the time, I went along to the 75th Anniversary service at the Australian War Memorial, the Vietnam Vets there were still feeling awkward, the remaining few Gallipoli vets transported in jeeps. Women too, were finally marching, having their service acknowledged. 

In my years of teaching, I had encountered some returned and retired service personnel who had returned to university to study, many of them veterans of Vietnam, or 'nashos', national service personnel, and occasionally someone who had been on a humanitarian peacekeeping mission. Increasingly, I see in my classes, our new generation of veterans, people in their twenties, returning from service in a futile 'War on Terror', in Afghanistan or Iraq. I hope we we've learnt our Vietnam lessons well and these young men and women do not have ahead of them the experience so many Vietnam vets had. 

Last night, in the ABC studio, it was a mixture of these thoughts running through my mind. 'Why was I there?' as Rebecca asked the question...was some sort of voyeurism I wondered? I've not served. I don't like war. No member of my close family has been involved. I would temper, if I could, the growing nationalist sentiment I see in Anzac commemorations. In the end, it was many things. Yes, I want to continue my work on finding the causes of peace, I'd like to see a mass outbreak of it in fact. I'd like to make war redundant. 

But right now, listening to the stories last night of our returned service personnel, I want, more than most things, to do what I can to acknowledge their service and to value the experiences of those who have been, who subsequently find themselves in my classrooms--those who served, and their families who are also affected on so many levels. Their presence in the classroom changes the dynamic of the discussion when the words in the textbook are lifted off the page by one student who can say she or he was there in Timor, or Iraq or took two tours to Afghanistan. They have seen human nature at its worst, and sometimes, at its best...and in solving the Hobbesian/Kantian puzzle, that's got to count for something. 

As always, it was #ourABC at its very best. Thanks to Rebecca, Matt and everyone who was there.